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At the beginning of this year, the cricketing world witnessed a remarkable week in which the people of Sydney poured out their affection towards their beloved son Stephen Waugh.
The members were reportedly queuing as early as four in the morning to get their favourite seats, and the streets outside the ground were gridlocked by eight, not because the enthralling series between India and Australia was coming to its conclusion, but because one man who had meant so much to Australian cricket and Australians in general was donning his dishevelled baggy green cap for the last time.
Steve Waugh was not a cricketing god or a genius, like Tendulkar or Lara, nor even technically brilliant like Rahul Dravid. Like the rest of us, he was human. But a previously unremarkable household in suburban Sydney was definitely given more than its fair share of talent when the Waugh twins, Stephen and Mark, arrived on the scene nearly 39 years ago. Their little games of backyard cricket eventually led to the pair of them playing nearly 300 Tests and scoring nearly 20,000 runs between them. Some would argue that one was given a little bit more talent than the other. As one member of the Barmy Army once said, as he dared to sledge the greatest sledger of them all, "Oy, Stephen, best batsman in the world? You ain't even the best batsman in your family!"
Well, for over a decade Stephen Waugh made himself into the best batsman in the world. He was given two useful cricketing skills at birth: incredible hand-eye co-ordination and the fastest pair of hands of any cricketer I have played against. The rest he has had to work for. He has proved one cricketing cliché during his career: that the higher the level you play, the more it is played in your head. And he was, mentally, the strongest player of his era.
He didn't deal with the short ball particularly well and he moved around the crease a lot as the bowler delivered, staying back and not really transferring all his weight on to the front foot when the ball was pitched up. But, hey, that is the game. Every batsman has weaknesses, and it is up to the player to overcome them and the opposition to exploit them. Waugh overcame his deficiencies because his hand-eye co-ordination meant he could keep the good ones out and put the bad ones away - and because his mental toughness helped him through every situation batting can throw up.
Many a pre-Ashes Test meeting stopped when S. Waugh's name hit the projector screen. Half the team got animated and said "Look, skip, just put in a leg gully and a short leg and we'll pepper him with the short stuff. It's only a matter of time." The other less emotional half, usually the batters and the coach, said "No, pitch it up and try to hit off stump early, because he has a tendency to get his head off-side of the ball a bit, and then there's a chance of him being bowled or lbw." The final thing always said was that, when he first came in, everyone must be on their toes as he loved to push a single and get off strike. Meeting finished. Everyone happy.
Next day, if we were doing really well and had reduced Australia to 300 for three, we would be pleased with ourselves. In comes Waugh, red handkerchief hanging out of pocket, pushes the ball (usually to someone like dopey Gough standing at mid-on) and scampers a single, smiles and stays off strike for a while. This would be followed by a few short balls (which Waugh finds uncomfortable, but never gets out to), and the bowlers begin thinking that they had better start pitching it up. They over-correct and these incredible hands start to caress the ball through the covers. Before you know it, you look up at the scoreboard and he's 30 not out, off and running. Groundhog Day! You've seen it all before, but there seems nothing you can do to stop it happening all over again.
As a player, Waugh was always at his most dangerous when confronted by a real challenge. All his great innings came in the face of adversity. Whether it was a poor wicket, or a poor calf, or a poor press hinting at the waning of his power, he felt most at home in difficult situations. It was as if he believed in his own reputation as the "iceman" and was keen to enhance it. Nothing would give him more pleasure than reading the next day about another gutsy Steve Waugh innings.
There could not have been any more pressure on a cricketer than in January 2003 against England at the SCG. Waugh has since admitted that if he hadn't got runs in that Test it would have been his last. He was not particularly playing well in the series, and looked surprisingly nervous. He came in when Australia were 56 for three and I immediately thought: "Dangerous." Everything I tried to do that day seemed almost pointless. It was as if the script had already been written.
That evening, with Waugh on 98 and the last ball of the day coming up, I ran up to Dawson, told him I had no real cunning plan but to stall things, get Waugh nervous and hope he would make a mistake. Dawson bowled a perfectly good ball and those Waugh hands just flicked it away through the covers with complete disdain.
As a captain, Waugh used the same principles that he did as a player: he made the most of what he was given. Luckily for him, he was given a remarkable collection of batsmen plus three all-time great bowlers in McGrath, Warne and Gillespie. His side played in such a way that they basically took the draw out of the equation. They would score their runs at over four an over, declare early and leave as much time as possible to bowl the opposition out twice. The days of someone like Boycott batting a day for a hundred were gone. The likes of Hayden, Ponting and Gilchrist were scoring centuries in a session, and this attitude was infectious, spreading throughout the team with more compact players, such as Langer, becoming more expansive.
Richie Benaud, a man who should know, believes Waugh's team has produced in the last four or five years the most exhilarating cricket in the history of the game. The three-Test series England played in Sri Lanka recently is how cricket used to be played, but it now seems ever so turgid by comparison. Whether the pace is sustainable, only time will tell. It will depend on the talent available.
Three great captains have taken Australia to where they are now. Allan Border changed the culture by altering Australia's attitude. No longer were they going to be the "let's have a beer after the game" sort of men, but a much more ruthless outfit. That was the most difficult part. He was followed by the more cerebral Mark Taylor, who would quietly stand at first slip influencing the game and, more importantly, influencing some of the gems that were starting to appear in the Australian team, thanks to Border's change in culture. Taylor made sure the Australians wouldn't have to survive just on bravado, but left them with four or five all-time greats who could singlehandedly turn a game of cricket. Steve Waugh combined all of this and gave them that final ingredient, belief.
Waugh's one big failure came in India, where they managed to lose a series they had for the taking. I believe that was the only time their attitude let them down. Sometimes in India you just have to sit in: slow the opposition run-rate down, keep the pressure on the likes of Tendulkar, Laxman and Dravid. Stopping them scoring gets the crowds on their backs and creates pressure. However, Australia - in search of their 17th consecutive victory - had an attitude that didn't allow for "sitting in". Waugh kept attacking; enforced the follow-on and before he knew it, found his team batting last, and under pressure themselves. They lost that Test, in Calcutta, and the series. It is a blemish on his record - but it was done for all the right reasons.
I can't say I have ever got to know Steve Waugh well. He never let his guard slip for fear of letting anything penetrate his veneer of inscrutability. The nearest I came to cracking it was in a bar in Adelaide after we had failed to regain the Ashes in 1998-99, when I picked Steve's brain over his attitude to batting. Now for me there is no point in trying to talk to Lara or Tendulkar about things like that; to them it is just natural.
But I have always found Waugh intriguing. How did he make himself so good? He told me that the most important aspect to him was body language. He liked to almost sprint to the crease to emphasise that he was relishing the battle ahead; he liked to give off an aura of aggression. Nothing emphasises this more than when, in Port-of-Spain nine years ago, Waugh stood face to face with one of the greatest fast bowlers of all time, Curtly Ambrose.
Now, here is a man who doesn't play the short ball particularly well, doesn't pull or hook, telling the man who has dismissed him the most in Test cricket to get back to his mark and bowl. Robert Craddock wrote in that year's Wisden: Waugh "stood his ground like John Wayne when Ambrose engaged him in a verbal exchange of fire from two metres; the bowler had to be tugged away by Richie Richardson. 'It's Test cricket,' the unrepentant Waugh said afterwards. 'If you want an easy game, go play netball.'" Waugh made 63 not out in that innings and went on to make 200 in the next game, when Australia won by an innings and regained the Worrell Trophy.
Throughout his career, Waugh, almost on purpose, maximised the challenge - whether it be a sore calf, a last-chance-saloon innings, or a firedup Ambrose - to bring the best out of himself. Basically, for over 20 years he has been playing mind games with himself and the opposition. The crowds did not turn up at Sydney to thank him for his statistics. They came to thank him for his character.
Nasser Hussain captained England 45 times, seven of them in Ashes Tests against Australia led by Waugh. England won one, Australia six.