Should the Australian touring team want a few pointers on how to deal with a febrile Edgbaston crowd over the next five days, they would do well to ponder the experiences of Mark Taylor.
22 years ago he was right at the centre of the storm leading Australia into a Test match that has gone down in history as the loudest and most raucous Test match ever played in England. Taylor entered the match in the grips of what might easily have been a career-ending slump, 11 Tests and 19 innings without passing 50, and ended it on the losing side.
But along the way he found a way to carve out a century that broke the sequence, and helped to take the heat out of an issue that was threatening to engulf the team. 1-0 down but having righted the ship, Taylor’s men went on to claim the series, 3-2. Asked to recall how he dealt with an Edgbaston crowd that was in tumult in day one, when the Australians were shot out for 118 having been 50 for 8, Taylor had recollections that may well be relevant to Steven Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft in particular.
“In 1997 when I went out to bat in that second innings, I made a conscious effort to look at the crowd,” Taylor told ESPNcricinfo. “When I looked around as I walked out, I didn’t see people booing me and wanting to continue my slump. I saw people, yes, wanting England to win, but also saw people wanting good cricket. Maybe that’s looking through rose-coloured glasses, but I remember when I made my hundred in that game that I took my helmet off and I looked around and I could see people were genuinely thrilled for me.
“They’re the same crowd that’s going to be there on Thursday. Yes, sure they’re going to bring in bits of sandpaper and they’re going to talk about what happened in South Africa and what have you. And they’re going to hope that England are going to win the first Test. But at the same time they’re also going to want to see some good cricket, that’s the way I’ve always looked at crowds, and therefore they haven’t really worried me that much over the years – that’s how I would be approaching it.”
Taylor is in England to commentate on the series for Nine, and was reminded of 1997 via the unusual sleeping hours familiar to many an Australian just arrived in the UK. “I woke up at 5am because I was a bit jetlagged and they were going through Edgbaston Test matches. It got to 1997 and I watched it,” he said. “The crowd, I didn’t realise they were that loud, I don’t remember them being that loud.
“And when they won on the final day, Alec Stewart hit Warney to the extra cover boundary, the crowd stormed onto the field, they were nuts. I didn’t remember that, I just remembered thinking we had to improve. If your head’s in the crowd, it means you’re not worrying about your own game. I think Smithy, Warner and Cam Bancroft, they shouldn’t be thinking about the crowd, they should be thinking about how they play their best cricket, and if they do that, they’ll keep that crowd quiet.”
As captain of Australia, Smith had listed Taylor as one of his mentors, and the pair have maintained contact over the past year, vexed as it was by the decision of the Cricket Australia Board – of which Taylor was then a member – to ban Smith and Warner for a year, and Bancroft for nine months. The intense and introspective visage of Smith has been noticeable to many since he arrived in England, and Taylor believes that the 30-year-old needs the validation of a Test century to feel more at ease with the world.
“I think with Smithy, what he needs, and is still yearning for, is a big score,” Taylor said. “We saw in the World Cup semi-final that he’s still a class player – he looked a class above the rest in that innings. I think when he makes a big score, hopefully in this series, that’ll be him fully back in the Australian side. There’s probably a part of him that would still like to captain the side again, and maybe he will, but I think he also loves the game and playing the game so he’s happy enough at this stage to be back.
“He’d love to be making runs like he was 18 months ago. When he makes a big score and raises the bat for a Test match hundred, that’ll be a great sign for Australian cricket that he is back. I think David Warner has already got himself back with the World Cup, so Smithy now needs that big score to tick the last box.
“Talking to Steve Waugh, one of the things he noticed from this team and someone like Smithy is how many balls he hits, and that’s one of the biggest differences he’s seen with the training. In our day we had net sessions and liked to hit balls, but nowhere near the volume of balls that someone like Steve Smith does. He’s in a different stratosphere in terms of ball hitting. He had a 45-minute net today, that’s a huge net, that’d be three nets from yesteryear – you used to get about 15 minutes.”
As an opening batsman, the 1997 century gave Taylor three out of three in the first Tests of the series he played in England, also including 1989 and 1993. Those innings and their circumstances have left him thinking that Warner and Bancroft may well be hoping to be sent in to bat on Thursday, for a chance to capitalise on nervous bowlers while also feeling like the pressure is off them.
“Making that hundred on day one at Headingley was huge for me and the team at the time. AB went after the bowling, which helped, and I got a lot of confidence from the fact that they sent us in,” Taylor said. “I used to love being sent in as an opening batsman, because I always felt that took the pressure off me as a batsman, the opposition captain thinks it is going to do plenty, so they put you in. Straightaway the onus is on the bowling team to bowl you out, not necessarily you to make runs, even though that is your job.
“I batted out there with Boony and Swamp for a while and it didn’t do a lot. It swung a little bit, then AB came in and took them on and before you knew it we were 2 for 120 and I thought ‘hey this is going alright’. In 1993, there’d been a lot of rain around and they put us in again, and then Slats and I both made runs to be 0 for 100. Slats made 50 in his first Test, I made 100, and once again, bowling first can be a huge disadvantage if you don’t get it right.”
More than two decades since the 1997 century, Taylor still carries the air that helped him so much as captain of Australia: jovial, confident but not arrogant, and conscious that life could be so much worse than not making enough runs. “I’ve always tried to look at cricket as a game,” he said.
“Whether Australia wins or loses the Ashes is not going to change the world”
“I remember Rick McCosker said that to me at Newcastle Sports Ground in about my second season: ‘just remember it’s a game’. That’s what it is. It can be all-consuming sometimes and I’ve even felt that in the last couple of years on the board. But you’ve got to remember you’re talking about a game of cricket. People are supposed to be enjoying this, players are supposed to be enjoying it, fans are supposed to be enjoying it, and it’s nothing more than that.
“Whether Australia wins or loses the Ashes is not going to change the world. So when I walked away from games of cricket during my slump, I’d go home to my wife and, I wouldn’t laugh about it, but there was no reason why I was making low scores. My eyes were OK, my fitness was OK, my wife wasn’t leaving me, my kids weren’t ill, there was nothing I could put my finger on that suggests I shouldn’t be making runs. Eventually, fortunately at Edgbaston I did make runs.”
Of course, by 1997, the Australians were filled with memories of beating England in the previous four series, a history that imbued them with confidence. Taylor reckons that for Tim Paine’s 2019 team, the challenge is not dissimilar to that of 1989, when England were not exactly flying, but Australia faced uncertainty about their own quality and a barren recent history in England, having not won a series there since 1975.
“Looking at the 1990s when we won six Ashes in a row, things changed in 1989, with us coming over, considered an ordinary side, world’s worst side, and we won,” Taylor said. “England had rebel tours going on and all of a sudden they were in disarray. We belted them again in Australia, came back in 1993 and belted them again here. All of a sudden we were getting bigger and bigger and England were trying to regroup.
“By the end of the 1990s they were playing better, 1997 was a closer series. But we had this belief, even with me playing badly at the start, that we were going to beat them, even 1-0 down we had this belief, and England didn’t have the belief they were going to beat us. It wasn’t until 2005 when Michael Vaughan’s team turned it around in a big way and beat a very good Australian side. I didn’t think England would beat Australia until 2009, yet they won in ’05.
“England have had belief since then that at least here in this country. There’s a lot of talk about the pitches and the balls, a lot of those things to me are almost red herrings. It’s who’s going to play the better cricket and win those big sessions. But it’s changing the belief in their head as much as anything. I think they’ve got the talent to win this series and win it well. But they’ve got to believe it. They won’t be thinking about 2001 and not winning here since, but they will be thinking are we good enough to beat this England team. I think they are.”
Mark Taylor will be commentating on the Ashes for the Nine network