Mark Taylor is in an envious position as he leads his team to England to defend the Ashes. And then again he isn't. On one front, the man has got everything going for him. On the other, things couldn't be bleaker. And he obviously feels it else he would not have suggested before the tour that he would even opt out if he does not prove himself with the bat.
The positive factors have contributed to Taylor making this statement. He has his old opening partner Michael Slater back so the old left-right firm will probably be in business again. He is leading a team which is on a high after two recent series wins. And he is coming up against a country where his average is over 60. He has gone through 27 Tests with 15 wins and four draws and, apart from the series wins mentioned, he also has led the team to home series wins over England, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
But then, even despite all these pluses, Taylor cannot go too long without feeling that his run drought makes him unworthy of a place in the team. He is painfully aware of not having got to 50 in his last 20 Test innings and also of the fact that the promotion of Steve Waugh as his deputy makes his position that much more shaky than it was. Australian administrators cannot frown on a captain who has brought home as much success as he has but even they know that there is a point at which cohesion within the team will suffer if the skipper cannot win his spurs on the strength of his batting alone.
That apart, Australia will not be overly worried about the opposition they face in the six-Test series. England are sans a decent strike bowler with Cork and Gough being unable to deliver more often than not. Fraser and Caddick do not inspire much confidence either. Whether the 34-year-old Malcolm will be recalled is an open question. Croft is the lone spinner of any note in England's ranks. Ranged against them are McGrath, Gillespie, Bichel and Kasprowicz. Warne and Bevan provide the icing. And there are Julian and Steve Waugh for dessert. It does look fairly lopsided when looked at this way.
The batting line-ups tell a similar tale. Steve Waugh has an average of over 100 in England. Add his brother Mark, Ponting, Blewett and Slater to the equation and put them up against Atherton, Crawley, Thorpe, Stewart and Hussain and again there is little doubt as to which is the classier act. Add to this the fact that all the Australian players will be keyed up by the fact that they are coming over to take on the old enemy; an Ashes series always brings out the best in an Australian team.
England can only look back to 1986-87 when Gatting led them to their last Ashes series win. Atherton will be looking at that performance with hope, for that team was not tipped to win either. But some exceptional performances ensured a 2-1 victory with the Aussies only able to come back in the final Test. Border's team was the stronger one on paper that time too but the England side did have some names; some of the not-so-well-known came good too. Broad, Gower, Dilley, Emburey, Small and Gatting were the major contributors.
But then miracles do not happen every day. Nor do they take place once a decade. The Aussies play the game hard and are about the most difficult team to beat right now. England have a poor record in recent times and beating New Zealand in their last series will not provide much comfort when they take on a team which has just had the West Indies and South Africa for an appetiser. Things could not look bleaker for England.
A commentary on the state of the game in England is provided by the advertisements which appeared in a leading British newspaper recently. They read thus: "The search is on for the next generation of strike bowlers... you don't have to be a cricketer, just big and strong and reckon you can... bowl quick." This illustrates the paucity of real pace bowlers and the lack of any real structure to nurture talent in the country which gave the world the game; it is driven home by the fact that selection of likely candidates will be done by two Australians, Lillee and Thomson. If anything further is needed to underline the state of poverty, it is the fact that those selected will then be trained by Lillee at an academy in Madras!