Mick Taylor, an unrebellious rebel

1985 Rebel Tour Australian Team Photo

“I was, naturally, nervous – that whole process [of getting to First Class cricket] had taken from when I went to South Melbourne as a 17 year old in 1972, until 1978, and I can still remember – I got hit on the pads first ball. The loudest appeal you’ve ever heard. It was one of those ones where you didn’t want to look up, because you knew it was that close, but fortunately the local umpire – as we had in those days – gave me not-out.”

The batsman, debutant Mick Taylor, went on to score 75 in his maiden innings in Interstate cricket. It seemed to suggest the start of a flourishing career; instead, it marked the beginning of a fairly turbulent one.

Mick Taylor is only two letters away from one of Australia’s greatest Test captains, and their birthdays were just a touch over ten years apart, but the two had exceedingly different careers. Mark Taylor, who stepped into the Australian cricketing environment at the exact right moment – following the retirement of some top-rate players, and after the tumult of the Packer years had finally settled down – went on to score endless runs at the top of the order, became a national hero, and later turned commentator-cum-heat pump salesman.

Conversely, Mick – or Michael – Taylor averaged 46 in First Class cricket in a career transcending all of Australian cricket’s most hectic moments. He never played a Test – perhaps surprisingly, given the talent he showed – and ended his playing days in a slightly ambiguous fashion with Tasmania, quietly moving out of his playing career without fanfare.

Some might look at such a lot and claim to be unfortunate, unlucky, or even mistreated. Taylor makes no such claims.

“[Test cricket] is your ambition, and it would’ve been nice to play at least one Test match – if not more. But probably no regrets in a way … if maybe I’d had the confidence to say ‘right, now I’m a professional cricketer,’ and had played cricket in England in the winter, and Australia in the summer it could’ve been different. But it was a real sacrifice to do that in those days, because there just wasn’t that much money in cricket. I had a job, family, and just didn’t have the confidence to back myself to that extent.”

It had all started in Melbourne back in the 1960s, when a young lad called Taylor was trying to make his way in the game.

“There’d always been that strong club cricket structure in Australia, but these days they start identifying the kids when they’re maybe 11 or 12 and get them into age-group teams and programmes … it just wasn’t as structured in identifying talent in those days. You look back on things, and how they happened, and certain things happened by accident. I went to school with someone who had a contact to the South Melbourne Cricket Club, he was the nephew of the coach, Keith Kendall.”

Taylor praises the efforts of Kendall as a coach, and also of the club as a whole – he points out that, had he been at a club where he hadn’t received such high-rate coaching, he may never have made the grade as a cricketer.

Before all that, however, his cricket had been honed in the backyard – against brothers who were seven and ten years older than Taylor himself. Although neither subsequently had “the dedication to the game” to make it as top-level cricketers themselves, the age factor alone meant he was facing a significant challenge in the BYC derbies.

His development through backyard, school, and eventually club cricket all led to 1978, when he made his debut for Victoria – against a Queensland attack including Geoff Dymock, John Maguire and Phil Carlson.

Having survived the first ball tremors, and then having fought his way to 75 in his first knock, he went a step further in the second innings – making a debut hundred, a fine achievement by any standard.

“There’s a stroke of luck here and there – you never know, if you get knocked over for a duck in the first innings, you’re walking out in the second innings extremely nervous, and if it happens again you might only get the one game.”

There’s a particular event that sticks out for Taylor from that match, and it’s one that paved the way to calm his nerves and settle into the environment.

“Certain things in your career, especially some of the things that happened at significant moments, you can remember like they happened yesterday. I can still remember balls being bowled short outside off-stump, at a perfect position for what was probably my favourite shot – the cut shot. But because I’m in a State game and playing at the MCG, I’m thinking ‘ooh, better let that one go, better let that one go,’ and eventually I thought ‘ah well, I’ve gotta have a go at this,’ and cracked it for four. And from there on, the adrenalin started flowing, and it just became like another cricket match after a while.”

Taylor’s debut had come at the back-end of the 1977-78 summer, and he was coming off a superb run in club cricket.

“I think it’s always important to get selected for the next level when you feel as though you’re in good form. I’d had a very good season that year, I’d scored something like 740 runs maybe, at an average of 70-odd. So I was going through a bit of a purple patch of form, so that certainly helped with the confidence.”

That debut season – where he played the final two games of the summer – had come when Graham Yallop was touring with the national side. The following summer, Taylor played three games for his State, again when Graham Yallop was unavailable through international duty.

It was the summer after that where Taylor faced the start of the toughest period of his career.

“The following year was probably when I was expected to step up and take on more responsibility, and I got off to a bad start in that first game. It maybe seems harsh that I got dropped after one game, but we went way on a tour – the first game was in Brisbane, the second in Sydney – and in those days you didn’t have much pre-season practice, especially in Victoria.”

Because the Victorians had no real chance to train leading into the season, courtesy of the local weather and conditions during the off-season, it put them on a poor footing leading into a match in Queensland – the more tropical conditions up north allowed the Queenslanders to practice for half the winter.

“So this particular year, we went off on a trip – we played at Newcastle, and Kerry O’Keefe got me out about third ball, I got the game at number three at Brisbane and I failed twice, then we went to Gosford against the New South Wales Country team or something like that and I failed again. My confidence was shattered at that stage, and I was 12th man for that second Shield game, and I didn’t play the rest of that year – or the next two years!”

For a professional sportsman, being omitted for – in effect – three full seasons is a blow that might stop a player from ever returning to the top. But Taylor wasn’t willing to simply accept his lot, and once his confidence recovered, he recovered his form too.

To have that kind of a run, on the stage of professional sport, leads to a confidence drop as damaging to your chances as the poor run itself – look at Quinton de Kock recently; his technical flaws led to a poor run of form, which manifested in a lack of confidence, itself resulting in continued failure. And so the effect spirals.

“It could have been that that was the end of my First Class career, but eventually the confidence came back, I had a really good year in district cricket in 1981-82. We finished top of the ladder, and I think I made 700-odd runs or something. I didn’t get picked for Victoria, but I won the Ryder Medal.”

When he returned to the State side, he “hoped” he was ready for the return – rather than being “super confident” – but a chance meeting had helped prepare him mentally for the top-level of the game.

“Around that time, in about September, I was at a business seminar on goal-setting, and this fellow was talking about setting goals for business. Afterwards, someone introduced him to me, and said ‘Mick’s played some State cricket,’ and he said ‘oh, right, tell me about your cricket career’. I explained I hadn’t played for a couple of years, but that I wanted to get back in the Victorian team.

“He said, ‘well, have you thought about what you need to do to achieve that?’ and I said ‘not really, but I’m back in the squad, I want to get back in the team,’ and so he said ‘so what would you goals be for this year then?’

“I said that I wanted to establish my place in the Victorian side, and he asked ‘what do you think you’d need to do to achieve that?’ I said that if I made 800 First Class runs for the year, that’d probably go a fair way towards it. I didn’t think about it for a long time, but I’d played six games at that stage and only made about 300-odd First Class runs, and it wasn’t until I looked back on my career that I realised – what an audacious thing to say, that you’ll make 800 First Class runs in a year when you hadn’t made more than 200.”

Taylor was told all the normal things: write it down, commit to it, make it achievable. And it worked, because he made 771 runs in one game less than a full season.

He’d missed the first game of the season – “which probably wasn’t a bad thing, because South Australia had Joel Garner sending down thunderbolts.”

But it meant he had an equal challenge to meet when he did return to the team. In his first game at the WACA in Perth, he had to face Dennis Lillee, Terry Alderman and Bruce Yardley on their home turf. It’s a bowling attack that would inspire nerves for most seasoned Test pros, let alone a State batsman trying to work his way back into the side.

“In the first innings, I made five – and I reckon I batted for an hour at least [64 minutes]. The ball at the WACA tended to move around a bit, and Ken Maclay – who bowled big in-swingers and out-swingers – was doing both. He’d tease you outside off-stump, then bowl a big in-swinger. I normally scored reasonably quickly, but that day I really struggled. Eventually, I played an in-swinger off my chest – as I hit I thought ‘that’s a good shot, that’ll go for four,’ only to see Rod Marsh dive about two metres down the leg-side and take a one-handed catch.”

Taylor saw three years of hard work vanishing in a first innings failure, and over dinner with the coach – Bob Lloyd – Taylor admitted to doubts about whether he was good enough to make it at First Class level. But Lloyd had wise words – “he said, ‘you know, if Geoff Marsh came over to play district cricket in Melbourne, he wouldn’t make more than 700 runs in a season like you did last year, and he’s a good player, there’s no reason why you can’t be’.”

It was enough to give Taylor the confidence he needed going into that second innings. With the side batting for the draw, and having seen several teammates vanish early through defensive-mindedness, he decided to go on the attack.

“I went out in that second innings, and Bruce Yardley was bowling and had men all around the bat … I think the very first ball I faced I danced down the wicket and hit him back over his head, I just tried to spread the field.”

Suffice to say he succeeded – he made a not-out 69, and batted through to the close. Victoria drew the match, and Taylor played the rest of the summer.

The following season, he decided to up his expectations even further – 1000 runs. He achieved his target again, and averaged over 72 with the bat.

“I can still remember, at the MCG, I needed 39 runs in my last innings of the year, and was quietly counting them down. As I scored my 39th run, in the first year of the big MCG scoreboard with the big screen on it, I knew that I was ticking over 1000 runs for the year – and sure enough up it comes on the screen, and that was a pretty proud moment.”

He made it a hat-trick of good seasons in 1984-85, when he again made over 800 runs, and averaged just a shy under 50.

Then came the decision to join the ‘rebel tour’ to South Africa, in 1985-86. But for all that they were demonised in some corners of the press and public of the time, and for all the historic branding of them as ‘rebels’, Taylor certainly doesn’t fit into any definition of rebel at all.

Bruce Francis, who organised the side, named him as a late replacement player – and so Taylor jumped into a move that ended up booking him a place in history.

“It mainly came about because I knew Graham Yallop very well, he was playing for our club at that stage, and he was having a bit to do with organising the players to go on the tour. Being a fellow Victorian, he put my name up, and statistically I suppose, he could justify the South Africans having a look at me. He vouched for me, and at that stage my career average was over 50, and they agreed that I’d be a suitable replacement. That was rather exciting – I was 29 years old, probably not going to get selected for the official Australian team as things were at that stage. Although you see players get their first game at 35 now, so who knows!

“But for me, it was my first opportunity to play some international cricket. And I figured if there’s only 16 guys going over there, there’s a good chance I’ll get at least one international match over two years. That was the main goal at the time.”

Bruce Francis emphasised to the players that the South African players themselves had been pushing for an expansion of the scope of South African cricket. It meant that going on the tour didn’t feel like ‘tacit approval’ of the Apartheid regime, but simply one group of cricketers playing another group of cricketers – the South African player walk off had helped insulate that belief.

Taylor says that, having since read Nelson Mandela’s autobiography (‘Walking to Freedom’), he sees that they were “shielded” from what was really happening.

“It’s amazing to think what was going on in South Africa. [At the time] we were really comforted by what they told us about South Africa’s cricket involvement in trying to get things changed, but it was mainly a sporting decision of going there to play cricket.”

As a sporting decision, it’s one that saw Taylor take off in a way that not even he saw coming. In the First Class matches, he averaged over 55, and scored three centuries.

“The main goal at the start was just to play an international match – I thought ‘well, it’ll be very embarrassing if I go over there for two years and don’t play an international match’. And at the start, Kim Hughes was captain, he wouldn’t have had me in his top-six, at that point – I was one of the few batsmen who hadn’t played official Test cricket. But then everybody got an opportunity at different times, and I think it was the first First Class game, I made a century against Orange Free State – and caught his attention, and went from not being in the top-six, to maybe being slotted in at number five.”

But he had a couple of failures leading into the first ‘Test’, and was going to be twelfth man. Had it not been for a dewy outfield in a one-day game a few days before that first international, he wouldn’t have played – and things might not have played out how they did.

As it turned out, Graham Yallop (among several others) pulled hamstrings. The pressure was being put on Yallop to play – the promotion and image of the tour relied on those high-profile players.

“Ali Bacher in particular was very keen for Graham to play. So they left it to the last minute to name the team, and I only really knew at breakfast, the morning of the match, that I was definitely going to be playing.”

Taylor made a hundred – and beat Graeme Pollock by one run. For someone who had first watched Graeme Pollock 20-odd years earlier, in 1964 when Ian Redpath made his debut, that was a proud moment. Even today, he regards that century as probably the highlight of his career.

The runs flowed, and he was eventually named one of the players of the year in the South African Cricket Annual.

The tour was over both that season, and the following one. So in 1986-87, Taylor returned to South Africa, to again take on players like Jimmy Cook, Henry Fotheringham, Clive Rice, Ken McEwan, Kevin McKenzie, Garth Le Roux, a young Allan Donald. He had a horror run – and he wasn’t alone in that regard – but it’s not surprising, given that those two tours remain the highest standard of cricket Taylor ever faced.

“Certainly, the ‘Test’ matches would’ve been the best quality of cricket I ever played in. Clive Rice was a fantastic competitor and would’ve held his own in any era of cricket – even some of the lesser-known players were outstanding.”

Taylor remembers how, after readmission, a lot of the players and administrators were always keen to catch up when they were touring Australia in various capacities.

“The thing I was impressed about, was when I was at a Boxing Day breakfast when South Africa were playing, and Graeme Pollock was one speaker, and Mike Procter was the other. I was on the board of Cricket Victoria at the time, so I was on a main table right at the front. They were on other tables down the room, and I thought ‘ooh, at some stage here I’ve gotta get the guts up here to go and talk to Graeme Pollock,’ and I thought about it, and before I knew it he was tapping me on the shoulder. He’d sought me out to say gidday and have a chat, as did Mike Procter.”

When he returned to Australia, Taylor suddenly found himself on the outer in Victoria. He wasn’t even in the wider squads.

“We got back in February of 1987, I went back to work, and about July of 1987 they picked a Victorian State squad. From memory they had 38 players in the squad. There were four Victorians in the Australian side that had gone to South Africa, in Yallop, Hogg, myself and McCurdy, and none of us got picked in this 38-man squad. Ian Redpath was coach of Victoria [and had been a coach at South Melbourne CC right from Taylor’s early days with the club], and I knew him very well, and said ‘what’s going on with this State squad?’ and he said ‘they didn’t want to pick you guys, they wanted to start with a clean slate’.”

Redpath said that the only way to get back into the side was to re-prove himself in district cricket – fair to say not something a player in his thirties wants to hear. So Taylor called up Brian Davison, who was making a comeback as captain of Tasmania, at the age of 42.

Soon enough Taylor was in Tasmania, had a house in Hobart, and was playing for a new State. In those days, before central contracts at domestic level, it required a huge leap of faith. The fact that Tasmania were a fairly new and relatively weak side meant that Taylor could have some confidence that he’d walk into the side.

“It was [exciting] in some ways to have a leadership role … but it was pretty tough going to be honest, especially the bowling attack we had, which was really going to struggle to bowl teams out. There was a young fella called Tim Bower, who was only about 17 or 18, who they’d brought into the squad because he had a lot of talent – with no intention at all of playing him.

“They played a few trial games, Tim did quite well, and before you knew it they picked him straight into the Shield team. He had lively pace, but he was built like a beanpole, and struggled a bit at that level because he didn’t have that background of years of club cricket behind him. There were a few others who were cannon fodder for the experienced Shield players who were around, like Tom Moody and Graeme Wood, and we thought in that first game ‘this is going to be a long season’.”

After a gruelling start to the season – with the media immediately putting the boot in, and questioning why Tasmania had brought a ‘has-been’ over from Victoria – Taylor eventually found the flow of runs again, and ended up making over a 1000 for the season, including his second First Class double-hundred.

“This was another year where I set that goal of getting to 1000 runs, and when I looked at it with about three games to go, getting to 1000 was looking very slim. But when I got going in some of those games, it was burning in the back of my mind what Graham Gooch said – when it’s all going for you, you’ve got to fill your boots. So that’s what I was trying to do, 166, 216, and a couple of 80s in the last game of the year. It was a great finish. But the next year. Not so good hey?”

Not so good indeed. The stats don’t make for pretty reading, and don’t seem fair to publish – suffice to say it wasn’t a good run.

Dirk Wellham had come in as captain-coach, imported from New South Wales, and had a very negative plan – “his main focus was to get Tasmania to stop being easy-beats. To stop States turning up and thinking ‘we’ll get ten points here’. He didn’t care how we played, how slow we batted. If we batted well in the first innings, he just wanted to keep batting and make it as difficult as possible for the opposition to win outright.”

It meant that not once in that 1989-90 season did Taylor get to bat in a second innings. He batted once in each game, never managed to get going, and had a very poor season.

In 1990-91, he played one match for the Tasmania seconds against the Australian academy, and then decided to call it a day.

“I remember that, we played against the academy, and the kids had been playing all winter. I turned up there in Launceston in October, I’d maybe only had one or two hits on turf, and really wasn’t very well prepared for the game. I was fielding at first slip, and Greg Blewett snicked one to me very early on. I’d had no slips catching practise, put it down, and he made a hundred. They had an incredible side – for one intake of the academy, they had Greg Blewett, Damien Martyn and Justin Langer.”

Given that Tasmania had “probably already written me off,” his lack of preparation and performance was really a final nail in the coffin for Taylor. He was available if they wanted him for the rest of the season – but as he says, it wasn’t likely that they’d come calling.

“Like anything, if you’re not putting the effort in, it’s unlikely you’re going to get the results.”

He played another five years of Tasmanian club cricket, before moving back to Melbourne: “but that was all good fun, won three premierships in a row with North Hobart.”

He returned to South Melbourne in 1994-95, ‘retired’ the following summer, and then made a return after a season off: “I might’ve played another two seasons I think, until I was about 42 or 43 playing first-grade cricket. I had modest success, I managed to make a century when I was about 42, but that was about it.”

Taylor has since moved into administration, outside of work, being on the Cricket Victoria board for years – including some matches as a Match Referee in State games, when a local board member did so – and has retained his involvement with South Melbourne Cricket Club to this day.

It was purely a matter of ‘being there’ that got him on the Victorian board – “before I knew it” he was on the South Melbourne Cricket Club committee, and almost immediately afterward become a delegate to the Victorian Cricket Board (as it then was).

At the 1998 VCA Annual General Meeting, he decided to put his hand up – and was duly elected to the board, on which he served for the next eight years.

“It certainly was interesting to see things from an administrator’s perspective and made one realise just how much you take things for granted when you are a player and perhaps how unappreciative you might have been in the past to volunteers who made it possible for us to play cricket without having to worry about everything that goes on in in the background.”

Although he didn’t preside over any great controversies in his time as a Match Referee, Taylor does have one vivid memory.

“The then Victorian coach, David Hookes, was hitting outfield catches to the Victorian players in the warm up before a match against South Australia at the MCG. I marvelled at how precisely he hit the catches, so that fieldsmen were fully extended to get to them, but not too far away that they couldn’t get a hand on them. I thought then what great skill he had and that was at the age of 49! The next morning we had a telephone hook up with other board members to be told that David was in the Alfred Hospital on life support and it was likely that he was ‘brain dead’ and therefore the decision would be made to turn off his life support in due course. What a terrible tragedy and a great cricket thinker was lost to the game forever.”

Taylor’s exit from the board (due to him moving out of town) in 2006 wasn’t his exit from cricket. He retains, to this day, an integral involvement with South Melbourne (or Casey-South Melbourne as it now is, following a merger), and it’s obvious he retains a lot of pride from his contribution to the club.

“Since leaving the Cricket Victoria Board, I have maintained my position on the Committee of the South Melbourne Cricket Club and was instrumental, along with Graham Yallop, in the club’s move to Casey Fields at Cranbourne East, in the City of Casey, nearly ten years ago now. The club is now known as Casey-South Melbourne Cricket Club. I also had a stint of three years as President of the club and am still on the Committee today, despite living more than 200 kilometres from the ground!”

It’s a pleasing change – a man who hasn’t moved into cricket (be it as a player or administrator) with the intention being the pursuit of fame. Indeed, that intent hasn’t changed as a result of his involvement either. After his top-flight playing days came to a close, Taylor continued to play club cricket, and contribute to the development of youngsters coming through.

Even today, after leaving the Cricket Victoria board, he remains with his club. Not distance, nor the passing years, nor the prospect of other grandeur has moved Taylor from his core dedication to his club.

It’s something that ought to be remembered: Taylor shouldn’t be thought of as ‘one of the rebels,’ nor should he be thought of as ‘unlucky not to play for Australia’. The view one should take when looking at Taylor’s career is simply one of admiration for a man who has been utterly dedicated and devoted to the sport he loves – in all capacities and aspects – for the best part of 50 years.

Add to it, that there are no signs of him concluding it any time soon.


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