The last of cricket's cavaliers
Mark Waugh - forever to be assessed in terms of his brother
Mark Waugh was a cricket cavalier in the age of the roundhead. At his effortless best, the purity of his strokeplay and the nonchalance of his slip-catching could take the breath away. But at his lackadaisical worst, which only ever seemed half a bat's width from perfection, he could drive his legions of admirers insane with the apparent doziness of his dismissals. It was ever thus.
Mark was Ying to his obsessively competitive brother's Yang, and between them, the Waugh twins demonstrated that genius is a broad church that welcomes all manner of conflicting characters. But this morning's announcement completes a double whammy for Australian sport, one that began at the end of the fourth Test at Sydney last month. The Waughs are all but over, and cricket is poorer for their absence.
For Mark Waugh, the last few years have been a mirror image of his earliest days as a professional cricketer. He may have been a prodigiously talented 20-year-old when he made his first-class debut for New South Wales in 1985-86, but it was Steve - "the iceman" - who was being sized up as the international cricketer. Mark had instead to settle for one of the more inspired nicknames that cricket has hit upon: "Afghan" - the forgotten Waugh.
That nickname was itself forgotten until October 2002. While Steve was reasserting his authority with a century in the Sharjah desert, Mark bowed unassumingly out of international cricket and back into obscurity, axed from the Test side in the manner so typical of Australian greats, from Bill Lawry to Allan Border to Ian Healy. He retreated back into his brother's shadow, not without a hint of regret, but more with a shrug of the shoulders. Around that time he admitted to a newspaper that he was "semi-bored" with cricket - a typical Mark Waugh comment. As had been the case with his partner-in-charm David Gower in 1993, the stick of domestic matches meant nothing without the carrot of internationals.
A century on debut ... naturally
History can be cruel at times. Although Steve is guaranteed his personal plinth in cricket's pantheon, Mark will never be allowed the luxury of individual analysis. He is forever destined to be scrutinised in terms of his brother's achievements, precisely because he oozed a natural talent that his twin was never granted. Steve sweated blood and guts to make the grade as a Test cricketer, and famously took 42 innings to record his first century. Mark, on the other hand, sashayed onto centre stage at Adelaide in 1991, and charmed a life-affirming hundred at the very first attempt.
That first innings, of course, came at Steve's expense, and it would be a couple of years before the Waugh twins were firmly established as Australia's premier middle-order pairing. But upon the retirement of Border, it was Steve who stepped up a level to become the new Aussie battler, leaving Mark to play the role of the counterattacking charmer. The difference in their game was never better displayed than in one-day cricket, where Mark scored 18 centuries to Steve's three, and was for a time the best one-day opener in the world. Even so, the most famous one-day Waugh innings of the lot belonged to Steve, the "You've-dropped-the-World-Cup and all that" 120 not out against South Africa at Headingley in 1999.
However, it would be unfair to pigeonhole Mark Waugh as a luxury product. Luxury products do not miss two Tests in a 12-year career, and none in their last 117 appearances. Waugh had a steely streak running straight through his bones. His 126 at Sabina Park in 1994-95, to wrest the Frank Worrell trophy from West Indies' grasp and signal the start of a new era of Australian dominance, was every bit as important as Steve's more lauded double-century. And at Port Elizabeth in 1996-97, he produced one of the finest 116s of all time, on a spiteful track in a match where only one other batsman passed 50.
But those two innings, plus his 138 on debut, are destined to become footnotes in cricket's burgeoning statistical history, even though they were sublime performances that will live on forever in the eye of the beholder. If Waugh should one day stand accused of placing style over substance, then a hung jury is inevitable. On the one hand, the defence can point to a magnificent tally of 20 Test hundreds - more than Len Hutton, the same as Graham Gooch. On the other, there is the damning evidence that he only once passed 150 ... unlike his teacher's pet of a brother, of course, who famously did so against all nine Test opponents.
But then again, Waugh always loved a flutter. Why play the straight bat when you can gamble with something more expansive? Of course, his dalliances with the bookmakers did not always relate to his beloved horses, and his acceptance of US$4000 in exchange for weather forecasts was careless. But anyone who has witnessed that effortless clip off the toes, or gawped at the hand-eye co-ordination that went into to his world-record 181 catches, will realise that he was a special talent, who deserves to be assessed in terms of what he gave to the game, and not what he omitted to mention.
Andrew Miller is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo in London.