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Last week I was chatting with a colleague at the office about the India-Australia series. While he was delighted with India's performance in the first two Tests, he was extremely disappointed with the way Australia had played so far. After ruminating over the feats of the great Australian teams of the past and the retirements of their legends, he delivered the knockout punch: "Losing is no crime, but to lose without a fight is a shame. They need gritty, resilient batsmen like Steve Waugh to withstand the crisis as if their lives depended on it." Not again. That was the cue for me to get back to my desk.
Steve Waugh's reputation as a crisis man is like the real estate market in Mumbai: everyone around me, except me, believes it's credible. It's the one awkward point of discussion in almost all my cricket conversations. How do you explain to the world that what they seem to take as an irrefutable fact, is an extremely dicey claim? Sometimes I wonder if some dream architect played an evil trick and planted such a thought in people's minds.
To begin with, it's such a counterintuitive claim to make without even getting into much detail. Waugh predominantly represented an Australian team which conquered nearly every peak in the cricket world. He had the luxury of fine opening batsmen in the early part of his career and a truly legendary one towards the latter stages of his career. With Ricky Ponting at No. 3 (or six), it's hard to ask for more. And if you add some fine bowling attacks over the years, including one of the best to have graced the game, and arguably the greatest No. 7 ever into the equation, there's not a particularly great scope for crisis.
In the foreword to Steve Waugh's autobiography, Rahul Dravid wrote this about him: "Steve's legacy is hard to define, but I will remember him because he gave grit a good name. He proved that it is not only the pretty player who can capture the imagination, but also the tough and determined. Suddenly these qualities became as vital, as spoken about, as silken grace and sublime timing."
While the word talent is often narrowly defined and talked about in cricket, with Steve Waugh, the equation reversed. It's the lack of talent which was narrowly defined as merely lacking in "silken grace and sublime timing"
While the word talent is often narrowly defined and talked about in cricket, with Steve Waugh, the equation reversed. It's the lack of talent which was narrowly defined as merely lacking in "silken grace and sublime timing". In order to glorify his grit and toughness, often his talent was underappreciated; sometimes it was assumed to be near-absent. It made for a great stereotype: Mark Waugh, the more naturally talented brother whose batting was envied by ballet dancers, was the underachiever, while the scratchy, ugly, tough-as-nails, taking-blows-on-the-body Steve Waugh made the most of his limited talent.
That Gideon Haigh wrote this about Steve Waugh can be conveniently skipped in the narrative for glorifying his grit: "When he made his first real impact as a Test batsman 20 years ago in England, the praise was for his model technique, of a purity no local batsman could emulate." That he perhaps possessed the finest square cut in the game in his time is an unwanted detail. That he could whack spinners out of the attack at will with his mighty slog sweeps can never be a case study for great hand-eye coordination.
Does he look graceful? No. Is he often spectacular? Not really. Does he score big runs? Yes. Put him in that gritty, resilient silo please. If only…
Now, let's come to the "crisis man" tag. He had a lesser scope for crisis as compared to batsmen from more impoverished teams. Brian Lara had the luxury of picking from many varieties of them; Sachin Tendulkar was blessed with it for a large part of his career; Andy Flower rarely found himself in any other situation with his batting pads on. Quite how an Australian who had his peak as a batsman in the post-Border era came to be known as the defining crisis man in cricket is a mystery in itself. In that, quite how Steve Waugh became the obvious choice is a bigger mystery.
He made two fifties in the fourth innings of a Test with an average of 25.54 over 31 innings. Thirty of his 32 hundreds came in the first innings. His first-innings average was 60.69 and second-innings average 32.45. Nineteen of his 32 hundreds were accompanied by another hundred by a team-mate in the same innings.
To make my job a little easier, I filtered all the matches in which he scored hundreds and scribbled some notes against each of them. Considering the situation he walked in at, the opposition, the venue etc, I counted about eight hundreds that can be categorised as resurrecting an innings in crisis. Even if I stretched the definition a bit and include a 96 for 3 against Sri Lanka with two frontline batsmen in the hut as a serious crisis, the list expands to about 10. Add a few non-hundred knocks too. For a veteran of 168 Tests, 260 innings, who predominantly batted Nos. 5 and 6, that is nothing standout spectacular.
There is little doubt that Waugh is one of the great modern batsmen and his double-hundred in the West Indies has a pride of place among cricket's finest innings of all time. He piled on the runs when given a solid platform, consolidated the innings in precarious situations, resurrected the innings around the odd collapse, came back from an extended period of thoroughly wretched form, scored big runs against all opponents in all conditions. If anything, he was one of the great frontrunners among modern batsmen.
He was no George Headley, not even a patch on Allan Border. Heck, he was pretty much undistinguishable from most other great batsmen of his era when it comes to performing in crisis situations. There, I said it.
PS - the scribbles:
177, Leeds: Aus scored 601. Taylor 136, Border 66, Jones 79. Walks in at 273 for 4.
152, Lords: Eng all out for 286. Walks in at 221 for 4. Couple of quick wickets later, rallies around with tail to post 528.
134, Hobart: Aus 224 in the first innings, SL responded with 216. Walks in 253 for 5 after a hundred from Taylor at the top of the order to join Jones. Both score hundreds.
100, SCG: Came in at 160 for 2. Aus scored 503 in the first innings and WI responded with 606 in the second. Match drawn.
157, Leeds: Innings win for Australia against England. Came in at 321 for 4 and scored 157. Border scored 200 and Boon 107.
147, Brisbane: Australia amassed 607 in the first innings after dismissing NZ for 233. Came in at 277 for 4 to join Border and both scored hundreds. Border - 105.
164, Adelaide: Came in at 183 for 4 and shared a 208-run partnership with Border to put up a first innings total of 469 which set up the win against SA.
200, Jamaica: Came in at 77 for 3 against Ambrose, Walsh and the Benjamins and tilted the balance of power in the sport with a double-hundred. Mark Waugh scored 126.
112, Brisbane: Walks in at 213 for 3 against Wasim, Waqar, Mohammad Akram and Saqlain and consolidates with a hundred to set up the victory.
131, Melbourne: 219 for 3. Boon scored 110. Australia piled on 500 in the first innings to set up the win against SL.
170, Adelaide: 96 for 3. Builds two sizeable partnerships with Mark Waugh and Ian Healy to put up a big total in the 1st innings and set up the win against SL.
160, Jo'burg: 169 for 3. 385-run partnership with Blewett, who scored 214, set up an innings victory against SA.
108 & 116: Old Trafford: Back-to-the-wall fighting hundreds in each innings under tough conditions against an efficient English attack to almost single-handedly steer the team to a win.
157, Rawalpindi: Walked in at 28 for 3 and put on a 198-run partnership with Slater (108) and two more big partnerships with Lehmann (98) and Healy (82) to set up the innings win against Pak.
112, Brisbane: 106 for 3. 187-run partnership with Kasprowicz (nightwatchman) was followed by a hundred from Healy. Draw against England.
122, Melbourne: 98 for 3. Only Australian batsman to cross 50 in the innings. Was left stranded in the second innings as the rest of the team collapsed around him to give England a victory.
100, Jamaica: Joined his brother at 46 for 3, resurrected the slide with a 112-run partnership only for Lara to play a masterclass in response and make it irrelevant.
199, Barbados: Joined Langer at 36 for 3 and later put on a 281-run partnership with Ponting to push the team to 490 in the first innings before Lara played arguably the greatest Test innings and snatch the match away from Australia.
151, Harare: The brothers got together to rescue the team from a precarious start to set up the win. Mark Waugh scored 90.
150, Adelaide: 52 for 4. 239-run partnership with Ponting (125) set the victory up against India.
151, Wellington: 51 for 4. 199-run partnership with Slater (143) and a 114-run partnership with Martyn (78) set up the win against NZ.
121, Melbourne: The only Australian batsman to build on the start. His hundred set up healthy first innings total and a twin collapse from WI resulted in an Australia win.
103, Sydney: 109 for 3. Slater, Ponting and Gilchrist scored fifties around him to help build a big first innings lead and set up the win against WI.
110, Kolkata: 214 for 3. Consolidated on the fine start given by Hayden/Slater/Langer, survived a middle order collapse and put on a 133-run partnership with Gillespie. Then Draxman happened.
105, Edgbaston: One of the 3 centurions (Martyn and Gilchrist) in the run fest in which Australia cruised to an innings win against England.
157, The Oval: Another runathon. Again, one of the 3 centurions (Langer and Mark Waugh). Another innings win against England.
103, Sharjah: Consolidated on the solid start from Hayden (89) and Ponting (150) to set up a huge first innings total. Innings win against Pakistan.
102, Sydney: 56 for 3. Resurrected the innings from a collapse with Gilchrist (133) only for Michael Vaughan to take the game away from Australia with a masterful 183.
115, Bridgetown: Part of the run-fest - 4 batsmen crossed fifties and two scored hundreds (Ponting - 113) to set up the win against West Indies.
100, Darwin: Came in at 184 for 3 and scored a hundred along with Lehmann after Bangladesh collapsed for 97 in the first innings. Innings win for Australia.
156, Cairns: Another runathon with 3 centurions (Lehmann and Martin Love being the other two). Another innings win against Bangladesh.
When he's not watching / talking / tweeting / reading cricket, Mahesh Sethuraman works in a bank in India to pay his bills. He tweets @cornerdFeeds: Mahesh Sethuraman
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Mahesh aspired to be India's answer to Michael Holding. That aspiration still lingers, 15 years hence. IPL franchises looking to make a millionaire out of an innocuous bowler as part of their corporate social responsibility may reach him @cornerd. When he's not watching / talking / tweeting / reading cricket, he works in a bank in India to pay his bills.