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A Marked man

NO prizes for guessing who's the most worried man in Australia these days, never mind his deportment when speaking to the media. Mark Taylor, the Australian skipper, has more than his fair share of problems at the moment. Ironically, the pressure is greatest on him at a time when he is heading a team that leads 2-1 in a Test series against the West Indies, one that is billed to throw up the champion Test team.

Since December 8, Taylor's side has not won an international fixture. The downward trend began with the arrival of the Pakistan squad in Australia. Till then Australia had won two one-dayers against the Windies in the three-nation tournament apart from the first two Tests. After that, Pakistan and the West Indies have been winning. Even a score of 281 was not safe against the West Indies. And against Pakistan, Australia was once bowled out for 120 when they had just 150 to score for victory -- on a difficult wicket it must be admitted, but then this is the highest level of the game.

The loss in the third Test in Melbourne came somewhere in the middle of this descent and now Taylor must definitely be thinking of what was considered unthinkable in the first week of December -- will this West Indies team rise from the ashes -- again? And this time from being two-down? They did it after being one-down in the 1992-93 series and the same pair who played inspired roles then are beginning to shake off the cobwebs and get into full flow.

The worst thing that could happen to Taylor would be that he could change tactics and turn defensive. It has never been his style, no matter the situation. Anybody who watched the semi-final of the World Cup would realise this. But with the media focus increasingly on him and his seeming inability to get a decent score -- his last half-century came in the final of the World Cup -- he may well resort to defensive tactics to ensure that the Frank Worrell trophy stays with Australia. This would be a cardinal mistake for his opponents would then smell blood; a man whose first option is not to lose has a closed mind. He cannot react intuitively to any situation; his strategy is already fixed. The series so far has never seen an indecisive move from Taylor; the declaration in the second Test was made confidently. The media did not agree with his decision even after Australia had won the Test but that did not bother Taylor an iota. Apart from that he has experimented with his bowling resources and all his moves have paid off, at least to some extent. It has encouraged him to keep trying; this is the same characteristic that has made him a good leader.

Taylor went into the third Test, saying he would not play defensively and was looking to win again and seal the series. Ambrose did not give him a chance to make any decisions which could have been crucial to the game but the fact remains that he went in in a positive frame of mind. Now, there is talk of him even losing the captaincy. If this series is lost, that may well come about. That would not be good for Australian cricket. Taylor has done wonders for the game and he has a good many years of cricket left in him.

Australia's woes are not all of Taylor's making. The selectors have played more than their due role in ensuring that a team which was winning is reduced to a team which seems to lack confidence even after posting a good score. Consistency may be a virtue of small minds but one team which has gone after form players to fill a playing XI is now considered a walkover even by Zimbabwe. Greg Blewett was brought back only because of an injury to Steve Waugh and again only because he had made runs in the local games; his Test record was of no consequence. The man has damn good figures behind him. What if Waugh had not been injured?

Ponting was dropped after failing thrice; is that all the rope one gives to a one-drop who demoralised the West Indies in the opening Test and played a crucial role in that triumph? There may be dozens of talented players scoring runs but a Test team is not a party where today's invitees are left out on the morrow because they are not dressed in lounge suits. Sticking to a combination would not only make the captain sure of his resources and enable him to build up personal equations, but it would also mean the players mean that much more secure. During the series against New Zealand, Ian Bishop was suddenly named vice-captain; the West Indies selectors were trying to send him a message that despite a run of bad form, his place in the team was secure. Nobody is asking for gestures like that, but the idea is clear. Selectorial whims can kill a good team but a wise team of selectors can use the resources they have to advantage.