1997—An Aussie captain's resounding reversal of prolonged slump
A captain, or the skipper as we casually address our sporting icons nowadays, often take the center stage whenever cricket is being discussed in a particular country. The mark of a great captain is evident by his/her intellect, ability to handle pressure, tenacity, and his/her approach towards the game.
While the aforementioned qualities are a must have for all skippers, a leader's individual performances go a long way in establishing his legacy. That is why a skipper leading from the front is a blessing in disguise in international cricket. But what happens when the skipper's batting/bowling prowess potentially starts waning. The situation is made even worse when the support of the fans seem uncertain and the media barrages the captain with insinuating remarks.
Mark Taylor, who led Australia to the final of the 1996 ICC Cricket World, was in a similar predicament before the start of the 1997 Ashes in England. For the first time in 10 years, England had looked a slightly-better side and the experts based England's advantage on the Aussie captain's slump in form that had lasted for around 18 months prior to the first Test.
Apart from that, England had won the recently concluded ODI series 3-0 in the most emphatic way, when the debutant Ben Hollioake smashed the Aussie bowlers all over the park in the final ODI at Lords.
Mark Taylor had not scored a fifty in the 21 innings between 1995 and 1997. To add insult to injury, upon his arrival in England, a member of the British tabloid wanted him to pose with a meter wide bat that he had brought with him to the airport. Taylor politely refused. Although his form had taken a hit, his captaincy skills and antics were definitely spot on. In the period when he was dealing with the rough patch he had not lost a Test series and as a slip fielder, he was remarkable.
Moving on to the first Ashes Test, Mark Taylor won the toss and elected to bat first at Birmingham. He opened the batting with Matthew Elliot to face the duo of Darren Gough and Malcolm. The Australian team collapsed like a house of cards after they lost their captain for just 7 runs with only 15 runs on the board. Shane Warne (46) combined with Michael Kasprowicz (17) to take the team from 54/8 to 118/10.
The England innings started in similar fashion as they lost 3 wickets for just 54 runs. But, an uninhibited and sublime double century from Nasser Hussain combined with a century from Graham Thorpe gave England a humongous 360 runs first innings lead. There was grim and a sense of desperation in the Aussie dugout before their second innings began.
Fortunately for Australia, their chances of bouncing back suddenly started looking rather bright. Mark Taylor in the company of Greg Blewett analyzed the match situation perfectly. Mark Taylor now looked adept at leaving balls outside the off stump that allowed him to spend some time in the middle. He waited for the balls that were overpitched on his pads and flicked them with ease and nonchalance.
He got to a fifty off 60 odd balls while his opening partner Elliot departed for a well made 66. In the company of Blewett, another centurion, Taylor made a fine 129 off 296 balls as Australia finished their batting with the score of 477.
The target for England was a mere 118 runs. The Englishmen had no trouble finishing the match as they chased down the target in just 21.3 overs.
Mark Taylor's return to form triggered a phase of unprecedented Australian respite as they won the 1997 Ashes series 3-2. He was appreciated for his conduct while dealing with personal debacles and for the moral support he provided his team to uplift their spirits to regain the Ashes.
Mark Taylor's story is a template for all the captains in the world who are dealing with personal or professional failures.