A legend's long march continues

Steve Waugh... a real phenomenon.-Pic. S. THANTONI

The Steve Waugh persona has outgrown sport, rising well above its defined limits. This is why the Australian Test captain is a heroic Outsider in the context of modern cricket, writes NIRMAL SHEKAR.

ABOUT the time Ricky Ponting and his men were getting ready to begin their defence of the World Cup in southern Africa in early February, expecting to open their campaign against Pakistan watched by a global TV audience running into tens of millions, back home in Australia, New South Wales was in a spot of bother on the first day of its Sheffield Shield match against neighbour Victoria.

Four overs were gone, not a run was on the board and the Blues had lost two wickets. With the cream of Australian cricket away on World Cup duty, the stage was ideal for some young man to make a bold statement and attract the selectors' attention.

In the fiercely competitive world of Australian cricket, young men dream of such opportunities to make a name for themselves and grab it with gloved hands when it comes their way.

And so it turned out to be on that Wednesday as the gentleman who walked it at 0 for two went on to make 125 by close and came back the next morning to take his score to 211 in front of a few hundred people.

Over the next few weeks, with the attention of the cricket world focused on southern Africa where the Aussie juggernaut mowed down opposition after opposition, finally trampling on millions of Indian dreams like an elephant smashing a coconut at a Hindu temple, that New South Wales batsman would go on to make 659 runs at 50.69 to be named the State's Cricketer of the Year.

The only difference was, this wasn't another young man with stars in his eyes, dreaming of winning the baggy green cap and playing for his country. Of course, this one was still dreaming of big things, but he happens to be 37 years old.

Welcome, then, to the God of small things, so to say, who for a good part of his 20-year career, has been the God of big things on the international stage. Welcome, one more time, Mr. Stephen Rodger Waugh.

After all these years, nothing about the much decorated Field Marshall Waugh should surprise us. He's done it all and we've seen it all.

But, at age 37 — Steve Waugh will be 38 on June 2 — to play domestic cricket with the sort of commitment and drive that the great man displayed, and at a time when the team from which he was dumped unceremoniously was playing in the World Cup...

Lesser men would have chosen the easy route. There was nothing left to prove for Steve Waugh. No more mountains to climb — or so we might have thought. But not the most heroic cricketer of our times, not the marathon man of modern cricket, not the greatest noble warrior this era has known.

So, here we go again, shaking our heads in disbelief. Waugh and awe. To me, they go together. As a hardened professional sportswriter, awe is not something that is touched off in me in a hurry. But, I must confess that no modern cricketer has triggered as much awe in me time and time again for quite the same reasons as has Steve Waugh.

You marvel at Sachin Tendulkar's genius. You tip your hat to acknowledge Glenn McGrath's consistent excellence. You delight in the magic authored by the spinning fingers of that lovable rascal Shane Warne. You stay mesmerised when Brian Lara uses his bat as Yehudi Menuhin would the strings of a violin.

But when Waugh walks in at 40 for three or 53 for four, I have often found that the images that play in my mind have very little to do with sport; nor indeed do the emotions that grip me have much in common with what might have been experienced in a sporting arena.

This is precisely why the Waugh persona has outgrown sport, has risen well above its defined limits. And this is why, too, Waugh is something of a heroic Outsider in the context of sport as the late Aryton Senna was, in vastly different ways, in Formula One in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

If Waugh brings to sport — cricket to be precise — a combination of virtues rarely seen in an athlete at the international level in any era, then this amalgam is the fuel that keeps the fire burning in the man's heart, a few weeks short of his 38th birthday.

After his busiest — and the most successful — home season in a long time, Waugh left the New South Wales Cricket Association in a spot of bother, or, to be precise, embarrassment.

The Association had announced that the State's Cricketer of the Year would be awarded the inaugural Steve Waugh medal by the great man himself. In the voting at the end of the season, the winner of the nine carat gold medal turned out to be one Mr.Steve Waugh.

Imagine the Association officials' plight! How do you print an invitation card with those details?

Imagine this: The President and members of the NSW Cricket Association invite you to witness the presentation of the inaugural Steve Waugh medal to the Cricketer of the Year.

Chief guest: Steve Waugh. Cricketer of the Year: Steve Waugh.

In the event, sure in their minds that too many Steves might spoil the party, former Test fast bowler and the President of the NSW cricket association Alan Davidson gave away the medal.

Then again, to be sure, there can never be too many Steves, really, if the surname is Waugh.

As ecstatic as the Australians might be after the World Cup triumph, as well as they performed on the big stage, Ponting and Co. will have realised that the return of the great man would bolster their chances of beating West Indies in the West Indies.

The respect that the members of the team now touring the Caribbean have for their heroic captain is nothing short of the phenomenal. And Brian Lara's West Indians would know too that Australia would be near invincible with an in-form Waugh at the helm.

So, for the great Outsider, the long march continues. For cricket's greatest sage, the Caribbean presents yet another opportunity for tunnel-visioned endeavour. For the game's only karma yogi, the marathon journey to sporting nirvana continues.