Steve Waugh, a class apart

WHATEVER the Australian selectors do with Steve Waugh, they must do it with dignity. The handling of his omission from the one-day squad, both as a player and captain was appaling, an embarrassment to Australian cricket. Steve has been a great player for Australia both during the rebuilding period of Australian cricket in the middle and late 80s and in the glory period in recent times.

He was, to my mind, the greatest batsman in the world, in the last decade, while my friends in the sub-continent and in other parts of the world may disagree and push the claims of two great little men, Tendulkar and Lara. But day in and day out, in every part of the world, in varying conditions and match situations, Steve Waugh is the most consistent and successful. While his style may not have been as attractive as Tendulkar's or Lara's, he is the undisputed favourite. If your life depended on one innings who would you like to play it?

I first met Steve and Mark Waugh when I was appointed coach of NSW in 1984 and was immediately struck by their natural talent and fascinated by their contrasting personalities, build and style.

They share a huge talent for the game but otherwise there is nothing much identical about the Waugh twins.

They were highly successful at whatever sport they took, but at 19 Steve produced a little more than Mark and made the State team first.

Stephen hit the ball amazingly hard in those days, but it was obvious that he had a few technical problems, particularly a lack of flexibility in his knees.

Steve played with very stiff knees, which meant that he could not take a full step forward and could not get his eye line right over the ball.

He couldn't 'smell it out,' as the old timers used to say. So he tended to drive with his weight on the back foot, which meant he often lifted the ball into the air or invited trouble from edges into the slips.

However, once the problem was identified, Steve worked really hard at correcting it, though it took a long time, as long as four years before he made a major contribution to Australian Test cricket.

He was too gifted a player to waste and no sound judge doubted he would establish himself in a big way. And there had been frequent glimpses of his class as in our 1987 World Cup win.

It was in that series that he earned the nick name, Ice Man, so cool was he when he bowled the death overs to complete the required 50 overs.

He was also a brilliant exponent of the slower delivery and was the first, to my knowledge, to use a wrong 'un and leg break action to disguise his change of pace.

But it was not until the 1989 Ashes tour that he put it all together as batsman.

Steve began the series with scores of 177 not out and 152 not out in the first two Tests.

He played some magnificent shots, and there are wonderful pictures of him playing forward and driving with his back knee actually on the ground. "Shades of Sir Learie Constantine's famous square drive. Not the sort of stuff they put in a coaching manual, but how's that for flexibility.

Steve still has problems, occasionally today, but there is nothing he cannot handle. He is an example with exceptional talent and needed the nuts and bolts of technique to put it to full use.

Steve was rushed into NSW and Australian sides probably a bit before he was ready, certainly in terms of his batting. But he had a huge talent and the Australian scene were not overburdened with that. At that time he was too good to miss. For a period his bowling kept him in the Australian side. He was always experimenting, always trying something new and unexpected. He and Simon O'Donnell really became engrossed with innovations, which in Steve's case included the perfection of leg breaks.

This was no mean feat for a bowler who bowled much quicker than most batsmen expected.

He varied his pace, made the leggie drop suddenly and was never afraid to innovate, even in a pressure situation.

Batsmen who just wanted to hit everything out of sight got into all sorts of embarrassing difficulties, and no body really worked out all of his subtleties.

I remember Viv Richards in Brisbane ducking under a slower ball which looked as though it had slipped out and would pass harmlessly over the stumps. But it dropped sharply and hit Viv in the middle of the back, the only bloke on the ground that day who thought it was not LBW was the umpire.

Steve is naturally aggressive as a cricketer and his bowling reflects that - quicker than it looks so that he can force batsmen on to the back foot and then hit them with a yorker. One time he was the hardest bowler to tackle in international one-day cricket.

After his great Ashes tour in 1989, Steve had problems against short-pitched deliveries. Nobody in his right mind likes facing bouncers and it is pure bravado to claim otherwise. But recognised batsmen have to learn to cope.

Steve typically worked hard at strengthening his technique against the short stuff. He was occasionally taking his eye off the ball and thrusting his hands outward, popping up catches down the leg side.

Having been an opener, I also felt he was watching the ball off the pitch rather than out of the bowler's hand and therefore losing himself precious time to frame his strokes, and his body was too side on.

His toes pointed to point which did not allow him to glide the ball down the leg side or get inside of the ball. Steve worked on all these suggestions.

The knowledge that his technique was sound gave him confidence and by 1995 in the West Indies and despite being subjected to all illegal amount of the short stuff, he was the best batsman around.

Steve played a lot of indoor cricket as a kid and that undoubtedly helped him to develop his fielding ability.

The indoor game is played in restricted space, the need for run-outs is paramount and fielders develop a quickness of mind and hand.

You can see it when Steve flicks the ball through his legs or round his body or attempts the impossible return to the stumps.

He has won run-outs at the non-strikers end by deliberately putting out just one finger on the ball on his follow-through.

Deliberately, mind you. A very quick brain. He has lost a bit of pace now, but not his inventiveness and therefore not his ability. And when you add together all of his qualities as a batsman, bowler and fielder, the result is a wonderful package.