My Favourite Cricketer: Steve Waugh

Posted on June 13, 2013

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Here’s a link to a piece on Steve Waugh that I wrote for ESPNCricinfo as part of their “My Favourite Cricketer” series. My piece was cut down to 1932 words for publication on ESPNCricinfo.

ESPNCricinfo have kindly agreed to allow me to publish the full 2878 word version of my Steve Waugh piece on my blog. So here it is:

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On the afternoon of 15 October 1991, I fell in love for the first time.

I was six years old and sitting cross-legged on the coarse, carpeted floor of my aunt’s living room in suburban Melbourne, watching — live and free-to-air — a 50-over FAI Cup match between New South Wales and Victoria at North Sydney Oval.

Two brothers, twins alike in ball-striking ability, were laying waste to a Victorian attack featuring five former, current or future international bowlers and, erm, Paul Jackson, a left-arm orthodox spinner who was keeping a young fella named Shane Warne out of the Victorian side.

One brother wielded his bat like a paintbrush. The other wielded his bat like a butcher’s cleaver. Yet, for reasons which remain a mystery (even to me), it was the latter whom I fell for. Perhaps it was because, even through the miniscule, convex TV screen, I could see the steely glint in his eye for which he would later become famous. Or maybe I just liked the fact that he appeared to be as fond of playing the cut as I am.

His name was Stephen Rodger Waugh.

He bludgeoned 126 runs off 133 balls that day. (Twin brother Mark made 112 off 123.)

From that day forth, “Steve” Waugh, as everyone seemed to call him, became my favourite cricketer.

In October 1991, he wasn’t yet one of Australia’s National Living Treasures. He wasn’t even in the Australian Test XI. He had been dropped the previous summer after a five year, 42 Test match run in the team as an all-rounder batting mainly at six yielded just three hundreds and a batting average of 38.24.

He was widely seen, to paraphrase Fitzgerald, as a cricketer who’d had advantages at the selection table that others hadn’t and failed to make the most of them.

When, through sheer weight of first-class run scoring, he won a recall to the Australian Test XI the following summer, it was as a number three and the opponents were the cricketing demi-Gods of the Calypso Empire that was still in its pomp.

His scores in the first two Tests read: 10, 20, 38 and 1.

His Test career hung by a thread. In one of his regular letters to then national selector John Benaud, a gentleman named LJ Cooray “demand[ed]” that Waugh be dropped and supplied the following one line justification: “only plays well against teams that have no fast bowlers.” A tweet in length and tone in the pre-internet age.

The third Test was played at Waugh’s home ground, the SCG, in early January 1993. Over the course of four and a half painstaking hours, he grinded out an even hundred against a West Indian attack featuring Curtly Ambrose, Courtney Walsh and Ian Bishop and, upon reaching the milestone, pointedly waved his bat in the direction of the press box. As a Test batsman, he never looked back, averaging 56.60 in his next 121 Tests after averaging just 37.14 in his first 47.

In the same summer, another great Australian cricketer emerged onto the world stage and it was to him — Melbourne-born and bred — that so many of my fellow Melbournians gravitated as the cherubic leg-spinner seamlessly assumed the mantle of Great Victorian Hero relinquished by Dean Jones to the era-defining chants of “Waarr-nee, Waaaaaar-nee” which rang around the ’G. I respected and admired Shane Warne the bowler, but he wasn’t the cricketing hero for me.

Warne loved being the centre of attention. He was comfortable there in the spotlight, courting public affection as naturally as a bee gathers pollen, a born showman with a million dollar smile. He looked as open and at ease with a person he’d just met, as he did with his best mate — a trait to admire, but one I knew that I could never share.

Waugh, on the other hand, seemed quiet, private, studious, thoughtful and impeccably rational. My nerdy self, all of eight years old, had already noted how the weight of first-class runs that earned him his recall to the Australian XI had been produced by his diligent elimination of unnecessary risk from his game, including, most famously, his ditching of the hook and pull shots. As a natural off-side batsman, I’d never warmed to either shot and Waugh’s example served to strengthen my belief that neither was necessary so long as one had a strong cut and a good off-the-hip back foot leg glance.

Soon, I would receive detailed, written confirmation of my youthful impressions gleaned from afar in a form that is, sadly, now almost alien in this Twitter Age: a book, by which I mean a real, self-written work, not the ghost-written copy hurriedly dashed off to the publishers just in time for the holiday season which nowadays passes for a cricketer’s work. In 1993, Waugh wrote his first book, Steve Waugh’s Ashes Diary (1993). It sold so well that he authored another 10 tour diaries, one book of photographs, and a 720 page, 1.9 kilogram autobiography. (The National Library of Australia catalogue reveals that he has a 13th book coming out later this year: The Meaning of Luck: Stories of Learning, Leadership and Love.)

The early tour diaries were the best. With no formal leadership responsibilities, Waugh was free to observe, think, wander, explore, photograph and write. As a writer, he was no Ray Robinson, but he wrote lucidly, perceptively, and honestly about the big issues both on and off the field, his approach to the game, tactics, his relationships with teammates and administrators, and his philosophy towards life in general. Perhaps most importantly of all, unlike so many of the anodyne ghost-written offerings churned out by professional sportsmen nowadays, he never hesitated to offer an opinion about an important issue, no matter how controversial, including Darrell Hair’s decision to no-ball Muttiah Muralitharan and the Australian Cricket Board’s decision to abandon the Sri Lankan leg of Australia’s 1996 World Cup tour in the aftermath of a terrorist suicide bombing in Colombo.

But it was often the little things which stood out, like his reflection on his first encounter with a local — who said, “Hello, Mr Wog. Very well played in 1987, all the best for ’96” — upon arriving in India for the 1996 World Cup:

It’s amazing how one comment can put everything into perspective, and this one did just that for me. Sometimes you forget how much this game can affect people. You take things for granted. But when you realise a guy like this remembers how you performed nine years ago and wants you to do well, even though you’re part of a visiting team — that’s a very effective reminder that you have an obligation to always give it your best shot. You’re not only playing for yourself and your team, but also for the numerous people out there who care whether you succeed or fail.

Passages like that quickly won him an 11-year-old’s trust, revealing a person who never forgot, and always fulfilled, his responsibilities, but never allowed himself to be crushed by them. The kind of man any earnest, bookish young boy aspires to be.

He never strayed into pretension either, keeping his underrated sense of humour — which ranged from toilet to slapstick to mildly absurdist — firmly intact. The same 1996 World Cup diary containing the passage on responsibility quoted above features: Waugh accidentally crapping his own pants trying to open a jammed bus window; Australian players attacking one another with salt, pepper and weaponised dairy products in the business class section of a plane; and an Indian newspaper article about a man who lovingly kept a pet cow (“She is really good looking and has an exceptional figure”) in his eighth floor Calcutta apartment that Waugh chose to reproduce “without comment”.

Waugh’s writing, especially in his pre-captaincy days, was so extensive that avid readers like myself felt as if we knew him, even though we’d never met him. He was a self-described “nerd”. He was not gregarious or charismatic like Warne, or a naturally great group communicator like Mark Taylor, although he was good friends with both. He placed great value in friendship which, much like Test runs and wickets, was something he thought had to be earned, but once earned, brought with it attendant obligations of loyalty, trust and confidence, which must never be betrayed.

He was more comfortable in the company of a few close friends than in large groups. Unlike more than a few Australian cricketers at the time, he was curious about the cultures and societies of the foreign lands that the Australian team visited and, instead of bunkering down in his hotel room with a tin of baked beans and a stack of videos, he spent most of his free time on tours exploring the local surrounds in the company of one or two teammates or journalists who shared his curiosity. In 1996, he explored the slums of Calcutta with Michael Slater and went to meet Mother Teresa with Robert Craddock.

He may not have been a naturally gifted group communicator like Taylor, but he was an excellent, empathetic one-on-one communicator and an astute observer of not just society but individuals too, always being the first to support a teammate or friend who was down, for example, spending much of his free time during the 1996 World Cup tour with Slater who’d recently been axed from the one-day side, and going on a long, heartfelt walk-and-talk with Warne after he announced his retirement to his teammates the day after Australia’s Super Six game against Zimbabwe at the 1999 World Cup. He practised the precept that Josh Lyman set out — he comforted his friends in times of difficulty and he celebrated with them in times of triumph.

He had a clear idea of how to prepare himself in order to extract the maximum number of runs from himself for the benefit of his team, which included knowing when not to over-practise, for example, when confronted by a deteriorating practice wicket he typically opted to have “a short knock”, achieve a set objective (such as lofting balls over the top), and “then g[o]t out of there”, rather than risk unnecessary injury.

He knew how to get the best out of his teammates too. His unconventional policy of trusting tailenders and not shepherding the strike produced a font of lower-order partnership runs for Australia and he had a knack of compiling of series-turning partnerships with greenhorn partners, such as the 385 run partnership at the Wanderers with Greg Blewett in 1997 and the 126 run partnership with Darren Lehmann in Rawalpindi in 1998.

He had an instinctive feel for the ebb and flow of a game of cricket and the mental acuity to know how and when to intervene tactically in order to maximise Australia’s chances of winning the game. In 1996, as Mark Waugh and Ricky Ponting’s second wicket partnership steered Australia towards three figures in pursuit of the imposing 287 for victory set by New Zealand in their World Cup quarter-final, Steve Waugh suggested to his vice-captain, Ian Healy, and captain, Taylor, that “this would be an ideal time to send in a pinch hitter”. They agreed. When Ponting departed with the score on 84, Warne was sent in and his quickfire 24 off 15 balls and partnership of 43 in four-and-a-half overs with Mark Waugh supercharged the Australian run-rate just when it needed it. Australia won with 13 balls to spare.

He was a good judge of character — both on and off the cricket field — which, combined with his cricketing knowledge and experience, gave him a close to flawless ability to judge whether a cricketer could succeed at Test level.

All these things we knew from reading his early tour diaries.

Thus, when his critics — who remained present, if not plentiful, throughout the second half of the ’90s even as he established himself as one of the world’s pre-eminent batsmen and captains — unfairly criticised him, I bristled and not only wanted to defend him, but felt as if I knew what to say.

When Ian Chappell called him “selfish” on Sydney radio after his decision to take a single off the first ball of a Darren Gough over with 14 needed to win and number 10 Stuart MacGill at the other end, cost Australia the 1998 Boxing Day Ashes Test, I wanted to say: yes, it was a mistake, but it was a reasonable one because it was the result of the very same principle of trusting the tail which had brought Waugh and Australia tremendous success over the years — by that stage of his career, Waugh had already amassed 17 partnerships of 50 or more with genuine “tailenders” (narrowly defined to exclude number sevens such as Ian Healy and Greg Matthews who’d scored Test hundreds).

Shortly thereafter, Chappell joined Peter Roebuck and Alan Jones in criticising Waugh’s appointment as Australian captain in all forms of the game.

Strange as it may seem now, but even before he’d captained his country in a Test match, some of Waugh’s critics mistakenly presumed that, because his batting success was based on the elimination of unnecessary risk, he would make for a dour, defensive, risk-averse captain. Those of us who’d compulsively read his tour diaries knew better — he was always trying to think of ways to improve Australia’s chances of winning a game, even where that meant increasing the risk of losing.

Initially, it was his weaknesses, not his strengths, which manifested themselves in his captaincy tenure. No longer one of the boys, Waugh found that the lines of communication to his troops were now garbled and, lacking Taylor’s gifts of group speak, he was unable to repair them on his own. Australia nearly lost the Frank Worrell Trophy and successive group stage defeats to New Zealand and Pakistan at the 1999 World Cup left them on the brink of early elimination and Waugh on the verge of being sacked as one-day captain.

Then, at that turning point in modern Australian cricket history, his strengths which I’d read about for so many years in his books, started coming to the fore — the veteran all-rounder Tom Moody, who he’d personally asked the selectors to include in Australia’s World Cup squad after being left out of the preliminary 20 man squad, re-established good lines of communication with the rank-and-file, acting as a kind of company first sergeant, and contributed valuable quick runs and wickets; Warne, who Waugh had backed throughout a tournament long form slump, came good at the business end; and Waugh himself took personal responsibility for his team’s fate, scoring a team-best 398 runs at 79.60 for the tournament as Australia went unbeaten for seven consecutive matches to win their first World Cup since 1987.

That World Cup victory proved to be the watershed moment in Waugh’s captaincy. Soon, all the virtues that we’d seen in his diaries manifested themselves in his captaincy. Matthew Hayden, Damien Martyn and Justin Langer, a trio of nearly 30 year old batsmen who’d spent the better part of a decade on the fringes of the Australian XI, were unequivocally backed. Thus empowered, Hayden attained greatness and Martyn and Langer achieved excellence. Waugh’s strong one-on-one communication skills and empathy won him the unswerving loyalty of nearly all his players, perhaps best exemplified in Stuart MacGill’s maxim: “When in Rome, do as Steve Waugh.” Tactically, he turned out to be even more positive and risk-loving than his lauded predecessor Taylor, committing his side to score at the revolutionary rate of four an over and setting attacking fields. He stuck to those principles, whether they were helping Australia set the world record for consecutive Test victories (16), or bringing that very streak to an end as his team twice went for the win against India in 2001 when a pragmatist might have played for two consecutive draws and a 1-0 series win.

Even the tiniest of his virtues soon found positive expression in the team environment. His nerdy knowledge of and respect for cricket history led him to introduce the cap presentation ceremony (whereby an Australian Test or one-day international debutant would have his cap presented to him by a past player in front of the entire team) and the stitching of each individual player’s number (indicating his chronological position in the list of players to have represented Australia in that format of the game) onto his Test shirt and ODI cap. Both practices have since been religiously adopted by every other cricketing nation in the world.

By the turn of the century, Waugh’s place in the hearts and minds of the Australian people — young and old — was secure. When the selectors dumped him as one-day captain in 2002, the public backed him. In 2003, The Age listed him, somewhat incongruously, alongside David Beckham and Eminem as one of 13-year-old boys’ “heroes”. When his selection as 2004 Australian of the Year drew flack from some quarters because he was the fourth sportsperson in seven years to win the award, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition tripped over one another leaping to his defence.

By the time he retired in January 2004, Steve Waugh was, and forever will be, one of Australia’s favourite cricketers. But, he was mine first.

 

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