The Gladiator

Published : Jul 28, 2001 00:00 IST

Sport produces situations that separate not merely boys from men but men themselves from gladiators. And Steve Waugh is the greatest gladiator in world cricket today, writes NIRMAL SHEKAR.

EVERYBODY who loves the great game of cricket has his own favourite match scenario. From the late verse-loving Neville Cardus down to the Calcutta street urchin who, with a broad smile directs you to the Maharaj's house in Behala, from Pimms sipping men in pin-striped suits at the members' bar at Lord's to the rum-loving members of a Calypso band in Bridgetown, each cricket lover has his own dream situation.

Mine is rather simple. It doesn't involve explosive action. It doesn't require a Viv Richards or a Sachin Tendulkar. It doesn't demand the sort of aesthetic delights in a perfect setting - the summer sun, a lovely batting track - that Cardus dreamed of.

No Shane Warne has ever intruded on my dreams weaving a delightful web of pure magic. Nor has a Gundappa Viswanath danced on the dream's great stage with Rudolph Nureyev's footwook, coaxing the ball late, and fine, leaving the fielders in a state of trance.

The ambience has no meaning - it could be chilly Dunedin or burning hot Chepauk. All characters but one, on stage, are irrelevant. The nature of the match itself - whether it is Test cricket or one-day cricket - is of little significance. The only things that matter are the situation and the man.

Australia is 42 for three or 53 for four, and in walks Steve Waugh. My day is made.

Man is not defined so much by success as he is by failure, by how he faces up to the possibility of failure, by how he deals with crisis, how he stretches his resources, both physical and mental, to turn failure, near-failure, into a glorious triumph.

This is not only something that is character-revealing but also, more significantly, a defining process that separates not merely boys from men but men themselves from gladiators. And Steve Waugh is the greatest gladiator in world cricket today.

No single cricketer in modern times - and certainly no active cricketer - could have faced up to failure with quite the same gladiatorial intensity and single-mindedness as has Steve Waugh time after time after time.

Sport is at once a fascinating laboratory for observation as well as a cruel business because the situations it creates strip a man to his essentials. There is nowhere to hide, nothing to cover yourself with.

A twitch here, a moment's self-doubt there, and a mini-crisis can turn, in the blink of an eye, into a major disaster.

An Allan Donald bouncer whistles by your face as you set out to repair the damage, with your team reeling at four down for 53. What's your response?

The average would surely collapse in a heap of nerves. The better ones would present a stiff upper lip of the Mike Atherton brand. The very good and the great would have their own response.

It's Steve Waugh's way of responding to such a situation which marks him out as a pure one-off. A Viv Richards or a Kapil Dev or a Sanath Jayasuriya might go after the bowling and bring off a miracle, a brilliant counter-attacking hundred which would rank with the most astonishing knocks in the history of the game.

Then again, a Richards, fuelled by genius and the arrogance, which is both a by-product and a psychological weapon, might have brought it off five out of 10 times, a Kapil Dev two out of 10 and a Jayasuriya perhaps on three out of 10 occasions.

But what does Steve Waugh do? He does it almost every single time. And he does what a master rock climber does when the top edge of the cliff gives way, he hangs in there, showing tremendous grace under pressure, his granite hard will simply refusing to yield. And, then, in time, he is right on top of the cliff, the master of all he surveys.

It is both a great professional's response and a gladiator's response. When you are playing for your life, you first minimise and then eliminate the risks. Then, suddenly, it is the enemy who is running for his life!

Simply put, it is a great fighter's response. And the peerless Muhammad Ali turned it into stuff of sporting folklore in Zaire 27 years ago when he fought George Foreman for the heavyweight title. Fighting with his back to the ropes for the most part, the great man finally knocked out Foreman in one of the most astonishing upsets in sports history.

The reason Steve Waugh is different from most cricketers is simply because he responds to crisis first like a fighter and then like a cricketer.

"If he loves one thing, it is the fight,

When the game is poised and the bowling tight,

And the bowling attack is sensing blood,If they get his wicket, there'll be a flood."

This is from a poem entitled The Skipper, written by the Australian team manager Steve Bernard and read to the players at breakfast in England recently.

Steve Waugh himself has encouraged his players to read out at breakfast each morning on the tour something that they have found inspiring and would motivate the team. Bernard wrote those lines to serve this purpose and not really because he was aspiring to be ranked alongside Wordsworth or Keats in Literature's Hall of Fame!

Whether you give him a perfect 10 for his poetic imagination or not, there is no disputing the fact that the lines capture the essence of Steve Waugh in elementary fashion.

If nothing else - perhaps above all else - Steve Waugh is a fighter, a fighter to the point where his very identity as a sportsman is dependent on that virtue. He fights, therefore he is.

From the time of the ancient Olympic Games to the modern professional era, from Pompeii down to Lord's and Wimbledon and Eden Gardens, one of the greatest compliments a sportsman can get is to be described as a fighter.

But, then, man is both a sporting animal and a fighting animal, a survivor. And all sportsmen, in varying degrees, are fighters. If you can't fight, you can't play ball at the highest levels. Even Goran Ivanisevic, who has failed more times than he's fought, finally fought with his own emotions as he sent down two double faults on matchpoints before sealing victory in the Wimbledon final earlier this month.

Waugh, for his part, is the Don among fighters because he has turned it into a sort of art form, as did Jimmy Connors in tennis in the 1970s and 1980s, as did Ali himself in his prime.

Steve Waugh is never quite as brash and foul mouthed as Connors was. Connors hated to lose because he hated to see the smile of victory on his opponent's face. With the Australian captain, the motivation to fight comes not from the fear of defeat as from the courage and conviction that he has the ability in him to turn defeat into success.

For the great Australian, fighting is, however, not an end in itself - fighting for fighting's sake, pure and simple - as it is a means to an end, to advance the team's cause.

How many of Steve Waugh's 26 hundreds have come when the man had walked in with the team score at 300 for four? And how many have come when Australia was teetering on the very brink with the top order knocked out in quick time?

And it is precisely because the senior Waugh has revelled in the role of the-fighter-as-a-team-man that he has turned out to be such a brilliant captain as well over the last two years when his team ran up an amazing Test match winning streak of 16, something that was halted by one of the most outrageously brilliant and unlikely Test innings of all time, V. V. S. Laxman's 281 at Kolkata.

"You can divide leadership into two aspects. One is telling, ordering even, having a clear idea of what you want and getting people to do it. You might call those masculine qualities," said the former England captain and psychiatrist, Mike Brearley, in an interview to The Times, London, recently.

"And there are the more feminine qualities you might call receptivity. This is consulting people, finding out what they think, their feelings, whether they have different ideas you can learn from," said Brearley.

Brearley was talking in a different context and was not referring to the Australian cricket captain. But, as a team leader, Steve Waugh combines both the masculine and feminine qualities. And this is precisely why he has turned out to be the game's most successful active captain.

"That's what this team is all about. Watching them grow as cricketers and as people," Steve Waugh said recently in England before the first Test.

He has not only watched his men grow but has helped them grow along with him. What you see in the Australian dressing room is the sort of professionalism and team spirit that teams from the sub-continent cannot even dream of. And no cricket fan anywhere in the world would grudge this Aussie side the latest jewel in their crown - the ICC Test Championship Trophy.

It is because he is as good as he is as a fighter, as a batsman in a crisis and as a visionary leader of men, that there is no doubt in my mind at all that Steve Waugh is the greatest active cricketer in the world today - not the greatest batsman, but the greatest cricketer.

A splendid side

LET us attempt a simple individual rating of this wonderfully successful Australian team and rank them in descending order of importance:

1. Steve Waugh *****

If you want anyone to play for your life, you would know who it'd be... if you valued your life! A great team man and an inspiring leader.

2. Glenn McGrath *****

Ball after ball, over after over, match after match, the best bowler in the world today. Has had very few bad games. Chief virtues: accuracy and bounce, and his remarkable temperament.

3. Adam Gilchrist ****

By far the finest wicket-keeper batsman in world cricket. Dependable behind the stumps and explosive in front of them.

4. Shane Warne ****

His best is behind him, but there can be no doubt about his place in the pantheon of spinners. He's right there on top. And he bounces back each time you write him off.

5. Brett Lee ****

When a bowler's biggest fan answers to the name Dennis Lillee, you can hardly doubt his quality. Has come back in impressive style from injury. Potentially the most fearsome fast bowler in the game.

6. Mark Waugh ****

When he is on song, watching him bat is the sort of heady experience that listening to Mozart can be. Mr. Elegance, but as with all such players, far from consistent.

7. Jason Gillespie ***

Bowled with great heart but without luck in India. Superb bowler whose fuller length can be effective in England.

8. Matthew Hayden ***

Came into his own in India and has cemented his place in the side. Very dependable.

9. Ricky Ponting ***

After a disastrous tour of India, has worked hard at practice and is now back at his best.

10. Michael Slater ***

Can change the course of a match with a hurricane innings. Seems set to leave behind memories of the Indian tour.

11. Damien Martyn ***

A maiden hundred in the first Ashes Test may well mean that he's come to stay as a Test match player.


*** Average to good**** Very good***** Excellent

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