The best slip fielder

Published : Aug 04, 2001 00:00 IST


MARK WAUGH is the most elegant of all modern batsmen, fleet of foot, firm of stroke; the scorer of mountains of runs who nevertheless finds it impossible to play a crude shot or to slog.

He bats in the middle of the order, at No. 4 or No. 5, where the pressure is less, where a man can build an innings in most of his Tests, after the pattern has been set by the openers and that key man at No. 3. It seems to suit him that by the time he reaches the wicket his mission for the day is already mapped out.

If there is need Waugh will defend as he did at the height of Australia's troubles with a typical English seamer's pitch in the first Test of this summer at Edgbaston. If the target is not too difficult - when he batted at Lord's for instance - he can unleash his strokes earlier.

That is when we see Mark Waugh the world will remember. When he is in full flow we see the full effect of his power, we can applaud his strength on the offside and his timing to leg. Almost as much as Viv Richards he is an attacking batsman, constantly looking for opportunities to deal severely with good bowling or bad, rarely tied down unless he wishes to go into his shell for the benefit of his side; and yet, for all his thoughtfulness, only a gambler with exotic shots when he has found the pace of the pitch and tested the quality of the bowling.

He says that when he retires he may concentrate on his love of horse flesh and a bet. There is a little of the punter in him already but, as Shane Warne says of the Mark Waugh offspin, he has a little work ahead before he is a true betting man. I was lucky enough to see his first Test innings when he scored a century off England at the Adelaide Oval in 1990-1. It did not take us long to realise this was a memorable debut. If he was nervous it was not obvious to anyone outside that Oval.

Strange then that Steve, his twin brother, had already been playing Test cricket for five years. He also made his debut against England at Melbourne in 1986-7, the trip on which England were unbeatable, cleverly led and shot through with experienced Test players like Mike Gatting, the captain, Ian Botham, Phil Edmonds, John Emburey, Allan Lamb and David Gower, supported by cricketers who had been 10 years or more in the game like Bill Athey, Jack Richards and Chris Broad.

Steve did not make the same sort of immediate impact and it was on the 1989 tour of England when he could not stop scoring runs - or find ways of getting out - that he first set his cricket boots in Test concrete. It is astonishing to think now that Mark watched that series from the confines of the Lancashire League where he was sent to learn the finer points of batsmanship as many a player from Gary Sobers to Carl Hooper has devoured them before.

Mark, so different from his sobersided brother, so divinely gifted compared with the more practical, more prosaic Steve, and so sure to make big runs, was a solid Test player from the first few minutes of that innings in Adelaide.

Of course, he has had his ups and downs since while Steve has never been worried by the thought that he might lose his place.

For some critics Mark is too classy, makes batting look too easy, sets too high a standard. When he falls from his perch his opponents soon contend that - like Gower, another batsman often accused of lacking concentration, failing to be a team man, and working on the ostentatious when a more mundane approach might have paid off better - he is not really tough enough for the highest level of cricket.

"An exhibitionist, a show pony, a showman, a trickster rather than a genuine professional cricketer," they crow.

They have some explaining to do these denigrators of the finest strokeplayer of his generation.

How, pray, if he is so inconsistent, does he come to have an average of 42.50 in 113 Tests; or average 46.32 at home? These are not the figures of a fly-by-night, here today and gone tomorrow batsman. These are the results of prolonged labour, fighting for your corner when the going is tough, sometimes being assaulted by unpleasant men who bounce the ball round your ears, sometimes being tempted by subtler, but just as nasty bowlers, who float the ball above your eyeline and invite you to drive to your heart's content. Until you pick the wrong ball and have to wend your way back to the pavilion.

If Waugh had fallen prey to these men too often he would not have played more than 100 Tests for Australia nor been one of the nation's heroes.

In fact he has class and that lasts for ever. Not just as a batsman either. There has, if you look only at the figures, never been a finer second slip since in the recent Lord's Test he first equalled and then passed Mark Taylor's world record of 157 catches and it will be a long time before anyone takes that away from one of the all-time super fielders.

Bob Simpson, a great slip catcher himself and responsible for giving both Taylor and Waugh an understanding of that difficult art, spelled it out for us all in a recent Sportstar and it was on view for all to see at Lord's.

As Simpson told us there were the soft hands, the relaxation and the lack of snatch in any of Waugh's catches. There is as much artistry in his fielding as in his batting; in fact the man is all artist.

At one time his bowling was a strength but at 35 the skills seemed to have slipped away. I clearly remember Tony Greig gushing brightly coloured adjectives over Steve Waugh's batting and bowling once only for him to be pulled up short by the brusque voice of Ian Chappell. "You've just said he was the finest all-rounder in the southern hemisphere. I'm not sure if he's the finest all-rounder in his own family." And along came Mark with runs and wickets to prove the point.

As he hit his 19th Test century at Lord's, as he took his Test aggregate to 7,235 runs and picked up that world record, appropriately off the last ball of England's second innings, we had to wonder if we might see him on another tour, or if the next three Tests would mark his swansong in a country where great batting has always been appreciated.

By the end of the Test Waugh stood 11th in the Price Waterhouse world rankings, eight places behind his brother and the third Australian in the table. He might have been a lot higher if their calculations had included an element for beauty and elegance.

SKIPPER Steve Waugh rated his twin Mark as the best slip fielder after he took the record-breaking 158th catch during Australia's one-sided eight-wicket win over England in the second Test at Lord's.

Mark, caught England's No. 11 Darren Gough to go past Mark Taylor after he had levelled the former skipper's feat during the England first innings.

The 36-year-old made the victory a memorable one by hitting his first century at Lord's in his 113th Test appearance. He had narrowly missed out on a ton in his debut knock at the home of cricket when he was bowled by leftarm spinner Phil Tufnell for 99 in his 1993 visit.

"Mark's probably the best slip catcher in the world, probably for the past 10-20 years, so he fully deserved the record," Steve said of Mark, who was born four minutes after him.

"I think it's a great accolade and a great thing for him to have, and take with him from the game.

"It's definitely important to him. He wanted that record, that's nice for him to have because a lot of the time, myself and Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne get the accolades and Mark's done a lot of hard work. And he's got a great record."

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