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One hundred per cent Australian

The martial air of his name extended to the field, where he was as ruthless and relentless as he was self-effacing off of it

Gideon Haigh

November 15, 2010

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Steve Waugh was the top all-rounder of the tournament averaging 55 with the bat and picking up 11 wickets.
When he first arrived, Steve Waugh was compared to the stylish and attacking Stan McCabe © Getty Images
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Steve Waugh is an Australian Living Treasure. That is not the airing of an opinion but a statement of a fact: he is one in a list of about a hundred nominated and elected by this country's National Trust. It's an eccentric and obviously subjective list. Hazel Hawke, an erstwhile prime minister's wife, is there; the erstwhile husband who left her for a younger woman, Bob Hawke, is not. Hugely popular, widely admired and softly spoken indigenous athlete Cathy Freeman is there; hugely popular, widely admired and extremely noisy indigenous athlete Anthony Mundine is not. In other words, this is no place for controversialists. It is a pantheon in which Steve Waugh fits snugly.

No Australian has played more Tests or one-day internationals than Steve Waugh. It's a record as uncompromising as the man himself, and the team he led to success upon success. It was built, moreover, in a relentless forward march. "What about the next game, Steve?" asked a journalist after one night game in January 2000. "Who are we playing?" Waugh responded, adding amid chuckles: "We just get on a plane and go somewhere and find out who we're playing."

Yet for a figure whose cricket was so embedded in the now, the terms in which Waugh is usually understood are deeply traditional. No sooner had he appeared on the scene than Bill O'Reilly was describing him as Stan McCabe reincarnate; he became known for his friendships with past masters Hunter Hendry and Bill Brown. 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. When he came to the Test captaincy a decade ago, he was lauded for his regular appeals to the past, and an almost demagogic espousal of the cult of the baggy green. Even in articulating the doctrine of "mental disintegration", Waugh was seen as following time-honoured Australian mores: he was the old-fashioned indefatigable Aussie who did not give up a chip of a bail, while expecting what happened on the field to stay there.

His career knew torrid times. There was the claimed catch of Brian Lara in April 1995, for which, as he put it, he was "carved up" by the likes of Michael Holding and Viv Richards. There was the manipulation of the points system in the World Cup a decade ago, in an attempt to progress the West Indies at New Zealand's expense, after which Waugh famously explained: "We're not here to win friends, mate." Nor did he shore up relations with the media when he muttered, less famously but more pithily, that his press conference inquisitors were a "bunch of cockheads".

Yet this was a rare dropping of the guard: for a cricketer who played so ruthlessly, and whose team was wont to push the line of acceptable aggression, his career had few personal black marks. He never transgressed the ICC Code of Conduct himself, and was once even its beneficiary. Ian Healy's suspension in South Africa in March 1997 smoothed his path to the vice-captaincy. A stroll through the index of his magnum opus, Out of My Comfort Zone (2005), underlines how seldom he became part of public disputes. One lights hopefully on "moped incident, Bermuda", only to find it refers to minor hijinks at the end of the 1991 Caribbean tour rather than being Australian cricket's secret Pedalogate.

Off the field, in fact, Waugh maintained an almost sunken profile. In person quite a shy and self-effacing man, he was instrumental in welcoming wives into the Australian team's fold as a kind of civilising influence, receiving the phone call that offered him the Australian captaincy while watching Sesame Street with his daughter. When Shane Warne publicly dissed Adam Gilchrist's leadership aspirations by philosophising that a captain should be more like the Fonz than Richie Cunningham, it was possible to fit Steve Waugh into the scenario as a kind of Howard Cunningham, all rumpled integrity, paternal wisdom and comfortable domesticity.

In person quite a shy and self-effacing man, he was instrumental in welcoming wives into the Australian team's fold as a kind of civilising influence, receiving the phone call that offered him the Australian captaincy while watching Sesame Street with his daughter

Speaking of Howards, the period of Waugh's ascendancy in Australia was encompassed by the prime ministership of John of that ilk, self-styled "cricket tragic" who cheerfully acknowledged himself the most conservative leader his conservative party had ever had. Waugh was not an exact fit with this period. He welcomed the compulsive innovator John Buchanan into his team's inner circle; he sought, with a touch of the New Age guru, to "get to know the guys as human beings and not just cricketers". As his fame grew, and he was compelled to become a public figure, he became as famous for exchanging words with Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela as he did with Curtly Ambrose, putting his reputation to use in a variety of philanthropic works on the subcontinent.

Yet in an age of compulsive extraversion, Waugh cut a taciturn, even an inhibited figure on the field, lean, dour and unsmiling, to complaints about which he retorted: "If you're in your office trying to work, do you smile all the time?" Instead of flamboyance, the keynote of Waugh's captaincy was continuity. He existed, even in an age of abundance, as a reminder of harder, leaner days in Australian cricket, the last of his generation to have an Ashes defeat on his conscience. He pressed also to create "new" traditions, having a special cap minted for the first Test of the 2000s modelled on the cap worn in the first Test of the 1900s, involving himself in the manufactured memorabilia industry as a shareholder in the firm Blazed in Glory.

Nor was it just the surname that lent his leadership a martial air. His Tests were frontal assaults, carefully plotted, relentlessly executed. No captain to lead their country in more than ten Tests has a higher proportion of wins or a lower proportion of draws. He believed in rank, in esprit de corps, even in the power of a uniform, embodied in his storied cap, so distinctive in an era of helmets and sunhats. His nationalism was of the same unselfconscious, celebratory if sometimes defensive character that flourished during the 11 years of John Howard's premiership. "I'd like to see Australian people own more of Australia and not sell it all off to overseas companies and corporations," he told an interviewer 15 years ago. "It seems to me that the Japanese own half of Queensland - that's one thing I'd like to see changed." But if all the John Williamson songs and odes to the Southern Cross sometimes seemed contrived, nor were they easily imitable. Waugh initiated the numbering of players' headgear and attire, inviting eminent past players to hand new caps over to Test debutants, beginning with Bill Brown's welcome to Adam Gilchrist 10 years ago. England have tried something similar, but watching Nasser Hussain hand Jonathan Trott his new lid at The Oval was, quite clearly, qualitatively different. Taking his team-mates to Gallipolli sat more naturally with Waugh than with any other leader; when England dropped in on Flanders last year, it looked phoney even before Andrew Flintoff elected to drink for his country.

That old cap means the world to Steve Waugh, Australia v India, 3rd Test, Melbourne, 5th day, December 30, 2003
Waugh's baggy green: also an Australian symbol William West / © AFP

Quite why Waugh reinforced his captaincy with so many props and symbols is an intriguing psychological question. Some saw it as self-promotion; even now, Waugh has a quiet caucus of detractors in Australian cricket, who see him as out primarily for number one. Waugh himself has answered to the charge: "Life as a full-time professional teaches you to be selfish in many ways." Yet a personal suspicion is that Waugh coveted the captaincy before quite grasping what it entailed, and as a self-contained man found it at first an uneasy fit. The activities and artefacts with which he surrounded his leadership were a means of distributing the burden; he could thereby make himself less an individual, more the representative of a lineage.

Waugh was famous for his diaries and his photographs. Both can act as means of ordering and controlling experiences, putting a comforting distance between the act and the observer. Sport, of course, is replete with ego, and Waugh could not have competed without a sizeable one. But his wife Lynette, who writes as perceptively of her husband as anyone, has noted: "Stephen has never - even as a baby, I'm told - liked a lot of attention." And it's telling, I think, how swiftly and completely Waugh has receded in public consciousness since that final, rather fevered farewell season six years ago; not for him the love of and comfort in the limelight of his most eminent contemporary, Shane Warne. "Treasure", of course, is something proverbial tucked away, not necessarily recognised as such, even when in plain sight. In this sense, the National Trust truly knew its man.

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer

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Posted by   on (November 18, 2010, 12:03 GMT)

@ Alfredmynn :totally agree with you...just needed to add one thing...TheOnlyEmperor is not here to annoy only the aussies but to annoy the whole fraternity of Cricinfo viewers irrespective of their nationality...its like making a 5 year old understand the importance of understanding

Posted by Truemans_Ghost on (November 18, 2010, 11:51 GMT)

My memory of Waugh is a purely subjective one that whenever England looked like they were getting somewhere against Australia, he (or his brother) would get a score and take it away from them. I suspect if I researched the specifics, the scorecards would bear this out, but arguably that is not the point. Interesting that Biggus puts quite so much of the blame for the "moral decline" of cricket at his door - it certainly contrasts with the excellent Colin MacDonald. Is he a Legend? Depends how broad the category is going to be. He might be a bit of a borderline one,but ESPN is going to be more inclined to have legends with lots of footage than the like of Spofforth.

Posted by UNIVERSAL_CRICKETER on (November 18, 2010, 11:13 GMT)


Posted by gandabhai on (November 17, 2010, 21:33 GMT)

,You just dropped the world cup ' !!

Posted by Lekson on (November 17, 2010, 12:14 GMT)

A tough cricketer who never gave up his wicket easily.Not impressed with the mental disinteragation rubbish though.His batting style wasn't pretty watch and Mark Waugh was certainly a more exciting and entertaining cricketer.Australia in their terrible state could do him now though.

Posted by alfredmynn on (November 17, 2010, 1:37 GMT)

@TheOnlyEmperor, nobody is "attacking" or "aiming comments at" you; it's not even possible, for you are anonymous. It's a fact that many posters find your posts content-free and arrogant; you interpret that as an attack. Take your prescription of 10 for the length of a Legends list. Why shouldn't someone else admit a larger number, like 20 or 100? You like to sound logical but make either trivial or arbitrary statements. If you're saying that Steve is not a legend in your book, that's trivial. If you are saying that Steve shouldn't be a legend in anyone's book, that's arbitrary & arrogant, for others need not agree with your 'legends rules' (feel free to disagree, but you seem to have one rule for sure: no Aussies. Given that you like stats so much, surely you must know that Aus have the best w/l ratio, and so are statistically the strongest test side over the game's history?) So what was your point, other than trying to annoy Aussie posters?

Posted by   on (November 17, 2010, 0:45 GMT)

A great cricketer, good human being and a fighter. People say that in 80`s and 90`s there were 4 allrounders (Imran, Hadlee, Kapil & Botham) but they forget that Steve was also their, although had to leave bowling because of his back injury. But the thing that stands out for Steve Waugh is the same with Imran, is the ability to not only perform themselves but make their team worldbeaters and teach them that game is not lost till the last ball. Both did not liked giving their opponents things in a plate.

Posted by BillyCC on (November 16, 2010, 21:12 GMT)

KBowser, that's an excellent point which seems to have been missed. Biggus, I agree with you, during that time, Steve Waugh's team lost a lot of Aussie and global fans.

Posted by pom_basher on (November 16, 2010, 15:38 GMT)

Well, after registering a strong objection to previous cricket legend (?) Barry Richards and also to quite a few articles from Mr Haigh, If feel it my duty to say that I agree with most of this article and must say that Steve was a true legend. He may not have been the most talented, most successful or the most beutiful batsmen around, and I must say that there have been quite a few better than him, but the package called Steve Waugh was more than the sum of the spare parts. A truely great cricketer!

Posted by riteshjsr on (November 16, 2010, 13:01 GMT)

One of my all time favorite cricketers. Personification of the phrases 'grit', ' mental toughness', 'crisis man', and 'never say die'. I remember a commentator once said on air, "If I had to pick somepne to bat for my life, it would be Steve Waugh". That century against SA in the 1999 World Cup is one of the best innings I have ever watched in my entire life. With Steve Waugh at the crease, you could never say that the match is over; no matter many runs were required to win. He was an expert at shepherding the tail, a skill not many cricketers are good at. The only other cricketer that comes to mind is probably VVS Laxman. Hats off to Steve Waugh! Truly a Legend of the game.

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Gideon Haigh Born in London of a Yorkshire father, raised in Australia by a Tasmanian mother, Gideon Haigh lives in Melbourne with a cat, Trumper. He has written 19 books and edited a further seven. He is also a life member and perennial vice-president of the South Yarra CC.

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