Australia are faced with a dilemma, the likes of which no team has had to confront before any Test series, leave alone an Ashes contest against the old enemy, begins Skipper Mark Taylor is, unhappily, at the centre of it all. And for the first time in the history of the game, it is beginning to look more and more likely than Australia will go into the first Test on June 5 without the man who was appointed captain for the tour at the helm.
At the beginning of the tour, it looked as though Taylor would be able to regain his form and put behind him the problem which has been dogging him for a long time. Knocks of 45 and 76 in county fixtures led many to believe that he was emerging from the prolonged slump in form which has been his lot for longer than most can remember. But that was not to be.
The one-day series against England has seen him reach his nadir; the contest was lost by three matches to none and Taylor not only failed to get runs but also lacked the confidence to lead the team in the third match. It was more out of a sense of doing the principled thing by his teammates that he stood down, for the Australian team has long been selected on the principle that one picks the best 11 and the best among that number to lead. In other words, the captain should be able to command his place in the 11 based on his bowling or batting ability alone. His leaden-footed approach is almost unrecognisable. And a duck against Gloucestershire, a county that boasts of no extraordinary bowling talent, would hardly have boosted his confidence.
Adding to Taylor's woes is the fact that his deputy, Steve Waugh, has been faring relatively well. The elevation of Waugh to the post over Ian Healy, was meant to both send a signal to Taylor and also motivate him, the logic being that the presence of someone who is definitely a long-term captaincy prospect as deputy would spur Taylor on to try harder to keep his place. It hasn't worked out quite that way, though. And this is having more than just a little impact on the way the team is performing.
There are worries over every single batsman and bowler. No-one has really performed to the levels which they are capable of. The Waugh twins have been the lone occasional spark. Michael Bevan has come out with a couple of good knocks. The bowling has been rather on the bad side. And from the being the bookies' favourites to grind the Poms into the ground, Australia are now looking like a team which will have to really raise its performance to retain the Ashes.
What would be the effect on the team if Taylor stood down? Commentators like Ian Chappell are of the opinion that right now the team is subservient to Taylor's interests; the situation, says he, should be exactly the opposite. In his view, the whole team waits with bated breath to see whether Taylor makes runs or not; this has become the focus of every match which the team has played on tour. Chappell feels that this is putting undue strain on the team and lays the blame for the sub-standard showing entirely on the skipper. His argument is: can a man who commands no respect as a batsman enjoy any respect when he leads his men? Can he motivate them to perform when he cannot do the same for himself?
The other side of the coin bears some examination. Would Waugh be able to give Australia the kind of leadership which Taylor has over the last two years? A lot of credit for what Australia has achieved in Test cricket is due to Taylor and his style of leadership is as different from that of Waugh as chalk is from cheese. How would the team respond to a new leader? There was not much to go on during the third one-dayer when Waugh led; one cannot judge a man by just one of these truncated games.
Taylor has just one game, against Derbyshire, to again try and regain some of his form. With this so much on his mind -- the Australian media have done nothing but discuss his performances ever since the tour began -- he may well fail again. If he does not walk out in front of the team on June 5 it would be a sad moment for Australian cricket. The tour selection committee may be hard put to take a decision but the chairman of the selectors, Trevor Hohns, has indicated that it is this very panel (Taylor, Geoff Marsh and Waugh) which will have to make the decision; he has offered to communicate the decision to Taylor. One hopes that Taylor would be given a chance for at least two Tests before he is left out; one's pedigree must surely carry some weight.