Steve Waugh's last Boxing Day Test December 30, 2003

Setting the stage

'It all goes pretty quickly'
© Getty Images

Despite the result being a foregone conclusion, 29,262 turned up at the MCG to show their appreciation of one of Australian cricket's most beloved sons. "This is one Waugh we won't forget," said one banner, while another simply said, "Tugga, Our Hero". Steve Waugh was certainly moved by it, as he trooped around the crowd, soaking up the acclaim. "It all goes pretty quickly," he said afterwards. "But the crowd was outstanding and they showed why it's one of the great sporting venues."

Waugh admitted that the stage was set for a fitting finale in Sydney, with the series so beautifully poised. "I'm really looking forward to it," he said. "But I want to think about the side and concentrate on the job that I have to do, both as a captain and as a batsman."

He said that there was a brief period following the blow on the elbow from Ajit Agarkar when he feared that Sydney would prove one hurdle too many. "I thought I'd broken my arm," he said. "And I thought this might be it ... but the X-rays didn't show anything and I'll definitely play in Sydney." He said it was a struggle to get any sort of momentum going with the bat. "I couldn't hit through the off side, but it was mainly a case of getting a partnership going."

According to Waugh, the game tilted decisively in Australia's favour on the second morning, when they ripped out the last six Indian wickets for just 16. "We were desperate on the first day because I was bowling," he said with a laugh. "But I got a lucky wicket. The crucial session though was the first one on day two. I think India realised, too, that it had slipped out of reach after that."

Waugh refused to compare the emotions centred around the upcoming Sydney Test to those that had propelled him to an epic century against England last year. "While there's a lot happening around me and the team, I think it's positive. Last year, there were a lot of negative emotions leading up to the Test, because I thought that might be it if I failed."

He promised that neither he nor his team would be fazed by the occasion. "You want pressure," he said with a hint of a smile. "The best teams and the best players lift themselves for the big occasion." There was also no question of ruling India out of contention, despite the fact that the momentum may have shifted in Melbourne. "Against most sides, barring India, you might think that. But they have a great batting side, a world-class spinner in Kumble, and three guys who can swing the ball. They're very hard to get out, and just tougher mentally than they were in previous years. Not many teams have lasted five days against us."

Waugh refused to be drawn on Sachin Tendulkar's recent travails, saying, "Dravid, Laxman, Ganguly and Sehwag have covered for him. I think instead of being concerned about him not making runs, they should be proud of how the other guys have stepped up. That's the beauty of team sport."

Matthew Hayden and Ricky Ponting: starting a contagion

He paid fulsome tribute to his own bowlers, and admitted that it would be difficult to leave out anyone if Jason Gillespie was indeed fit to play in Sydney. There were also encomiums for Ricky Ponting and Matthew Hayden, who both continued to pile on the runs without pause. "It's hard to say who's batting better," he said. I'm just happy that I'm playing in a team where I can watch them both. If I wasn't playing, I'd be turning the TV on to watch. They've made people watch Test cricket again." Waugh suggested that Australia's aggressive approach had rubbed off on other teams, saying, "I think it's contagious. Kallis, Gibbs, Kirsten, Lara ... all these guys are doing it because they've seen the Australian guys do it."

The applause that rang around the stands at the end, from spectators on both sides, will linger long in the Waugh memory, but for the moment, the blinkers are on for Sydney. "I don't want to go out as a losing captain," he said with extra emphasis. "It happened to me in my last series as one-day captain, and I don't want to leave Tests that way." And unless India find large doses of the Eden Gardens-Adelaide elixir, not to mention a couple of bowlers to support the lion-hearted Kumble, he won't.

Dileep Premachandran is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo. He will be following the Indian team throughout the course of the series.