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A tale of two skippers

One is looking forward to the end of the series as he leads his men out for the final Test; for him, the Ashes are already regained making it a record fifth consecutive time that Australia has done so. The other, despite leading England in a record 45 Tests, is under pressure because his team gave in so tamely in the fourth Test and surrendered to the Australians without a fight. As it has done against so many other countries and in so many different situations.

The funny thing is that both men may be playing their last Test as captain!

Mark Taylor has a record that many would envy. He has led the team in 32 Tests (before the Oval Test which is under way) and won 18 of those games. What is more remarkable is the number of draws -- just five -- as he has always been an attacking captain who has not minded taking a gamble here or there in order to push for a result. As Australia's third most successful captain, Taylor has recorded seven successive series wins -- against England and the West Indies (twice each), Sri Lanka, Pakistan and South Africa -- in period of 35 months since he took over from Allan Border. His team is rated as the fourth best in Australian Test history -- after those of Bradman, Benaud and Ian Chappell.

Atherton hasn't enjoyed anything like Taylor's success. In 45 Tests, he has just managed to lead his side to victory 11 times, lost 16 and drawn 18. Of course, he has not been able to call upon the same type of talent which Taylor has been able to draw upon and the fact that he himself is a fighter to the core is well recognised, even by the triumphant Australians. Steve Waugh compared him to a cockroach recently: "No matter how hard you stamp on him, he keeps coming back."

Attitude-wise, at the moment, there couldn't be more of a difference. Taylor entered the Ashes series under scrutiny following a string of low scores but put paid to his critics with a sterling century in the second innings of the first Test, the only one which Australia lost. Thereafter, his form has been as indifferent as it was before but he has managed the occasional knock over 40. His leadership skills were never in doubt before the series and he has reinforced the view that he is a leader in the true sense. He feels he can carry on for a while.

Atherton definitely feels he has had enough of a stint as leader. In his own words: "I think they perhaps poured too much Domestos (insect killer) on the cockroach this time." Referring to the fifth Test, he felt it had been a great opportunity to level the series after Taylor decided to take first strike. "We had the best of the pitch to bat on and we stuffed up. When I was walking out to bat in the first innings, I was saying to myself over and over 'this is the innings, this is the one, this could decide the Ashes.' Unfortunately, I couldn't do it. Neither could the team." The words of a disheartened man, no less.

From all that Taylor has said so far, it appears that he would like to carry on for at least a year more -- provided the selectors back him, of course. When Steve Waugh was made vice-captain for the Ashes tour, it served three purposes -- reprimanding Healy for his behaviour in South Africa, rewarding Waugh for the role he has played for his country, and putting Taylor on notice that there was a serious candidate in the wings, were he to fail. That century, made with defeat looming, saved him for this series. Waugh has reinforced his standing in the series. And the Australian selectors, a whimsical lot as evinced by their chopping and changing during the series against the West Indies, have not said anything. This would seem to indicate that Taylor's reign is at an end.

Once again, there couldn't be more of a contrast. The chairman of the English selectors, David Graveney, has said recently that he believes Atherton is still the best man for the job! With that kind of backing, it seems likely that Iron Mike will go on to clinch a half-century of captaincy. It seems ironic that the man who has failed should be rewarded and the man who has succeeded get the sack. Perhaps, the man who gave us the famous Peter Principle, the late Dr Lawrence Peter, was indeed right when he wrote that nothing fails like success and nothing succeeds like failure!