Admire Australia's brutality

ROHIT BRIJNATH

SO powerful was the irony that it leapt oceans, hurdled time zones and crossed continents. It was laughable, it was educating.

In an emotional sub-continent, generous in its giving of "last chances," a man whose captaincy has been only adequate, his form as erratic as a late night drunk's footwork, and his discipline less than ordinary, retained his post.

Across the waters, 24 hours later, a hard land flicked away sentimentality like a pesky fly, and decapitated a captain who was said to walk on water, if not, at least, part it.

Sourav Ganguly, with a Test average of 24.14 in his last 10 Tests, stays. Steve Waugh, with a one-day average of 31.16 in his last 10 one-dayers, goes. And while there may be good reasons for both, equally it tells us about East and West, and why one nation wins as often as the other loses.

Ganguly is captain by virtue of an alarming logic. It is said, they are no reasonable contenders for the post. It is asked, the next captain will suffer the same abysmal system, so what guarantee is there he will succeed? We are consumed more by what will happen, rather than woes that afflict us now. As an argument it is weak: a possibly uncertain future is outweighing a desperate present.

It is less logic and more hand-wringing. It is a decision that is safe not bold, reasonable but not challenging. The argument is not that Ganguly deserves to be culled (in fact I quite like him). But that, having captained for two years now, he must deserve the job, earn it, not get it by default. The selectors are being decent, but World Cup's are won by more than that.

With Waugh, there is no Hans Christian Andersen present to write him a fairy tale. His past is magnificent, but it counts for nothing. One average season, and a few flecks of grey hair, and a knife has been drawn across his throat. Australia sees no virtue in what was, it looks to what will be. Sentiment is best left for soppy movies and crying children.

Sacking such a venerated captain in India might lead to selectors' photographs garlanded with chappals and vociferous dharnas outside the BCCI offices. Even in England, in another sport, when Gary Lineker was substituted in his last match all sorts of unreasonable passions flared. Here there has been none of that. Not a single "No Kapil, no Test" - type of poster pleads from any wall. Even though it is not a sacking without some contentious quality.

When asked if he was surprised, Ian Chappell, said to me, "I'm only surprised that they (the ACB) did it. Steve was struggling as a batsman, the signs were there. It was a bit more than a slump." Across Sydney, Peter Roebuck was less sure. "I'm uneasy about pensioning off the best match-winner I have ever seen."

This writer is trifle unconvinced too. Waugh's fullness as a man suggested a intriguing paradox. Off the field he enjoyed manicuring his image, but on it he was more basic, all blood and guts, an ancient Roman centurion come to cricketing life. When Australia was being overrun and he came to bat, all manner of things seemed possible. Such men are not easily found, and Australia will miss him.

His batting failures may be overstated, and it is thought he is too old to retrieve his form. But Michael Jordan is playing useful basketball at 39, and that argument is not wholly convincing. Australia needs to be sure it is the end of Waugh, and there is not enough evidence of that.

Still, there must be an admiration for Australia's brutality, a willingness to sacrifice old staggers for new heroes. In the East, emotions steps forward and reason steps back. In the West, they would simply rather win.

In Australia, on the field, we are used to men in white (and green and gold) with baleful glares, who contemptuously chew gum as if it were an opponent's brittle bones. We forget, similar men inhabit the selectors seats. They are bred on the same diet of ruthlessness.

Waugh may have moved his players to recite poetry prior to matches and steeled them into a fighting unit so ominous that Patton might have removed his cigar and nodded in approval. But he is 36, and, for the selectors and most of Australia, batting like a man who cannot remember his craft. Sympathy was stilled and he was handed his pension cheque.

Sport is a romantic pursuit, of course, but it is mostly practical. Winning arrives from discipline, vision, imagination and cold-bloodedness. Waugh's sacking has all these elements. By 2003, Steve and Mark Waugh (and do not bet they will not be there still) would be flirting with 38, and it is a load Australia is not prepared to carry by reason of affection alone.

Reputations are useful but in itself they are not enough. When Carl Lewis, winner of the Olympic 100m gold in 1984 and 1988, was weakened by a virus and came sixth in the 1992 US Olympics trials (only the first three qualify) he was not allowed to run. No argument. If anything, Waugh is suffering for the high standards he himself asked of his team.

Prepare or die is the soldiers code, and sport has borrowed it. Amateur hour has passed. No longer do you pick a fair team, clap them on the back, say God be with you, son, and hope for the best. As a philosophy it is an anachronism. Now World Cups are planned like campaigns, no less. Little must be left to chance, and perhaps that was what Waugh had become.

Thirteen months remain till Australia land in South Africa, enough time for a new captain to learn his craft, outline his philosophy and bind the team to his ambition. Australia could have waited and watched and bitten their nails, instead they preferred to act. Foresight is better than grim hindsight. What India is doing is anyones guess. Australia has a plan, do we?

The West is never always right, and the East not constantly errant, but there is a lesson in here somewhere for us.

Waugh is not done with. He has been served generous helpings of ego and courage, and both will propel towards a comeback. In the play of his life, the 2003 World Cup was to have been his final exit: now someone has rewritten his lines and he will not be pleased. He is a defiant actor in search of a stage.

In 1999, when Herschelle Gibbs dropped him in that pivotal match, Waugh told the South African, "You've just dropped the World Cup, son." It would be a final irony, if in firing Waugh, the selectors have dropped the 2003 World Cup.