A rugged nation is moved by its rugged captain

Steve Waugh being chaired by team-mates on his farewell lap of the Sydney Cricekt Ground. - Pic. V.V. Krishnan-

Steve Waugh has been around so long that one cannot think of cricket without him. He has been building his legend gradually before our eyes. Once a dasher with the bat, then altering his game, morphing into a grafter, then again, at the very end of his career, throwing his bat at anything in hitting distance. His batting was not always compelling, but his stubborn nature, his honed survival instincts, his narrow-eyed look during battle, that was riveting, writes ROHIT BRIJNATH.

IT is a good thing he was the man he was. Eyes like flints, skin made of rawhide, cricketing heart of stone, will of a conqueror. Else his hands would have shaken like a branch in a hurricane, his focus would have drifted, his eyes may have moistened. Only one man had the strength to withstand the farewell Steve Waugh was given, to swallow the emotion but not succumb to it, to score 80 in his last innings when it must have been hard to hold that bat, and it was him. If he has tear ducts we still do not know.

Cricket is a sedate game, even now. For sure there is much hollering and hooting these days after a catch is taken, but mostly it is work done without too much fuss (men tearing off their shirts in soccer-style, is still frowned upon). Traditions endure, captains walk out together for a toss mostly in blazers, umpires' decisions if not always respected are obeyed, and players leave the game accompanied by handshakes and tributes that function as epitaphs, but as a whole fanfare is limited.

Waugh with the memento presented by Cricekt Australia. - Pic. V.V. Krishnan-

But not for him, for him an entire nation is agog, for him stadiums are filled this summer, for him old men and young boys put down their gardening hoes and cold beers and come to take a final glimpse, for him there is worship and farewell not just uncommon to cricket but Australia. The claims of selfish batsman have been muted, the charges of leading an indisciplined team have temporarily faded: through December, a rugged nation has been moved by its rugged captain.

Every shot he hits this summer is met with adulation, every walk out of the pavilion and walk in and milestone achieved is met with standing ovations that test the stadiums' foundations. When it is all done, finally, in Sydney, it is somewhat fitting that dusk is beginning to embrace the ground and he is still standing there, for a moment all stoicness, for no man has raged as powerfully against the dying of the light. Player after player, official after official honour him, celebrate him, and yes even thank him, and this gratefulness is not unwarranted for he has been mostly good for cricket, he has been the most leathery of ornaments to his game. Then, he is lifted on the shoulders of his teammates — "it doesn't get better than that", he says later — and paraded around the ground, and for once he is grinning, constantly, endlessly, his smile lighting up the evening as the cameras flash in the stands like twinkling Christmas lights.

Respect he has always had, but this unabashed affection, this, dare we say it, love, where is it coming from, why has it come?

Graphics: R. Ravikannan-

Perhaps because he had been cricket's modern man wrapped in a traditional cloak, taking the game forward yet honouring its past. The captain who had his players read poetry before matches yet numbered their caps so that they would never forget they were part of a grand Australian institution. Such men are few.

Perhaps he reflected the tough, unyielding, proud nature of their nation, a competitor of impressive resolve especially in the face of adversity (if crisis does not exist in a match, he will create such a situation in his mind, John Buchanan once said), a man you would like to have alongside you in the trenches. As Australian as you can get.

In England, in the third Test of his last Ashes series in 2001, he tears his calf ("as if someone had thrown a shot put into it", he wrote later), his tour seemed over, yet so desperate is he to play that he undergoes a painful rehabilitation over 19 days, shows up for the fifth Test and produces 157 not out.

The crowd thanks Waugh for his contribution to cricket as he leaves the SCG after his last innings. - Pic. REUTERS-

At the 1999 World Cup, he does not just tell Herschelle Gibbs "you've dropped the World Cup" when a key catch is let go, but he goes on to make good on his sledge. In India, 1987, he bowls key overs in the World Cup final suggesting he has the nerve of a tightrope walker. In the West Indies, this inadequate player of short bowling forges a double century mostly unforgettable. Always his will is on display.

Perhaps they love him because he understood the duality of man, unbending on a cricket field yet compassionate off it. This was not a man, especially in his later years, who imprisoned himself in his hotel room and ate room service. Instead, he walked the streets of foreign lands, wrote books on his travels, saw life beyond the confines of a wooden bat and white flannels. He was a private man but not an insular one.

In Kolkata, the most obvious of examples, he worked with the children of lepers, and this was no poser looking for cheap, vulgar publicity but a man whose good work continues, who follows through, whose heart once set is not easily shifted. You may not like him, but it was hard to keep admiration locked away.

Perhaps there is affection because he has been around so long that one cannot think of cricket without him, building his legend gradually before our eyes. Once a dasher with the bat, then altering his game, morphing into a grafter, then again, at the very end of his career, throwing his bat at anything in hitting distance. His batting was not always compelling, but his stubborn nature, his honed survival instincts, his narrow-eyed look during battle, that was riveting.

Waugh being stretchered off in Trent Bridge in 2001 after fracturing a leg. He was back in just 19 days at the Oval and cracked 157. - Pic. Adrian Murrell/Getty Images-

Perhaps because he led with such fury, a draw for him something to keep socks in nothing more, he was here to win and if he lost then so be it. Under him, Australia would challenge Clive Lloyd's West Indies for the "greatest team ever" title, it would win a record 16 matches in succession, it would score faster in Test cricket than ever before, it was aggression (often too unbridled and he is guilty of often not drawing the line on behaviour) that changed the way the game was played. This was cricket as science.

Perhaps this fondness existed because people, at the end of his career, felt strangely drawn to his war with selectors, themselves a breed strangely not admired in most parts. They saw him as a warrior fighting grimly for survival, and when, with his Test spot on the line, he somehow, digging deep into a pool of resolve that seemed to have been exhausted, produced that century last year against England, the howls of approval could be heard around the planet.

That he would do it, in Sydney where he belongs, with a boundary off the last ball of the day, suggested a higher power was writing this script. Newspapers said it was time for him to go, that he should have quit last year, but the farewell this summer suggests the public did not quite agree.

Perhaps they love him for all this, maybe the reasons are small but they are many. Perhaps it will be the same for other players from now, but somehow you doubt it. After all, a unique goodbye was fitting for a man who is one of a kind.