Inside Edge

The Perceptive Bloke

He is the hero of his team-mates, more ruthless than Don Bradman and impossible to get rid of. Is Steve Waugh the greatest captain Australia has ever produced?

Steve Waugh appeared on Andrew Denton's Monday-night chat show a few weeks ago dressed in businesslike blue. He chuckled blokishly, groaned and grimaced in all the right places, and talked and talked and talked - about growing up and raising kids and visiting leprosy colonies. It was pretty dull, everyday fare. Denton, sensing a million Australians dozing on their couches, couldn't get him off soon enough.

Waugh, you see, was not wearing his baggy green cap, which is like Superman trying to rescue the world without his red cape and underpants, or Prime Minister John Howard fronting up for an election campaign without his squadron of pollsters. Underneath his cap Waugh - like Howard and Superman - is capable of inspiring extraordinary faith and trust among his believers, of making the world seem a safer, controllable place. Without it, this same extraordinary man is rendered ordinary.

Thankfully for the sake of Australian cricket, Waugh does not take his cap off very often. Australia's brutal defeat of Bangladesh in July marked Waugh's 37th win as skipper, beyond what any other Test captain has ever managed. His victory ratio stands at 75%, beyond what any other Test captain has ever dared imagine. If - and it's still a sizeable if - he retires after Australia's tour of India next September, that leaves him 13 more matches in charge and a probable 50 Test victories on his CV.

Statistically, Waugh is not simply without equal; statistically, in all likelihood, he will never be equalled.

Statistics, though, are no way to measure a captain. If they were then Clive Lloyd, the grandfatherly West Indian of the 1970s and '80s, would have to be judged the second greatest captain the world has seen. Lloyd was a calming influence but a boring leader, whose idea of tactics involved shoving an extra short-leg up the batsman's nose and swapping one fast bowler with another. Third best would be Allan Border, taut and tigerish but hardly a visionary. And Viv Richards would rank fourth. Refer Lloyd.

If statistics mean little, then how do we assess the legend of Captain Waugh? Richie Benaud famously decreed that captaincy involves 90% luck, 9% hard work and 1% skill - just don't attempt it, Benaud added, without that elusive per cent. It's a neat line but even Benaud, one suspects, doesn't believe it for a second. It might be true of captaincy in rugby or soccer or Australian Rules football, where a ball bounces and men lunge at it, following their instincts. In those sports luck has its place. In cricket you tend to make your own.

Cricket involves more thinking than doing. For every one second of action there are forty seconds of standing around waiting, mulling over what's gone wrong, fretting about what might happen next. These forty seconds explain, in part, why old cricketers are more likely to commit suicide than any other retired sportsmen. These forty seconds also allow a captain to impose himself as in no other game, to psyche out his opponents and bring out the best in his own men. It is a knack shared by Warwick Armstrong, Don Bradman, Richie Benaud, Ian Chappell and Mark Taylor, the five captains generally considered Australia's most astute and successful. Waugh has it in spades.

Sometimes, with Waugh, all it takes is a word or two. Brett Lee tells the story of his Test debut at Melbourne, Boxing Day 1999, when Waugh tossed him the ball before lunch. "Well, this is it. Enjoy it," was all Waugh had to say. Lee, inspired by his captain's mumbled mantra, nailed a wicket with his fourth ball, found himself on a hat-trick a few overs later, and has seldom looked back since.

At other times Waugh doesn't even have to speak. On the eve of the first Test of the 2001 Ashes tour Waugh passed on to Justin Langer the unwelcome news that he had been left out of the team. Then, before leaving the room, he dropped his eyes to the floor and patted Langer on the shoulder. A simple gesture but, as Langer commented months later, it was "worth reflecting on". Four Tests later Langer was back. He has averaged a tick under 60 ever since.

Spend any time with contemporary Australian cricketers and the conversation is invariably dotted with constant references to Waugh. They speak of him with the same gushing reverence the surviving 1948 Invincibles reserve for Bradman. "If he was to ask me to run through a brick wall I would start running as hard as I could," Langer wrote last year. Others talk of memorable meals they have had with him; a nugget of encouragement here, a timely shard of advice there. Many of the current XI say they wouldn't be where they are now if not for Waugh. Many of them are right.

Take Langer and Matthew Hayden, those stand-and-deliver aggressors who have revolutionised the art of opening the batting. When Waugh took over the Test side Langer was firmly pigeonholed as batting's ugly duckling, not the strokeplaying swan of today. Hayden hadn't played for his country in two years. Critics saw him as a clunky, flat-track bully who tripped over his own feet when confronted by top-class speed. Waugh saw something else.

"I felt they weren't getting enough credit for their talent," Waugh told Peter Roebuck last year. "And there's something about them. If there's one thing I'm good at, I'm pretty perceptive. I can see things others might not see ... It's a karma, something they give the side. People feel more secure and strong because of these guys. People around them must believe in them, that's the key."

A gimlet eye for talent, tenacity and character - there's another of Waugh's defining strengths. When Armstrong, Bradman, Benaud, Chappell and Taylor were captaining Australia, everyone knew who was boss. They were giant, shimmering icons of their time. It's the same with Waugh. This is his team.

It was not always so. Amid the national outpouring of sorrow following Taylor's retirement, many insiders questioned Waugh's capacity to succeed so statesmanlike, risk-embracing and vivacious a leader as `Tubby'. Ian Chappell declared that Waugh was a "selfish cricketer" - and selfish cricketers, as everyone knew, made less inspiration-al captains than selfless ones. Shane Warne, with his boyish enthusiasm and football-style pep talks, was considered the more adventurous leadership candidate. Waugh, crazy as it seems now, was the safe, boring, unimaginative option. And since when were men lacking imagination appointed to the second highest office in the land?

Waugh's first press conference as Test captain, in February 1999, likewise offered little inkling of what was to come. "I don't think I need to change too much," he muttered. "It's pretty much a winning formula." That day, Waugh spoke not of winning matches but drawing them. He pointed to the team's habit, under Taylor, of muffing dead Tests. "We could probably draw a few more games that we've lost."

This, four years on, seems the supreme irony. Rather than drawing more Tests, Waugh has steered the draw towards dodo-like extinction. Only five stalemates, four of them rain-influenced, have infiltrated his 52-match tenure. He has effectively turned cricket from a game of three likely outcomes - win, lose or draw - into a game of two.

But this is now, that was then. Waugh's first series in charge, a 2-2 draw in the Caribbean, was notable for Brian Lara's swaggering one-upmanship and the dropping of an undercooked Warne for the last Test. Warne, in his autobiography, described his non-selection as an attempt by the new captain to "be seen to be doing something". From there the team lost a rain-ravaged series in Sri Lanka 1-0. Maybe Australia's selectors really had backed the wrong horse.

Before coming home, the Australians stopped off in Harare for their inaugural Test against Zimbabwe. Historians have roundly ignored this match: a predictable 10-wicket victory, another notch in Australia's booming bedpost. Yet both Damien Fleming and Colin Miller, retired players who speak with the benefit of hindsight, pinpoint the fourth afternoon as the moment Waugh's Australians went from good to great.

Trevor Gripper and Murray Goodwin were at the crease, sluggish but immovable. Nerves jangled, tempers simmered. Lowly Zimbabwe, 228 runs behind on the first innings, were sailing towards an unthinkable draw. Finally Gripper imploded, heads lifted and the final eight wickets skittled for 32. Last man out Goodwin was caught Waugh, bowled Warne - fittingly. Australia finished the game with every player, bar bowler and keeper, in the slips. Something seismic shifted that afternoon.

"At the start," wrote Warne, "while he was feeling his way, he wanted to make sure everybody knew he was going to be a good captain." Not any more. Now Captain Waugh was his own man.

To a point, at least. In many respects Waugh is not his own man but many men: a unique blend of the unique qualities that made past Australian captains unique. We know this thanks to Ray Robinson's 1975 study of Australian skippers, On Top Down Under, not only this country's finest cricket book but a gleaming gem of Australian literature.

Australia's first great captain was probably Harry Trott, with his manicured moustache, in the closing years of the 19th century. Tactically alert, he was one of the earliest captains to swing bowlers and fielders around in pursuit of a breakthrough. He also bowled hard-spun leg-breaks and possessed, observed Warwick Armstrong, "an almost uncanny knowledge of batsmen who were likely to succumb to his wiles".

Robert Key, the English batsman, would know a thing or two about that. At Sydney last summer, with England building a big total on a hot afternoon, Waugh surprisingly brought himself on to bowl his dilapidated mediums. He promptly pinged Key leg-before with a ball that deviated not a millimetre. Key would later lament: "I was thinking, `I don't want to get out to Steve Waugh, he's a joke bowler.'" Which, of course, was all it took to ensure he did. Waugh had done it again.

Five years after Trott came Monty Noble, a rugged disciplinarian who disapproved of substitute fielders unless a player was ill or didn't show up. Shades of Waugh at The Oval, nearly a century later, when he refused himself a runner while pilfering 157 runs off England with an aching buttock and two gammy legs. "Why should batsmen get special treatment?" Waugh sneered afterwards.

Noble was also the first visiting captain to ask England to bat first, making him a forerunner of sorts for Waugh. On 11 of the past 23 occasions he has won the toss Waugh, contrary to accepted cricketing wisdom, has sent the opposition in. It is part of his ongoing mind game, his quest to sap enemy resolve. "Fair pitch or foul," he is effectively taunting his rivals, "you guys will quake before our quicks." The toss, previously a quaint anachronism, has become yet another sharp-edged implement in Waugh's toolshed.

The 1920s brought Warwick Armstrong as captain. "In confidence, dominance, willpower and ability to get his own way," said Robinson, "Armstrong is the nearest down under approach to WG Grace." The nearest, that is, until Bradman and Waugh came along.

The 1930s ushered in Bill Woodfull whose leadership, noted Robinson, won him "fidelity bordering on devotion". Just like Waugh. Like Waugh, Woodfull was a master of funnelling the best out of his players. Like Waugh - and unlike, say, Ian Chappell - he was never a big drinker, never a knockabout ruler, never a man to bond with his players round a bar.

With Woodfull this was viewed as strength of character. With Waugh it has been seized on, unfairly, as a flaw. "I don't particularly want to go into a bar and drink 10 beers with the guys and talk cricket," Waugh offered recently in his defence. "That's the way I am."

Woodfull eventually made way for Bradman, who shared Waugh's sixth-sense about opposition weaknesses and his determination to pounce on them. Bradman was the one thing Waugh gets branded most frequently: ruthless. It was not enough, in 1948, for Bradman's men simply to defeat an England side weakened by war. Bradman had to squeeze the life out of the poor Poms, crush their morale, traipse through the entire 31-match tour unconquered. Even Waugh has never managed that.

And yet Waugh, in a way, has taken ruthlessness to new levels. Bradman's focus was on destroying the opposition. Waugh's focus, backed by a visionary coach in John Buchanan, is on his own XI, whom he consistently cajoles to unprecedented levels of brilliance. The execution is the same, only the emphasis different. Simon Barnes, the perceptive British sportswriter, likens Waugh to the late Brazilian formula one driver Ayrton Senna. "Waugh has that air possessed by very few, even at the highest level of sport: that sense of vocation, that urge to beat not the opposition but the limitations of yourself, your game, your world," writes Barnes.

Waugh's first job was to transform his own game, eliminating error and playing strictly to his strengths. Now he has done the same to his team. For contemporary cricket, blighted by match-fixing and greedy schedulers and Pepsi-obsessed commercialism, this is a blessing. Waugh's teams rattle along at 350 runs a day and put bums on seats. Cricket, as well as Australia, is the winner. Yet as Barnes reminds us: "Waugh did not do it to enthral. He did it to enslave."

In the half a century between Bradman and Waugh, three Australian captains stand out like lighthouses: Benaud, Ian Chappell and Taylor. All three were masters of man-management, fitting 11 disparate personalities into one jolly dressing room. Chappell did it by making his players stay behind for two hours after stumps; Benaud by encouraging on-field hugs, a practice unheard of back then. Now it is unheard of not to.

Waugh has the same welcoming touch. Under another captain Colin Miller, 34 when picked and boasting almost as many hair colours, might never have got a look in. Stuart MacGill, a widely read wine connoisseur who has lived his adult life in Warne's shadow, might have gone off the rails. Not under Waugh's command. Waugh, who is a fan of the country singer John Williamson, will take the time to quiz MacGill, who is not, about the latest CD in his shopping bag. "He doesn't like my music any more or less than he did before," MacGill explained last year. "But now he knows - that's Stuey's band."

All four great captains of the last fifty years share a flair for moments of rare tactical intuition. Chappell and Taylor regularly unearthed gold from their explorative forays with part-time bowlers. Benaud used to leave onlookers gobsmacked by shuffling the field around before a ball had been bowled.

Chappell, Taylor and Waugh all won series in the Caribbean - never an easy feat at the best of times - with mid-strength attacks. Chappell did it in 1973 without Dennis Lillee and Bob Massie; Taylor in 1995 without Craig McDermott and Damien Fleming; and Waugh pulled it off earlier this year without Glenn McGrath, for two Tests, and Shane Warne. All three sides exuded a verve and aura in the field which, according to the team-sheet, simply should not have existed.

Mostly, though, Waugh leans on McGrath and Warne when the going gets tough, just as Taylor did, and in the same way that Benaud relied on Alan Davidson and Chappell overbowled Lillee into a premature date with the surgeon's bench. Indeed Australia's most recent defeat, when West Indies reeled in 418 at Antigua, was notable for two curiosities: Waugh largely ignored his part-timers and did not employ McGrath on the final morning until the horse had bolted. At critical times the cameras even spied Waugh yawning. Yawning. Has he lost his magic touch?

The question was overshadowed that day by McGrath's graceless finger-wagging tantrum with Ramnaresh Sarwan. Waugh was crucified for not intervening, for lowering cricket's moral tone, as if all previous Australian captains were angels.

Woodfull is commonly rated the most gracious and gentlemanly of them all. Yet it is often overlooked that this same gent, when Bert Oldfield was sconed by Harold Larwood at Adelaide in 1932-33, strode out to the middle in suit and tie to check on his batsman's welfare. If that wasn't a provocative act, what was it? No wonder the crowd nearly jumped the fence. Nonetheless Waugh must rank behind Taylor and Benaud, and perhaps Chappell too, for boorishness, his men behaving more badly as time goes on.

Timing, indeed, is everything when it comes to assessing Waugh's place in history. Our final images of the best captains are triumphant ones. Armstrong retired undefeated as leader. Bradman ducked out - so to speak - with that anticlimactic nought at The Oval but the lustre of invincibility. Benaud, Chappell and Taylor were all youngish men when they relinquished the job, signing off before wear-and-tear set in. What will be Waugh's parting shot?

For now he stands ahead of Armstrong, whose reign was sweet but short, and Woodfull, a safety-first commander. Waugh is probably a better captain than Bradman, whose biggest asset was his own blade, and Taylor too. Taylor, like Waugh, inherited a powerful nucleus from Border but did less with it. Waugh has eliminated draws, eradicated nightwatchmen, excited spectators. Taylor manufactured a very good side; Waugh changed cricket forever.

Only Benaud and Chappell, beloved skippers who turned scruffy teams into spellbinding ones, come close. Which means that, until he finally hangs up that stinking, sweat-soaked baggy green, we must do something thoroughly unWaughlike and sit on the fence. Safe to say, though, that he has been a great captain. Truly great.

And not a bit ordinary.