Despite the Sydney Cricket Ground being in danger of an emotion overdose after the last act had been played out in an unforgettable series, Steve Waugh was still lucid enough to point the applause India's way after a contest that they had shaded over five days. Having often been characterised as a sore, grumpy loser, it was a gesture that won't slip from the memory in a hurry, not for Indians anyway.
Urban legend has it that Sir Donald Bradman's last Test innings was curtailed by a certain moistness in the eye. There was never any danger of that happening with Waugh, who strode briskly out with his customary gait, rolling his shoulders and twirling the bat. The only jarring note was the fact that there was no last airing for the baggy green cap - not in battle anyway - with caution dictating use of a helmet.

When he took guard at 2.55pm, defeat was still a possibility. Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer had both gone out swinging, as is their wont, and Damien Martyn had done his future prospects no good at all by top-edging a sweep right into the hands of the fielder at short fine leg after plodding to 40. By then, victory was a chimera, and despite protestations to the contrary from Waugh later, the chase was never on, not with Anil Kumble untiringly firing the ball into the rough at one end.

The partnership between Martyn and Ricky Ponting - uncharacteristically subdued during his 47 - had seen most of the early momentum lost, and Waugh walked in to the sort of situation that he has often thrived on. For someone frequently touted as cricket's premier man for a crisis, his fourth-innings record was none too impressive, especially when compared to someone like Allan Border, who always saved his best for when his team needed it the most.

Today though, Waugh was never put under any sort of concerted pressure, with India merely going through the motions after tea. By then, Anil Kumble had bowled himself into the ground, single-handedly trying to wrest victory from a game drifting to a stalemate. The back-up was nothing special. Ajit Agarkar troubled Justin Langer - who owes Steve Bucknor a Christmas card or two - and nobody else, while Irfan Pathan showed that he is still a blank canvas that needs several layers of paint before it becomes anything substantial.

The biggest letdown though was Murali Kartik, who had been many people's tip to be India's frontline spinner in Australia. Too often, he merely speared the ball in, showing neither the variety nor the beguiling loop that had tantalised the Australian batsmen during the one-day series in India. As Waugh was inordinately fond of saying, that's why they call it Test cricket. Kartik, in this match at any rate, flunked miserably.

Sports pages, wherever cricket is played, will be plastered with details of the Waugh farewell in the days to come, but it would be an act of almost criminal neglect to forget the strides that India have made in this series. After the stalemate at home against New Zealand, and some disastrous showings in the TVS Cup, the team arrived here almost a music-hall joke.

But for the first time since they started playing together, the best middle order in the world - on paper anyway - coalesced to devastating effect, aided in no small measure by the absences of Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne, the most devastating double act in modern cricket.

With the exception of Akash Chopra, who batted with composure and fielded bravely in the line of considerable fire close to the bat, every top-order batsman scored a hundred, with Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman handing out a double-dose. And though the bowling was hamstrung by the injuries to Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh, Kumble led the line with Horatio-like courage. He got plenty of stick at times, especially at Adelaide, but never once lost the spring in his stride, bounding in over after over with his mixture of legbreaks, googlies and speared-in quick ones.

As for Stephen Rodger Waugh, he ended his career as he began it, with an inconclusive game against India. The last hurrah stuck somewhere in the throat as Australia fell 86 runs short, and he himself finished 20 adrift of a 33rd century. The ending though had a touch of romance to it - one of the modern-day titans dismissed by two others - caught Tendulkar, bowled Kumble.

Not for him the lingering trudge back for the last time. No, this truly special cricketer departed the stage as he had graced it, shorn of frills and gimmicks, walking swiftly back with a few waves of the bat in honour of those who made it such a memorable occasion. We certainly won't see his like again, and the game will be poorer for it.

Dileep Premachandran is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo.