Steve Waugh: A glorious innings
`Why are you going Steve? You're still so good, mate.' Could he have wished for more when asked this at his final press conference as captain? ... Stephen Waugh, at the end of 18 years of international cricket, deserves the recognition, and a place in its history as someone who did enough to bring glory and dignity to the game, says VIJAY LOKAPALLY.
THE ultimate tribute to Stephen Waugh came not from the cricketing world but from a disadvantaged child in Kolkata. She probably knew nothing about the glorious game and what it meant to the great gladiator from New South Wales who was on a visit to "Udayan", a home for destitutes that he patronises.
Asked who this man was, the child mumbled proudly "Amaar baba (my father)." Waugh's radiant face reflected the state of his inner soul. Known for his stoic countenance, even Waugh struggled to hide his emotions that day. His eyes were moist when he discovered in what esteem the little girl held him. No cricketing award would have given the genial Waugh greater joy!
With Waugh's retirement, an era has come to an end. For quite some time, cricket in Australia will always be remembered for the Waugh era when he led his team on an all-conquering journey. New standards were set and peaks scaled as Waugh and his men gave domination in cricket a new meaning.
The Waugh farewell series was a big event in Australia, and in world cricket too. Being accorded a standing ovation at cricket venues was a privilege he earned for his unflinching record as a cricketer of immense merit. Being profusely greeted at airports and hotels was an honour that was bestowed upon this famous Aussie who valued his baggy green cap more than anyone he cared for the cap as he would tend to those underprivileged children in Kolkata.
Waugh's attitude to the game reflected the man's impeccable character. If batting was an obsession, then captaincy was a glorious chapter in his eventful career as he nurtured a team and moulded it into a winning unit like few in the history of the game. Some flippant remark was made about his lack of tactics as a captain but then he was a leader who set examples and did not believe in demonstrating his involvement with the players, especially the youngsters. He revelled in playing the crisis man, with some of his knocks recorded in history as epic performances. When they spoke of his weakness against the short ball, they did little justice to a batsman who never flinched at the crease. It will, however, remain a disappointment that one did not see him play the hook as he had promised in his farewell series.
Waugh brought drama, passion, thrill, joy to his cricket. But, for a captain who swept all opposition ruthlessly, he failed to win his last one-day match and the final Test. His dream of beating India in India remained a dream. The tinge of disappointment whenever he recalled the series in India was unmistakable.
One of four sons of Rodger and Bev, he was born to lead his country. He introduced work ethics unknown to many modern cricketers, a sober endeavour to place cricket above everything else. Waugh was from the old school respect for the game was an integral part of his cricket education. He worked for the betterment of the game and its glorious competitors flung far and across the globe.
Waugh will remain a hero for Australians for his unmatched leadership and the glory he brought to the nation with his brand of cricket and captaincy. He held fearlessly firm in all moments of adversity that Australia encountered in his regime. The eye-ball to eye-ball confrontation with a livid Curtly Ambrose at Port of Spain is a part of folklore. Ambrose stormed down the track and glared at the tough Aussie, who demanded "what the ... . are you looking at?" A stunned Ambrose, not accustomed to being spoken to the way Waugh did, shot back "don't cuss me, maan." It was quite uncharacteristic of Waugh, 10 years of international cricket having seasoned him enough, to lose his temper but then in 1995 he looked at cricket with a different perspective.
They said Waugh had struck a deal with the national selectors to stage-manage his retirement to enable him make lucrative financial deals as he bid farewell to the game. Nothing could have been more uncharitable to a man who found solace in charity in a city far, far away from the hustle and bustle of Sydney, his home. If anything, Waugh deserved respect for timing his retirement. Could he have wished for more than a senior Australian writer asking him at his final press conference as captain: "Why are you going Steve? You're still so good mate."
A smiling Waugh replied "That's precisely why I want to go. When on top." That summed up the man, who believed in staying at the top, as he evoked unstinted/ing appreciation from the media in the final moments of his farewell drama at the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG).
With his imperious air of all-conquering intent, Waugh was a feared competitor, a captain who just wanted to crush the opponents. They called him Iceman because nothing made an impact on him. He had this amazing quality to shut himself into a zone. He led Australia to an astonishing victory at the 1999 World Cup when few backed Waugh and his men not even brothers, Dean and Danny, even as Mark joined him in the biggest battle of his career. His cricket showed that he would never settle for anything other than sporting distinction. Money did matter to him, as it did to many of his contemporaries, but Waugh valued his cricket medals more than his feats on the field.
In keeping with the times, Waugh learnt to change his outlook towards the game but never at the cost of its image. He protected the traditions of the game as any loyalist would and distinguished himself as a truly great servant of cricket. This sporting ambassador of Australia would deserve a cricketing Oscar, if one is introduced.
When Waugh took over from Mark Taylor, he had a legacy to live up to a legacy of leading a team that had been brought up with a belief that nothing short of a victory would justify their donning the baggy green. Waugh only strengthened that belief to an extent that Richie Benaud recognised his tenure by acknowledging the fact that nothing matched the Waugh era when it came to sheer excitement and thrills. They abounded in Waugh's wonderful march that culminated in a thunderous farewell at the majestic SCG.
The grim-faced Waugh was a fighter on the field, his deeds documented in those epic battles he had with some of the most ferocious bowlers on the circuit. As a batsman, he had his limitations never a joy to behold but always the most trusted to perform when faced with a crisis. His strength lay in his limited capacity to dominate. Yet he is the one you would want more than anyone else in the side, his commitment, his guts, his competitive streak. Statistics will never portray the combative essence of this modern cricket hero, who won 41 of his 57 Tests as captain.
The man and his team... a unique brand of cricket and captaincy.
One of the most revered sportsmen in Australia, Waugh brought dignity to the job of captaincy. When Sourav Ganguly showed him disrespect by making Waugh wait for the toss, the Aussies chose to ignore it rather than make an issue of it. Of course Waugh was never known for such petulance with his opponents but he fought his battles hard, without ever transgressing the established norms of the game. He was not known to sledge but had mastered a well-planned drill to discreetly look the other way when his mates gave it to the opponents. When Ganguly was hit on the helmet at Melbourne, Waugh was the first to reach and inquire "Are you okay?" The enforcer, the name given to him by some of his mates, had mellowed over the years.
Waugh's respect and admiration for his compatriots is best illustrated in the chapter on Commonwealth Games in his compelling book No Regrets. He played a significant role in getting the Australian Cricket Board to drop the idea of sending the second XI. Waugh led the side on one of his most memorable assignments memorable not because he was driven by the need to triumph, but by the thrill of sharing the stage with fellow sportsmen. "I can honestly say that our Commonwealth Games cricket experience was as good a two weeks as I've ever seen in sport," he wrote, and added, "because having the opportunity to mingle with top-class sportspeople from across a broad range of disciplines was a real learning curve for all the guys." The man was humble to the core. The child in Waugh is seen in how Gavin Robertson and he slip in to venues without passes, claiming to be competitors running late for the event. This, from a cricketer described as the conqueror.
One of the lasting memories of many meetings with him was at the Melbourne airport recently. The smile conveyed his warm greetings. "Enjoying the cricket mate," he asked from behind a mountain of luggage on his trolley. A little girl with an autograph book, tugged at his coat inviting him to oblige. Waugh whispered something and rushed to the check-in counter. The formalities over, he returned to his young fan, who had waited patiently; more followed, and Waugh, far more patient than his admirers, did not disappoint any. He was obviously enjoying every moment of attention off the field. The tributes were overflowing on the field too for this "affable and ideal role model".
An emotional turnout at the SCG gave Waugh an unforgettable farewell the ovation, some old timers insisted was as thunderous as the ones accorded to Sir Don Bradman and Allan Border on their final day on the cricket field. Waugh, at the end of 18 years of international cricket, deserved the recognition, and a place in its history as someone who did enough to bring glory and dignity to the game. His intensity as a cricketer was acclaimed by many former greats as unparalleled.
At 38, Waugh has just begun his innings off the field. A whole world of opportunities lies at his feet in the media having authored 11 readable tour diaries; to being involved in charity among the poor of this world; or spreading his wisdom in the cricketing arena. Family commitments would certainly keep him at home for some time, but how long really? Three days after the Sydney Test, Waugh returned to represent New South Wales in a first-class match. Can you ask for greater commitment?
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