A strange end to a great career

LIFE produces strange finishes sometimes, Kings grow humble, millionaires turn paupers, even the demon Bradman got a duck in his last Test appearance. Mark Waugh will be contemplating all that this week. After entertaining spectators to packed houses at the great cricket grounds of the world, at the SCG, the Wanderers and in Chennai, his last innings came before a handful of unconcerned spectators at Sharjah against what many felt was an unconcerned side. It should not be so but it often is.

He doubtlessly believed, like Ian Healy did three years ago, that he deserved another game to show that he still had runs left in him. Healy himself, nominated to the All-time Aussie XI a couple of years ago, finished in the obscurity of Zimbabwe. But at the 'Gabba in Brisbane, where the first Test match is traditionally played, they gave him a rousing ovation and Waugh should believe he is entitled to one at the Sydney Cricket Ground. Healy knows what it means to come to the end and yet he thought that if indeed the time had come, this was a good time to look at a younger man.

Darren Lehmann may not have the years to qualify for the younger slot but there is little to complain about the logic of putting the inexperienced man in when the team is doing well. There is something infectious about success jut as there is about defeat and to put a new man in when the team begins to slip can be hazardous. Australia's selectors have traditionally been good at these things because they are willing to take the hard decisions. Sentiment is not a very Australian thing.

Yet, the chairman of selectors, Trevor Hohns, had the grace to call Mark Waugh two days before the decision was announced. Waugh would have known it was coming. In the week leading up to the verdict his team-mates had come out strongly in his favour. Hohns had made it clear his committee would look at things from a different perspective. The players need to look at the present, the selectors must have an eye on the future and in an ideal world, both will do their jobs without letting one influence the other.

Waugh must leave, maybe disappointed, but not bitter. And even that disappointment will ebb when the warmth of what he has achieved starts to envelop him. Amidst the daily grind, cricketers rarely get time to relax and cast their eyes back at what they have managed to do. Perspectives get longer when the morrow doesn't beckon as quickly and Waugh will be very proud of what he has done. Through the prime years of Australian cricket, to be picked 128 times is an indication of class in itself.

He might permit himself a smile as he looks back at the 8029 runs he has made and he can be proud of being in the list of all those that have made at least 20 Test centuries. A lot of those were match-winning innings and that is what raises players in the esteem of their contemporaries. He couldn't have done that if he didn't have the steel that many thought had been sacrificed before style. Over a smaller period style alone can take a man through, over 13 years and 128 Test matches it is a very distant second to steel.

I suspect the preoccupation with style when analysing him has much to do with comparisons with his brother Steve. Both have suffered as a result, both have been wrongly labelled. Mark versus Steve was always flair versus guts, talent versus temperament. To believe Steve did not have the talent to average 50 in international cricket is as ludicrous as saying that Mark did not have the guts or the attitude. The brothers were different, as siblings invariably are, but they did not live in air-tight containers.

Their approach to life, though, is different. Steve is studious, puts a foot forward after having analysed the terrain while Mark tends to take life as it comes, not afraid of a little gamble here and there. There is some merit in both approaches. When Australia were here in 1998, we were doing a pre-tour package and I had to do little interviews with both of them about what the tour meant to them. Steve said he had to planned for it, had told his teammates what to expect. Mark's reply was different. "Ah," he said "never thought of it that way."

It is interesting though that Steve averages close to 50 compared to 41.82 for Mark. He will be disappointed with that because he was a far better player. But I suspect numbers meant far lesser to him than they did to his brother. Watching Mark Waugh bat was to enjoy the game without worrying about what the score was; indeed, without any worry at all. It was like admiring an actor delivering his lines and rising above the plot. He was beautiful to watch, especially when he brought his elegant style to the bustle of one-day cricket.

At the top of the order, he didn't need to cut and slash and slog. He seemed unhurried but the man putting the tiles on the scoreboard would be busy. His innings in the quarter-final of the 1996 World Cup was like that. New Zealand had set Australia 287, a very tricky score in a knock-out. Mark Waugh made 110 from 112 balls and even in the weltering crucible at the Chidambaram Stadium it seemed the he didn't even need to work up a sweat. Australia won with two overs left and nobody who saw that match would forget it. One man ensured that.

For a man who didn't seem too keen on records, he will value his 181 catches greatly. An average of almost 1.5 catches per game is awesome and till the last two games in Sharjah, he gave the impression that the ball floated gently into the palms in much the manner a good driver heads into a parking slot. At second slip, it is a rare catch that comes floating at you but it is a rare man who can have the time, and the hands, to make it look that way. Jonty Rhodes once told me that Mark Waugh was the best all-round fielder he had seen and he could not be too wrong.

The game always moves on but for a brief moment at the 'Gabba, when the lists are read, you will sense a little hole in the middle.