The responsible Mr Wog
On the afternoon of October 15, 1991, I fell in love for the first time.
I was six years old and sitting cross-legged on the coarse, carpeted floor of my aunt's living room in suburban Melbourne, watching - live and free to air - a 50-over FAI Cup match between New South Wales and Victoria at North Sydney Oval.
Two brothers, twins alike in ball-striking ability, were laying waste to a Victorian attack featuring five former, current or future international bowlers and, erm, Paul Jackson, a left-arm orthodox spinner who was keeping a young fella named Shane Warne out of the Victorian side.
One brother wielded his bat like a paintbrush. The other wielded his bat like a butcher's cleaver. Yet, for reasons that remain a mystery (even to me), it was the latter I fell for. Perhaps it was because, even through the minuscule convex TV screen, I could see the steely glint in his eye, for which he would later become famous. Or maybe I just liked the fact that he appeared to be as fond of playing the cut as I went on to be.
His name was Stephen Rodger Waugh.
He bludgeoned 126 runs off 133 balls that day. (Twin brother Mark made 112 off 123.) From that day forth, "Steve" Waugh, as everyone seemed to call him, became my favourite cricketer.
In October 1991, he wasn't yet one of Australia's National Living Treasures. He wasn't even in the Australian Test XI. He had been dropped the previous summer after a five-year, 42-Test match run in the team as an allrounder batting mainly at six yielded just three hundreds and a batting average of 38.24.
He was widely seen, to paraphrase Fitzgerald, as a cricketer who had had advantages at the selection table that others hadn't, and failed to make the most of them.
When, through sheer weight of first-class run-scoring, he won a recall to the Australian Test XI the following summer, it was as a No. 3 and the opponents were the cricketing demi-gods of the Calypso Empire that was still in its pomp.
His scores in the first two Tests read: 10, 20, 38 and 1.
His Test career hung by a thread. Then, over the course of four and a half painstaking hours at the SCG, he ground out an even hundred against a West Indian attack featuring Curtly Ambrose, Courtney Walsh and Ian Bishop. As a Test batsman, he never looked back, averaging 56.60 in his next 121 Tests, after just 37.14 in his first 47.
Earlier that summer another great Australian cricketer had emerged onto the world stage, and it was to him - Melbourne-born and bred - that so many of my fellow Melbournians gravitated. The cherubic legspinner seamlessly assumed the mantle of Great Victorian Hero relinquished by Dean Jones to the era-defining chants of "Waarr-nee, Waaaaaar-nee" that rang around the 'G. I respected and admired Shane Warne the bowler, but he wasn't the cricketing hero for me.
Warne loved being the centre of attention. He was comfortable there in the spotlight, courting public affection as naturally as a bee gathers pollen; a born showman with a million-dollar smile. He looked as open and at ease with a person he'd just met, as he did with his best mate - a trait to admire, but one I knew I could never share.
Waugh, on the other hand, seemed quiet, private, studious, thoughtful and impeccably rational. Soon I would receive detailed, written confirmation of my youthful impressions gleaned from afar in a form that is, sadly, now almost alien in this Twitter age: a book, by which I mean a real, self-written work, not the ghost-written copy hurriedly dashed off to the publishers just in time for the holiday season that nowadays passes for a cricketer's work. In 1993, Waugh wrote his first book, Steve Waugh's Ashes Diary. It sold so well that he authored another ten tour diaries, one book of photographs, and a 720-page, 1.9 kilogram autobiography.
The early tour diaries were the best. With no formal leadership responsibilities, Waugh was free to observe, think, wander, explore, photograph and write. As a writer, he was no Ray Robinson, but he wrote lucidly, perceptively, and honestly about the big issues both on and off the field, his approach to the game, tactics, his relationships with team-mates and administrators, and his philosophy towards life in general. Perhaps most importantly of all, unlike so many of the anodyne offerings churned out by professional sportsmen nowadays, he never hesitated to offer an opinion about an important issue, no matter how controversial.
It was often the little things that stood out, like his reflection on his first encounter with a local - who said, "Hello, Mr Wog. Very well played in 1987, all the best for '96" - upon arriving in India for the 1996 World Cup:
"It's amazing how one comment can put everything into perspective, and this one did just that for me. Sometimes you forget how much this game can affect people. You take things for granted. But when you realise a guy like this remembers how you performed nine years ago and wants you to do well, even though you're part of a visiting team - that's a very effective reminder that you have an obligation to always give it your best shot. You're not only playing for yourself and your team, but also for the numerous people out there who care whether you succeed or fail."
Passages like that quickly won him an 11-year-old's trust, revealing a person who never forgot, and always fulfilled, his responsibilities, but never allowed himself to be crushed by them. The kind of man any earnest, bookish young boy aspires to be.
He never strayed into pretension either, keeping his underrated sense of humour - which ranged from toilet to slapstick to mildly absurdist - firmly intact. The same 1996 World Cup diary containing the passage on responsibility quoted above features: Waugh accidentally crapping his own pants trying to open a jammed bus window; Australian players attacking one another with salt, pepper and weaponised dairy products in the business-class section of a plane; and an Indian newspaper article about a man who lovingly kept a pet cow ("She is really good looking and has an exceptional figure") in his eighth floor Calcutta apartment, which Waugh chose to reproduce "without comment".
Waugh's writing, especially in his pre-captaincy days, was so extensive that avid readers like myself felt as if we knew him, even though we'd never met him.
He was a self-described "nerd". He was not gregarious or charismatic like Warne, or a naturally great group communicator like Mark Taylor, although he was good friends with both. He placed great value in friendship, which, much like Test runs and wickets, was something he thought had to be earned, but once earned, brought with it attendant obligations of loyalty, trust and confidence, which must never be betrayed.
He was more comfortable in the company of a few close friends than in large groups. Unlike more than a few Australian cricketers at the time, he was curious about the cultures of the foreign lands that the Australian team visited, and instead of bunkering down in his hotel room with a tin of baked beans and a stack of videos, he spent most of his free time on tours exploring the local surrounds in the company of one or two team-mates or journalists who shared his curiosity.
He was an excellent, empathetic one-on-one communicator and an astute observer of not just society but individuals too, always being the first to support a team-mate or friend who was down. He practised the precept that Josh Lyman set out - he comforted his friends in times of difficulty and he celebrated with them in times of triumph. When, in the midst of a form slump, Warne announced his premature retirement to his team-mates during the 1999 World Cup, Waugh went on a long, heartfelt walk with him.
Waugh had a clear idea of how to prepare himself in order to extract the maximum number of runs from himself for the benefit of his team. He knew how to get the best out of his team-mates too. His unconventional policy of trusting tailenders and not shepherding the strike produced a fount of lower-order partnership runs for Australia, and he had a knack of compiling of series-turning partnerships with greenhorns, such as the 385 runs with Greg Blewett at the Wanderers in 1997.
He had an instinctive feel for the ebb and flow of a game of cricket and the mental acuity to know how and when to intervene tactically in order to maximise Australia's chances of winning. The unexpected and successful deployment of Warne as a pinch-hitter early in Australia's chase of an imposing 287 for victory in their 1996 World Cup quarter-final was Waugh's idea - Warne slogged 24 off 14 balls and Australia won with 13 balls to spare. Waugh was always trying to think of ways to improve Australia's chances of winning a game, even where that meant increasing the risk of losing.
He was a good judge of character - both on and off the cricket field - which, combined with his cricketing knowledge and experience, gave him a close to flawless ability to judge whether a cricketer could succeed at Test level.
All these things we knew from reading his early tour diaries.
Thus, when his critics - who remained present, if not plentiful, throughout the second half of the '90s, even as he established himself as one of the world's pre-eminent batsmen and captains - unfairly criticised him, I bristled and not only wanted to defend him, but felt as if I knew what to say.
Initially, though, it was his weaknesses, not his strengths, that manifested themselves in his captaincy tenure. No longer one of the boys, Waugh found that the lines of communication to his troops were now garbled and, lacking Taylor's gifts of group speak, he was unable to repair them on his own. Australia nearly lost the Frank Worrell Trophy and successive group-stage defeats to New Zealand and Pakistan at the 1999 World Cup left them on the brink of early elimination and Waugh on the verge of being sacked as one-day captain.
Then, at that turning point in modern Australian cricket history, his strengths, which I had read about for so many years in his books, started coming to the fore - the veteran allrounder Tom Moody, who Waugh had personally asked the selectors to include in Australia's World Cup squad, re-established good lines of communication with the rank and file and contributed valuable quick runs and wickets; Warne, who Waugh had backed throughout a tournament-long form slump, came good at the business end; and Waugh himself took personal responsibility for his team's fate, scoring a team-best 398 runs at 79.60 for the tournament as Australia went unbeaten for seven consecutive matches to win their first World Cup since 1987.
That victory proved to be the watershed moment in Waugh's captaincy. Soon, all the virtues that we'd seen in his diaries manifested themselves in his captaincy and, by the time he retired in January 2004, Steve Waugh was, and forever will be, one of Australia's favourite cricketers. But, he was mine first.
SB Tang is an Australian writer. He blogs about cricket at A Straight Bat