UNLESS the selectors change their minds at the last moment, Mark Taylor will captain Australia's touring team in England. It will be a curious time for him. He will arrive in charge of the strongest team in the world, but as a cricketer fighting for his career. Not since India last invited a maharajah to walk first onto the field has a captain's position been so hard to justify.
At the insistence of his vice-captain and coach, Taylor has already lost his place in Australia's 50-over team. Unless he scores some runs in the opening engagements of the Ashes series, he will also be dropped from the Test side. It has been a long time since he was convincing at the crease. Tomorrow has not arrived. Lots of Australians believe their selectors have been too patient. Choosing a captain unable to command a regular place in the team is regarded as an English fallacy, and founded upon empire and aristocracy. These blokes did not go to Wagga Wagga or Alice Springs to put up with that sort of thing.
It is an extraordinary situation. Taylor has taken his team to the top, a feat beyond his immediate predecessor, Allan Border. West Indies and South Africa have been beaten this year, in both cases with a match to spare. Throughout, Australia have played such entertaining cricket that not one of their past 17 matches has been drawn. And it has all been accomplished with a green bowling attack and a batting order lacking the stability brought by those old buzzards, Border and David Boon. The last English captain to achieve so much spent the morning playing bowls.
But it is not enough. Cricket captains are not only expected to bring the boat safely into harbour, they must also stoke the fires. Taylor's batting has declined so alarmingly that he has not reached 50 in 18 Test innings. He scored hardly a run for his state, New South Wales, and failed embarrassingly in the opening matches of this one-day series against South Africa. It was these latter failures and an injury to Mark Waugh that forced a concentration of minds among the touring selectors.
Taylor wanted to play in Durban last Saturday. Waugh had hurt his hand and Adam Gilchrist was the only alternative. Although he was supposed to be resting, Taylor had not returned home and was eager for the fray. Gilchrist was around because Ian Healy had objected too publicly to Cyril Mitchley's disdainful umpiring. And so the selectors met and disagreed.
Healy and Geoff Marsh told their captain the harsh truth; he was not worth his place. Even the reserve wicketkeeper was better. Actually, this is not as bad as it sounds, because Gilchrist is a man likely one day to lead his country. Taylor was not left out for a mug.
And it worked. Gilchrist scored a spirited and timely 77, a contribution that epitomised a surging performance from the visitors. Buoyed by recent arrivals and relieved from another episode of the agonies of Taylor, Australia played their liveliest one-day cricket in ages. Healy was in the thick of it.
Although a redoubtable cricketer, he sometimes seems to sound and think like a nail screeching down a blackboard. Here, he managed to be calm and belligerent at the same time as his raw team fought their way to victory. Taylor watched from the stands, pleased to see players he had encouraged raise their games, perturbed to find himself so little missed.
Australia were even more impressive at the Wanderers on Tuesday with Michael DiVenuto contributing a scorching innings and Greg Blewett recapturing his brain and his game. Jason Gillespie bowled straight and courageously and Adam Dale nibbled away as the locals fretted. Defying a slippery ball, Shane Warne bowled a crafty last over after his captain had been brave enough to call him in. The acting captain did miss three chances, though, and admitted that he had been juggling bowlers instead of catching balls. An awful lot can happen in a short time in 50-over games. The captain must be as attentive as a kindergarten teacher.
Healy worked closely with Steve Waugh, consulting him at critical moments. Patently, the team responded to his leadership. Sometimes it helps to have a fresh voice rather than the same old gramophone record.
Really, it is surprising Taylor wanted to return to the one-day team. Australia have been playing badly in this form of cricket for a year. Naturally the selectors wanted to awaken their team by nominating players with dash and daring. A poor fieldsman and slow runner between wickets, Taylor had become a handicap. Losing his place in this team need not imperil his position as Test captain. Nor need it weaken his authority. Indeed, it might help him by easing the pressure.
It is hard on Taylor. If he does lose his place in the party or, later, in the Test team, his career will be over. He will not return as a batsman. Yet he can see players he has nurtured, Glenn McGrath, Gillespie and Michael Bevan, taking their places. He can see Australia improving despite losing a rush of distinguished servants. He can see his team at the top. He can see the stands full. It has not been a bad effort. And then, blow me down, he ran out of runs.
Not that Taylor's position will be the only bone of contention when the team is announced this week. Matthew Elliott and Michael Slater may well be the other openers, obliging Slater to withdraw from his lucrative contract with Yorkshire (apparently, he had settled for £35,000, but Yorkshire somehow managed to push him much higher). Justin Langer, Ricky Ponting, the Waughs, Blewett and Bevan are likely to be the other batsmen.
Obviously, Healy and Gilchrist will keep stumps, while McGrath, Gillespie and Andrew Bichel are the certainties among the pace men. Paul Reiffel will probably tour, though he has been injured and out of sorts. After arriving as a one-day specialist, Brendon Julian has been tootling around South Africa without playing any cricket. Presumably the selectors have something else in mind.
Warne will bowl most of the spin and the 17th place rests between a medium-pacer and a finger-spinner. Australia cannot find an orthodox spinner with a remotely respectable record, but should choose one anyhow; Gavin Robertson and Paul Jackson are among those being mentioned. Curiously, the Aussies have also batted badly against finger-spin, as Pat Symcox and Saqlain Mushtaq could testify. Mark Taylor will be relieved to hear his name in the list of players and delighted to last long enough to face any spinner.