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.
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