Captaincy is marked by courage and determination

TED CORBETT

FOR some, the captaincy of their country is an ultimate ambition. For some, it's no thank you, I'd rather read a good book.

Difficult to understand, isn't' it?

No doubt that Steve Waugh wants to lead Australia's Test team, their one-day side and, if the chance came he would no doubt be proud to captain the women's team too. So, when he was told that he was not just removed from the one-day leadership but dropped as well, it was a severe test of his ambition.

A lot of players might have thought: "Hey, I'm 36, perhaps I am slowing down; it must be time to hang up the boots and prepare to say 'Yes, Richie' on television."

Not the fiery Waugh. "I'll have to prove the selectors wrong and return in time for the World Cup," he says. Now there is a committed man. Made his debut for Australia against India in 1985-86, hardly got the ball off the square for three years and then blossomed like a flower in the desert.

Remember his start against Viv Richards. That giant strode to the crease, took guard and stared down the pitch with eyes blazing as usual. Waugh, hardly well-known enough to shake Richards by the hand, bowls not one but two bouncers at the Master Blaster's head.

That takes some nerve, but Waugh's career has been marked down by courage and a determination to play the game fair and square. Give or take the odd insult in a batsman's ear.

On the whole he has been admirable. Right to the end of last summer's Ashes when he declined to accept a runner after he was injured. "I don't believe in runners," he said. When injury kept him out of the Headingley Test most of us thought he would head for home.

Not the committed Waugh. He was back in the team as captain for the final Test. He obviously doesn't believe in quitting either.

Yet Australia can afford - or so their selectors think - to be without this iron man, this thinking, bolshie, never-say-die batsman with the taut shots, bowler with the economical run-up, fielder who would attempt a catch in his teeth.

That tells you something about the strength of Australian cricket. Their selectors are never afraid to make difficult decisions. Allan Border was pushed aside with not so much as "The King Is Dead - Long Live The King."

They paused for a while over the appointment of Waugh in place of Mark Taylor. I remember the moment vividly. "Look," I said to a companion at Sydney Cricket Ground, "Taylor is wearing his baggy green cap. You don't see that every day. It must be his birthday."

It was not. He knew it was his last Test and within a few days he was out of the side, no longer the captain; heading for his spell of "You're absolutely right, Richie' on Channel Nine.

We all knew that Waugh would not last forever and the readers of this magazine will not be shocked by the choice of Ricky Ponting as his successor. They woke up one day last June, read the most recent Sportstar, and shouted to the nearest Martian: "This Corbett has lost the plot completely. He thinks Ricky Ponting will be the next captain of Australia. Ha! The men in white coats will be coming to collect him at any moment."

In fact, a former Australian captain whispered the word to me and his information was spot on. Ponting will start by leading the one-day side and finish as full-blown captain of Australia when Waugh steps aside. Or, knowing the Aussies selectors, is shown the door marked Goodbye. Well, now we know. It's not to be Shane Warne, who hides a fine sporting brain as he dodges yet another slur on his character. Nor will it be Adam Gilchrist who may have found captaincy, wicket-keeping and batting like a dervish on speed, too much for body, mind and soul.

Instead it's Ponting, the bad boy who has had any number of slaps on the wrist; the fielder from heaven, the batsman with all the strokes and the too-rarely seen bowler.

He comes from the northern part of Tasmania and thereby hangs a tale, related to me as I booked an airline ticket. Well, I told you I have the inside track on almost everything and sometimes information comes along in strange packets.

The receptionist on the other end of the phone said that about 100 years ago a Tasmanian woman gave birth to a girl. The baby was adopted by a soldier and his wife who soon took the child to India. That girl grew up to be the film star Merle Oberon. The baby's mother later married a Tasmanian man. One of her descendants is Ricky Ponting.

I think Ponting is not even aware of the Merle Oberon connection; and of course it may be a story that has grown after almost a century of telling.

Meanwhile England are already looking for a successor to Nasser Hussain who left India with his reputation greater in the country of his birth than it is at home, where he is admired more than any Test captain since Mike Brearley.

Hussain has said he will not play on after the next World Cup; Lord MacLaurin, chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board, has written a personal note urging him to reconsider.

Sourav Ganguly, who has as many detractors as admirers, gets a new chance to confirm his ability against Zimbabwe, but it seems that Sachin Tendulkar does not want another spell as captain for the next two years.

In South Africa, Shaun Pollock still seems to yearn for the days of Hansie Cronje and who can remember who is the Pakistan captain as the bosses swap them around like old socks. Robert Mugabe is one of the few Zimbabwe people who has not been captain of their Test side; West Indies make the best of Carl Hooper who is in charge of one of the worst bunch of Caribbean Test players in memory. Only the phlegmatic Stephen Fleming of New Zealand seems to have a firm hold on the leadership.

And I suppose I will have to keep my fingers crossed until publication day just in case he wakes up one morning to find he is surplus to requirements.

Hussain has a major problem behind the stumps. England once had so many great wicket-keepers that Bob Taylor - one of the finest - went on two tours of Australia as No.2 to Alan Knott and hardly played. "I just used to think of the 400 county cricketers who would love to have been in my place," he once told me. "But that didn't make it any easier."

I haven't seen Bob for a while. I wonder what he thinks of all the talk of "burn-out" that comes from Graham Thorpe and co.; supported, I am sorry to see, by Lord MacLaurin. Thorpe has played one Test and half a dozen one-dayers this winter.

This mysterious tiredness seems to have affected James Foster who has been thrust into the limelight and lost concentration in the middle of the winter. Marcus Trescothick, opening batsman first and wicket-keeper rarely, is no more than a long stop with big red gloves. I may ask, what did bubbly and gutsy Warren Hegg do wrong?

Someone told me that only 15 per cent of balls in one-day matches reached the keeper so I checked. My concentration is no better than Foster's but I managed a spasmodic count and the results are interesting.

In one game three different bowlers bowled successive overs and not once did the ball pass the bat.

In another it was 29 deliveries before the wicket-keeper touched the ball and over a longer period only seven out of 86 go through.

Does that prove anything? It may require better concentration to pick up the 15 per cent of balls that beat the bat, greater expertise to deal with those lightning throws that result in a run-out and more agility to pick up the ball after it has rebounded between bat and pad and boot.

Besides, what about style and neatness and everything else that goes to make up the keeper's art? Is that lost forever?