Exit Mr. Aristocrat

ROHIT BRIJNATH

THE exit of great sportsmen typifies the absurdity of the world they exist in. Their hair has yet to be grazed by grey, yet, their day is done. They are fabulously rich and vastly successful and now have permission to go off and smoke cigars, eat fat steaks they were once denied and play with their new planes. Yet, this is a tragedy! Of course, in some small way, it is. Playing sport is the only thing some people can do well. And, of course, the pleasure men like Mark Waugh bring is not easily replicated. Cricket has few poets.

Waugh's retirement was fascinating, for the opinions it evoked, emotions it stoked, and the irony that it came wrapped in. His place in the team has been a weekly debate for the past two years, his life tossed about and hung out to dry in public, and he has complained about this intrusion and dissection by the press. Of course, he is clearly a very forgiving fellow, for not even a week since his retirement had passed when his byline, for a decent amount of money one presumes, appeared in a Melbourne newspaper.

In his column, he spoke about a potential future with Channel Nine, where he will no doubt make some of the same comments that infuriated him about other players. Nothing personal, he might say, it's just business.

Waugh has said he is stunned by the response to his retirement. He said he could not believe he was front and back page news. It is a nice line but a trifle disingenuous. After 128 Tests, a twin as captain, and a style that deserves a small room of its own in the David Gower Museum of Strokeplay, his end was a hefty curtain dropping on an era. People were sad to see him go, but they were ready to see him go.

Waugh was not ready, but that made him the rule. The exception is men like Sunny Gavaskar, who leave after a doughty last innings of 96, and more people ask "Why?" than "Why not?". Athletes spend their lives insisting to themselves they are better than the next man; now they must admit they are not. It is not easy to be graceful at such moments.

Film director Phillip Noyce recently said Denzel Washington was the greatest actor alive because "He is the greatest violin, and he is the greatest violin player". The perfect instrument, and the perfect player of it. Athletes are much the same. They are finely attuned to the workings of their body and mind: they sense when speed begins to die, or reflex erode, or the eyes and feet and hands lose that edge of synchronicity.

It is why they often say that only they, and no one else, will decide when it's time for them to pack their kit. If the violin's out of tune, they know.

Except they lie. Mostly to themselves. Dropped catches are seen as an aberration not the pattern they are; feet out of alignment is viewed as a passing phase nothing more; the confusion in a once assured mind over whether to go back or forward is explained not as pressure brought about by low scores but a bad day. The world watches and it is not easily fooled. The bad days add up.

Against Pakistan in Sharjah recently, Waugh, who brought a sweet music to cricket, a hitter of high notes, resembled an arthritic pianist woefully out of tune. Still, he said, his gifts had not fully eroded, but then abruptly retired when he was dropped. Some said that proves he knew his talent had waned, but nothing is ever as simple. Possibly he figured that Allan Border, Geoff Marsh, David Boon and Ian Healy were never given second chances; there are few comebacks in the rarefied world of Australian cricket. Especially at 37.

Waugh's defenders, and there were some, were firing blanks. Their arguments were passionate but not always reasoned. Some said he still caught magical catches at slips, quick enough to interrupt a bird in full flight, but so what?As far as one knows fielding is not the primary criteria for selection. Others said in time he would have produced a big score, but then so might Atul Bedade if given 20 innings to do so.

One commentator argued against changing a winning team, that Australia was set and solid, and any fiddling made no sense. But the very fact that Australia was so assured, so beautifully bonded, surely meant they could digest change without a hiccup, their machine too powerful to feel the replacement of a single cog. Anyway, through the years, Manchester United and the Chicago Bulls, to give two examples, have instructed us that changing a winning team has its uses.

David Hookes had the most bizarre theory, suggesting that Steve's century in the final Test against Pakistan had, in effect, guillotined Mark. He argued that the selectors were loath to drop both brothers together (the uproar? the hole in the team? Who knows?), and that Steve's return to form and Mark's continued lack of it presented the perfect opportunity.

Whatever, he is gone, this player of upturned collar, and erect walk, his manner aristocratic and his batting no less. An unusual batsman who kissed greatness frequently but never embraced it, a player whose 41.81 Test average, and highest score of 153, are figures that inadequately measure his gifts. He was also a figure of some naivety, a man whose brush with a bookie pockmarked his reputation though he never fully understood why.

Cricketers come and go and the history books get fatter. Waugh will disappear into the shadows soon enough. But perhaps more slowly than others, for he was a cricketer stylish enough to warrant a memory beyond numbers.