A legend in his own right


To a dispassionate cricket fan, perhaps living outside Australia, reading an agency report, or looking through the statistics on the net, the events of Friday evening January 3, on the second day of the fifth Ashes Test at Sydney Cricket Ground, may have seemed mundane, even dull.

After all, Steve Waugh's innings of 102, needed nearly three hours to complete and he had made 28 in Tests before. He did not beat the figure of 29 set by Don Bradman more than 50 years ago, he merely equalled his numbers; and two Indians Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar had already made more.

Yes, he had also become the third batsman, after Gavaskar and Allan Border to pass 10,000 runs but he had had to play in more Tests than either to reach that target. So what was all the fuss about?

Instead it was about drama, and theatre and the wonder of being at a ground where for once everything came together in a sublime moment of cricket action and sporting history. The day could not have been better stage-managed if Hollywood had written the script and designed the backdrop and added the cast of thousands.

His wife Lynette was one of those with her arms raised, a huge smile on her face and a roar in her voice. His father was in the members enclosure beaming as if he had won the Lottery and received a life supply of champagne at the same moment; and the rest of his family were scattered round the country cheering like the rest of us.

One close ally was missing. His twin brother Mark, a man with a lifetime interest in how they run at the local tracks, had left to take the England player Ronnie Irani to what Aussies call The Trots. Like many other spectators at the SCG that evening he thought his brother, a fellow member of the Test team until the selectors made Mark surplus to requirements this season, would not reach his hundred that day and planned to come back in the morning. Later when he could not reach him on his cell phone he regretted his decision as did the few spectators who, typical of Sydney folk, left the ground early to avoid the rush.

I dare to suggest that if you did not enjoy the climax of Waugh's century, off the last ball of the day, with the crowd on its feet and screaming their heads off, the members standing and every television in the country tuned to the Channel Nine broadcast, then you have probably picked up The Sportstar by chance for you are not a sports fan and, to be truthful, you will miss out on many of life's artistic pleasures for you must be a very sad person indeed.

To get the feel of that special occasion, you need to know the background. Stephen Waugh — as the Australians like to call him when they want to sing his praises — was born in the city's western suburbs, came up through the district clubs in the traditional Australian system to play for New South Wales.

By the mid-1980s he had already been picked out as a probable Test all-rounder with his unadorned batting and his aggressive medium pace bowling; but those were poor days for the Test side and although he quickly found a place against India he rarely prospered.

He had to wait four years for his first century — batting at No.6 and still in the side because the good judges had faith — in England in the first Test of a 1989 series in which England fell to pieces. None of the England bowlers could dismiss Waugh until the third Test and as one square cut after another crashed into the cover boundary. He turned from a hopeful into a hero in the space of three months.

They flew out of Australia labelled of The Worst Side To Leave These Shores and returned to a ticker tape welcome through the streets of Waugh's own Sydney.

It's a bustling city, Australia's equivalent of New York or Mumbai. Its citizens are impatient with the dawdler, its traffic signals seem to be permanently on red, creating drivers who are swift and pedestrians who are angry. Its harbourside is one of the most beautiful in the world, its men are forever on the move and its women as lovely and warm and welcoming as any on earth.

Its people think they are special, living in an environment often warmed to 27 degrees, the perfect temperature for any human being, and living close to the spot, where Australia began as a convict nation in the late 18th century.

That city made Steve Waugh the man he is: hard, uncompromising and determined beyond the ken of most cricketers. By the time he was belatedly made captain after the retirement of Mark Taylor four years ago, he was already known as one of the greatest cricketers this nation has produced.

Since he has led the side to glory after glory, his esteem has been raised to new heights so that when he began 2002 he was probably the best known face around even though John Howard has been Prime Minister for eight years, Kylie Minogue has topped the charts for as long as anyone can remember; even though Cathy Freeman almost had her own Olympics in the same city; even though Lleyton Hewitt is the firebrand new tennis champion.

But then life began a slow downhill slide. Waugh's team were still top of everything, he could still score a few runs — his bowling had already been reduced to the back-up variety at slow medium — and his fielding as sharp as ever; but the outstanding innings eluded him. The selectors began to drop hints that it might be time — at age 37 — for him to be replaced.

Throughout the Ashes series the idea of his retirement after the Sydney Test began to assume a momentum of its own until, quietly at first, but with increasing clamour — as if he might be playing a typical fighting innings — Waugh began his own publicity campaign. Now the battle was on.

The selectors — the chairman Trevor Hohns, Border, David Boon and Andrew Hilditch, Test players all — let it be known that form alone would guide their decision. Waugh became insistent: he was still fit, still able to score the runs, still wanted to continue. By the start of the fourth Test, it seemed weight of runs might save his place but his 77 at Melbourne ended disappointingly and may even have harmed his cause.

So to his home ground for the final Test against the much derided Poms, already down 4-0, but leading a team that lacked Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath his attacking and defensive bowling stars.

One newspaper took up his cause to the extent that on the day the game began it had nothing else on its front page except a huge photograph of Waugh and the headline 'Don't Sack Our Steve' and the whole media circus joined in the chorus. No person of any standing in the country failed to deliver an opinion and a battle for the right decision was so intense that old friends fell out, families split and fisticuffs ensued.

It was not just about Waugh; it was close to civil war.

So when he walked to the wicket that afternoon, the emotion around the match had already given him three standing ovations on what was perceived to be his final Test. Sydneysiders love an occasion whether it is the New Year's fireworks display or the Olympic Games and they filled their beloved SCG, with its old pavilion, and despite the great swathes of Barmy Army Brits colourfully arrayed in whole sections of Yarra's Hill named after the barracker who used to bellow his witticisms long before the concrete bleachers were created.

He began at high speed even though three of his best men had gone for 56 in reply to England's 362 — ''he loves a crisis'' the radio and television men breathed into their over heated microphones — and, as if he knew the gods were with him, rushed to fifty in 61 balls and beyond 10,000 Test runs in a flash.

With two overs to go before play's end for the day, he was 12 short of his 29th Test hundred and his place alongside The Don and a hope of retaining the captaincy he treasures to the extent that he wants to be in charge when the tour of India comes along in 18 months.

A handful of spectators left the ground; I confess I dare not even leave my seat as the tension and excitement grew. As the last over began he needed five and with two balls to go he was off strike and needed Adam Gilchrist to get a single. Gilchrist knew his part and contrived a single and Waugh cover drove the last ball of the day from Richard Dawson for four.

Those left from the 41,931 spectators rose and cheered as if Waugh had been David slaying Goliath. They say that the little man who swears he is just a working cricketer, who wants nothing to do with sentimentality and fairy tale endings, and all that media hype, had a tear in his eye and he was seen later, totally collapsed with his head on his hands. ''A tad tired,'' said his man; so exhausted, one suspects, that he was out quickly next day.

Those of us who witnessed this supreme moment, in which a man under pressure found the most dramatic way to prove his point, will never forget it.

Whether he is one of the squad and captain when the selectors name their choices for the tour of West Indies in two month's time is another matter.