'It can't end this way'
This is where it all began for Steve Waugh
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On the train to the MCG - Richmond Station, to be precise - this morning, I sat opposite a little boy and his father, clothed in replica Australian one-day shirts, adorned with sunscreen and carrying pocket transistor radios. "We might be late," said Dad. "Mum could have dropped us. Now we might miss Waugh coming out."
On the walk to the stadium, the father kept telling his son to hurry up. "It'll take a while to get tickets. And we don't want to miss Waugh making a hundred, do we?" he said, indicating a complete lack of faith in the Ricky Ponting-Damien Martyn partnership that had taken Australia to stumps the previous evening.
"But will he make a hundred, Dad?" asked the kid matter-of-factly. "Oh, we don't know," said Dad, "but at least we'll be there if it happens."
Ninety minutes later, when Martyn nicked one through to Parthiv Patel behind the stumps, Waugh emerged from the shadows to an explosion of noise. Sydney may be his home ground, but this is where it all began more than 18 years ago. And many in the crowd hadn't forgotten.
The cheers had barely abated when Ajit Agarkar got one to lift awkwardly from short of a length. When the ball struck Waugh on the elbow, a collective groan went up, interrupted only by some ironic cheers from Indian fans. As the physio emerged, binoculars zoomed in on what was happening in the middle, and mild apprehension was replaced by genuine unease. Finally, as Waugh trudged off to yet another ovation, the whispers began. "It can't end this way," said one guy, shaking his head, and clutching his beer can so tight, the foamy head started bubbling over.
Throughout the lunch interval and beyond, rumours criss-crossed the stands. Some had been told by friends in front of TV sets at home, the elbow had swollen up like a golf ball. Would he bat again in the match? Was the Sydney farewell now a bridge too far? Sure, Sir Donald Bradman's farewell innings - bowled for 0 by Eric Hollies - had been dramatic, but this had the potential to be an even damper squib.
Certain fans felt the letdown more than others. One fan droned on about Ponting's batting feats - consecutive double-hundreds, runs in the calendar year, and so on - while his partner dedicated her complete and undivided attention...to filing her nails. Kids with faces painted green and gold wandered forlornly at the back of the stands, wondering what they could get excited about next.
When Simon Katich was out, after another cameo that hinted at his potential, few were prepared for what followed. The brisk walk out of the tunnel was the first giveaway, followed by the slight paunch. "Bloody hell, that's not [Brett] Lee, that's Tugga," said one bloke, getting to his feet to cheer. Then, like a gentle swell, most of those in the stadium got to their feet. No one knew whether it was unflinching courage or just foolhardiness at work, but Waugh's displays against pace down the years had often blurred the line anyway.
There was a huge sigh of relief when he survived a vociferous appeal from Anil Kumble first ball, and the applause that greeted the first run, a paddle down to fine-leg was more appropriate for a half century. Up on the highest tier of the Olympic Stand, section L, where I was sitting at the time, those who had curled up for an afternoon snooze were suddenly as wide-eyed as a teenager at a strip joint.
Even the staunchest Waugh admirer would have struggled to call the innings anything other than patchy, but when it ended after 69 balls of dogged struggle, the applause matched what Ponting received for a magnificent double-century.
Earlier, I had asked an elderly fan - the straggly beard suggested that he was either a founder-member of ZZ Top, or a close relative of Geo Cronje, the controversial Springbok rugby player - whether he was a Waugh fan. "I'm not," he said with a smile. "Selfish b******. Should have retired years ago."
Noticing my stare, he smiled again and said, "But what a great b******, huh?"