Raising the bar relentlessly

THE heart of the matter is, you got to have the heart for the battle. That courage to look adversity in the eye and conquer it.

S. DINAKAR

Australian captain Steve Waugh acknowledges the cheers of the crowd after his team's win over Bangladesh in Darwin. His tale of success has been as much of blookd as guts.-Pic. AP

THE heart of the matter is, you got to have the heart for the battle. That courage to look adversity in the eye and conquer it. Something Stephen Rodger Waugh has accomplished time and again. With the pride of wearing the `baggy green', the passion to achieve greatness, and the unquenchable desire for glory. A remarkable man driven by that urge to set himself fresh targets, `raise the bar', and surmount the hurdle. He is 38 now, has spent 18 long years in the draining world of international cricket, yet his quest continues relentlessly.

With 162 matches, he is the most capped cricketer in Test history, his 10,521 runs (ave. 51.07) in Tests are next only to Allan Border's 11,174, his 32 Test hundreds are the closest to Sunil Gavaskar's record 34, he is only the second batsman after Gary Kirsten to notch up Test hundreds against all Test playing countries ... and with 38, he has most wins as a Test captain.

This is success — Big Time. And a tale of much blood and guts strung together by that enormous `strength of mind.' The durable Steve Waugh, still physically fit and mentally agile, is a survivor and when he is out there in the middle, concentrating hard, you know a match is very much on. Irrespective of the odds for and against.

Indeed, what a phenomenal career it has been from a man, who, when he joined Border's struggling Australian team in 1985, was a batsman with little more than a rasping cover drive, and a medium pacer of more cunning than fire.

Here was a batsman, who had to wait until his 27th Test — 177 not out against England at Leeds — for his first Test hundred. All along this testing phase, many doubted his technique, innings building skills, and that willingness to grind it out. Waugh's response? Thirty one more three-figure knocks in Tests, following that breakthrough innings in Ashes '89. Knocks oozing with character.

There were several too who questioned his ability to take on the short pitched barrage from the quicks, yet Waugh found a way out, consciously moving inside the line of the fliers rather than fending them away on the on-side — taking blows on his body, on occasions, but not giving his wicket away.

Now his career average against South Africa and the West Indies, two countries with a predominantly pace oriented attack, reads 49.86 and 49.81. Determination is never at a premium when this New South Welshman walks into the park. Not as gifted as his twin brother Mark Waugh, that `Easy Rider', Steve Waugh makes up with his `in-the-trenches' resolve, holding firm in the face of a storm, simply refusing to `melt' when the contest `hots' up.

Not just his team-mates, even his adversaries respect him. For his resolve and resilience under the line of fire or a truckload of pressure. Steve Waugh's captaincy is an extension of his courage. He took over the reins from the highly rated Mark Taylor in 1998-99, and his methods, at least in the '99 series in the Caribbean, appeared programmed, lacking the flair and spontaneity of his predecessor. Waugh came under flak too.

It was as a batsman that Steve Waugh managed to turn the tide in that tense — and decisive — Super Six clash against the Proteas in the '99 World Cup, piloting the Aussies to a sensational victory from a seemingly impossible situation, that only stoked his combative instincts, with a memorable hundred.

As captain, Steve Waugh is similar to Allan Border, another gutsy cricketer who would never say die. Waugh spent much of his early career with Australia under Border, and must surely have picked many of that doughty warrior's traits.

Steve Waugh's success rate as skipper — 38 wins in 51 Tests — is vastly superior to Border's 32 in 93, however, he does have the Haydens, the Pontings, and the Gilchrists who can get runs at rollicking pace to set up wins, and the McGraths, Gillespies, Lees and Warnes (until the World Cup), to bowl sides out.

During Border's tenure, at least until the final phase of his captaincy, Australia was rebuilding, brick by brick, and there was no dearth of sceptics. The World Cup triumph in the sub-continent '87, where Steve Waugh's canny changes of pace enabled Australia to `live' at the `death' was a path-breaking victory. His batting came along too.

Those hard days in the 80s must have strengthened his resolve to dig in deep and stay put. It was all but natural that he developed into one of the fiercest fire fighters in the history of the game.

Put him in a hole and you can trust Steve Waugh to find a way out. There have been times without number when he has rallied with the lower order, inspiring, urging and coaxing the lesser batsmen to battle it out it with him, changing the course of matches in the process.

Along the way, his range of strokes has improved. While the back-foot punch in the arc between point and cover has probably been his most rewarding stroke, he picked up new shots like the sweep-pull, which he has employed with devastating effect against the spinners.

Whether it is the pace and bounce of the surfaces in South Africa, the dual paced pitches in the Caribbean, the spinning tracks of the sub-continent and the swing in England and New Zealand, Steve Waugh has seldom been found wanting.

In fact, he averages 55.85 on foreign soil in Tests, compared to 47.35 at home. Apart from his cricketing ability, one of the reasons why Steve Waugh has been able to adapt so well to the contrasting conditions is because he relishes travelling; he is a keen diarist, taking in much of the culture and the attitudes of the places he visits. In other words, he journeys with a mind that is `open' not `closed.'

There have been several significant innings from his blade, and his 100 at Sydney, the third Test of the 1992-93 series, must rank right at the top. It was during this knock that he won a key psychological battle against the Caribbean quicks, after being at the receiving end earlier on. Not far behind was his 200 against Curtly Ambrose & Co. at Kingston, 1994-95, where the Aussies scored an epoch-making series victory. Steve Waugh's 67 and 60 not out in the third Test of the 1996-97 series at the Centurion when he endured blow after blow on his body from the South African quicks on a spiteful pitch, reflected his mental make-up.

His hundreds — 108 & 116 — in the Manchester Test of 1997 were very special considering the ball seamed around, so was his 110 at the magnificent Eden Gardens in 2001, where Waugh fought it out with the tail. His counter-attacking 102 the fifth Ashes Test at Sydney last season — a century that put him level with Sir Donald Bradman with 29 Test hundreds — was a heady affair, high on emotions and drama; following a comparatively poor run, there was a question mark over his selection for the Caribbean campaign. Waugh's response was typical of the man.

There is a line of thought that since he does not bat higher up the order that can make extreme demands on a cricketer's technique on pitches with pace, bounce and movement, his runs do not quite hold the same value. Waugh has surfaced at No. 5 or 6 for most part, and though there is truth in the above argument — apart from the turners, pitches do ease out as the innings progresses — it can be said in the Aussie's favour that he has not always had the ideal platform to construct an innings, considering there was not too much `specialist' batting left after him. Of course, Adam Gilchrist's emergence has made things a lot easier for Waugh. He has had his moments of anger on the field — remember the ugly incident involving Steve Waugh and Ambrose in the Port of Spain Test of '94 or his more recent face-off with Brian Lara in Antigua — and is not averse to indulging in the `war of words', however, for most part, the Aussie has conducted himself with honour and dignity.

The failure to win a Test series in India `the final frontier,' after coming so desperately close in 2001 would rankle him, and Steve Waugh, deep down, might regret his decision to enforce the follow on at the Eden Gardens, a decision that will forever be debated. Do not be surprised if he returns to India next year to complete `unfinished business.' That would be quite a climax to an astonishing career. Steve Waugh has some more gas left in the tank.