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A hero goes out in his patented style

By Nirmal Shekar

Came the hour, came the man. Shortly before 9.30 a.m. IST on Tuesday, with Anil Kumble and Co. posing a bigger threat to Australia than did the charcoal grey skies to India, in walked the man. It was time to get into the trenches and do battle...one more time, one last time.

For the connoisseurs of the great game, there couldn't have been a better scenario than this. It was a mouth-wateringly perfect script. A marvellous series, whose plot had more hairpin bends than could be found on the mountain roads to Tirumala temple, had reached its climactic hour and the World champion team was staring down the barrel.

Who else would you want to see in the middle but Stephen Rodger Waugh? Everything to play for in his last Test match innings, the most toweringly influential figure in modern cricket stepped into the middle to do the repair work that is so famous for.

Waugh fights; therefore he is. Nothing better describes the Australian captain than what he does in the cauldron in an hour of crisis. In the event, it was very appropriate that in his final Test innings, after 18 years of turning fighting cricket into a wonderful art form, the great man needed to come up with his signature tune at the death one more time.

Play it again Steve, we muttered under our breath, hoping against hope that the ageing gladiator will shut out the awe-struck hero-worshipping admiration in the stands and stay afloat in the tidal waves of emotions to play out his favourite role to perfection one last time.

"He's been struggling. He should have gone long ago. It will be tough for him against Kumble on a fifth day wicket", said a friend as Waugh squinted into the overcast skies and briskly made his way to the middle at the Sydney Cricket Ground. Three down, chasing 400-plus and almost four hours of cricket left.

And what did we see? Exactly what any student of Waugh history, so to say, in cricket might have expected to see. Not another jaw-dropping work of genius, not another fantastic fairytale farewell innings of unmatchable beauty but merely a workmanlike 80 crafted with blood and sweat in the trenches by a working class boy from the Sydney suburb of Bankstown.

Man is not defined so much by success as he is by failure, by how he faces up to the possibility of failure, by how he deals with crisis, how he stretches his resources, both physical and mental, to turn failure, near-failure, into a glorious triumph.

This is not only something that is character-revealing but also, more significantly, a defining process that separates not merely boys from men but the men themselves from gladiators. And Steve Waugh is the greatest gladiator of his era in the world of cricket.

No single cricketer in modern times — and certainly no active cricketer — could have faced up to failure and turned it into a triumph with quite the same gladiatorial intensity and single-mindedness, as has Steve Waugh time after time after time.

Sport is at once a fascinating laboratory for observations as well as a cruel business because the situations it creates strip a man to his essentials. There is nowhere to hide, nothing to cover yourself with.

Waugh, of course, likes it that way. He would have hated it today if he had had to step out with Australia 360 for three and the match all but dead. That's like asking a tightrope walker to walk on a compound wall!

The tighter the rope, the deeper the abyss, the colder the air, the greater the overall threat, the better it is for Waugh. Average challenges are for average people. Only the big ones inspire him.

Little wonder, then, the greatest batsman of our times — Sachin Tendulkar — said at the SCG on Tuesday that Waugh was an `inspiration' to younger players like him.

Quite a few Waugh fans might be a touch sad that the great man did not score a century in his final appearance or even that he did not finish on a winning note. But, believe me, Waugh himself would have liked nothing better than to have done what he did today in his final innings — save Australia from humiliation.

What is more, the series itself has been a wonderful advertisement to Test match cricket and the strength of will and tenacity displayed by the Indian team a lasting tribute to the legacy of Waugh. It was almost as if Sourav Ganguly and his boys had taken a leaf out of the Waugh manual.

The departing hero did acknowledge the new Indian resolve and will to fight. Great warriors like nothing more than to fight equals and here, at last, the most successful captain in Test history found a visiting team that had the skills and the determination to stand shoulder to shoulder with the champion and trade punches.

The memorable exchanges in a drama-filled series of four Test matches turned out to be an unforgettable last lap for Waugh. And the scenes at the SCG where every single man, woman and child put their hands together to say goodbye to one of the greatest performers in contemporary sport underlined the fact that Waugh is one of the best loved cricketers of this, or any, era.

As much as in his homeland, Waugh will be loved in this country too, one which, over the last few years, has become a home away from home to him. When people — foreigners — start taking the trouble to come to terms with this vast, complex nation, soon they realise that India grows on them. This has been Waugh's experience too. He has come to love the warmth of the Indian cricket fans and Indians in general.

While Waugh will never again come back here to play cricket, and has retired without conquering what he called `The Final Frontier' as a captain, metaphorically speaking he has already conquered cricket-loving India.

Few overseas cricketers — barring perhaps Sir Vivian Richards — might have ever commanded such a huge fan following in India, as does Steve Waugh. Test cricket will miss him and so will millions of fans everywhere in the cricket-playing world.

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