The will to keep succeeding

MALCOLM CONN

BY any measure Steve Waugh is the best captain in the world in charge of one of the best teams of all time.

The triumphant Australian team with the ICC World Championship of Test Cricket Trophy.-AFP

That with all his guile and available talent Australia were still unable to beat India in India last year sits as perhaps his greatest disappointment in cricket.

But Australia's imposing 3-0 victory over South Africa in what was supposed to be the world heavyweight championship of Test nations enhanced Waugh's standing as the most successful Test captain throughout the history of the game amongst those who have led in a dozen or more matches.

His winning percentage from 34 Tests in charge is now above 70 percent. Don Bradman is second with 62.5 percent from 24 Tests as skipper.

Waugh's achievement is all the more significant given that he won only two of his first seven Tests as captain, drawing his first series 2-2 in the West Indies and losing 1-0 in Sri Lanka.

"It's nice to be winning," he said. "I took over the side when we weren't going well in the first couple of series.

"I was always confident in my ability to do the job. It obviously helps when you've got match-winners in the side and there has been a lot of hard work put in to get to this stage. It's not like we've always played like that.

There are a lot of support staff who have also helped, the players have been great and I've really enjoyed it. I think we've all grown together when I've been in the job.

"At the end of the day I'd like to think I've got a pretty good record as captain. It's nice to look back on." Perhaps Waugh's greatest achievement is to take discarded players and give them the confidence to play so well under him. Matthew Hayden, Justin Langer and Damien Marytn are all players who have been in and out of the Australian side and now have formed the basis of the team's domination. Their figures alone tell compelling stories.

In seven Tests before Steve Waugh took over Hayden averaged less than 22 and had scored only one century. Under his current captain he averages almost 62 with six centuries and six half-centuries from 18 Tests.

Langer, who looked as though he may never play again after being dropped before the start of the Ashes Test series in England last year, has had an amazing resurrection since so unexpectedly returning to the side for the last Test at The Oval.

He has five centuries from seven Tests at an average of 87.44 and under Waugh is averaging better than 50 from 31 Tests compared to 35.35 from 16 before Waugh took over.

More remarkable has been the partnerships by this pair. In 11 opening stands together they have passed 50 seven times, 150 five times and 200 four times.

Their opening partnership average of 117.9 is the only one above a hundred in Test history for those combinations who have batted together at the top of the order in 10 innings or more. The next best is Jack Hobbs and Bert Sutcliffe of England with 87.81.

But perhaps the greatest and most silent rise of a player under Waugh has been Damien Martyn. Discarded in early 1994 as a brash young pup after averaging less than 29 in seven Tests, under Waugh Martyn averages almost 69 in 13 Tests. His overall average of 54.35 from 22 Tests sits second only to Bradman amongst Australians for anyone with 14 or more Tests.

Not surprisingly, Waugh singled out particular praise for his new opening combination.

"I've always believed those guys were the right guys to play for Australia with their character and their work ethic," said Waugh. "To see them succeeding is almost better than getting runs myself. It's great to see guys come through the tough periods. The way they're enjoying their cricket and playing it is really enjoyable".

So impressed has Waugh been with Langer's rise from the Ashes that he has been used to speak to the remainder of the team as a motivational tool.

"We had Justin Langer talk to the side in Adelaide about how he came back from being dropped in England, where he was batting poorly and didn't really look like playing a Test," said Waugh.

"From that situation at Sussex, when he got out a couple of times cheaply before the last Test and was completely out of form, from there to go on and score five hundreds in seven Tests, he spoke to the guys about what that took and how he went about it."

But the biggest pat was saved for Hayden, who scored four centuries and a 91 this summer, including three centuries in as many Tests against South Africa to break the 37-year-old record for the most runs by an Australian in a calendar year.

"He's in complete control of his game," Waugh said of Hayden. "His balance is magnificent, his shot execution is first class and his temperament is very good. He knows his game very well and he dominates the bowling, which is not easy to do when you're opening the batting. I can't imagine anyone playing any better than that."

Hayden has made no secret of the comfort he now feels playing under Waugh compared to Mark Taylor. Hayden was recalled for the 1997 series in South Africa and was forced to endure a dreadfully out of form Mark Taylor at the other end, who was lucky to hold his place in the side. As a result, when Hayden also struggled on some lively wickets, he was the first to go.

"There was no room for me and Mark Taylor in the same side," Hayden said after his triumphant Test series in India last year. "We were both left-handers and we were both struggling. Things are very different now."

Australia has also enhanced its killer instinct under Waugh. Taylor took Australia to the top of the Test tree with his side's 1995 success in the West Indies with largely a second string pace attack. But even at their best under Taylor Australia still lost so-called dead rubbers once a series had been won.

Steve Waugh's ruthless streak abolished that, with Australia achieving four whitewashes in five series under his captaincy during the past three home seasons. Waugh has never lost a Test in Australia as captain.

He finds it bemusing then that under the ICC's World Test Championship, South Africa need only to draw at home to replace Australia at the top of the table.

Under the current system, Australia must protect the two points won both at home and away four years ago to maintain its slender lead. A drawn series would see Australia lose a point and South Africa gain one.

Waugh took a more realistic view. "In most people's eyes, if we win 3-0 here and draw there it's pretty obvious who the number one side is," he said.

"There will be a points table to say that we're not the number one side if we draw the series but we can always change that pretty quickly if we win the following series.

"It's a little bit strange but that's the points system they've put out so we'll just have to abide by it until they change it later on."

As ruthless as Steve Waugh and his Australians are on the field, there is a compassionate streak to Waugh off the ground which has manifested itself in many different ways.

As an example, during the 1999 tour of Zimbabwe, there was a story in a local newspaper explaining that a child was unable to have a life-saving operation because his parents could not afford it.

The Australians signed cricket clothes and cricket gear and donated it to raise money so the operation could take place.

At the end of the Sydney Test Waugh announced that the players would donate their series winnings - $US26,000 - to the local bushfire appeal to help victims in and around Sydney who had been devastated by weeks of savage burning.

The Australian Cricket Board matched the offer.

"We've been watching the news every night and quite a few of us have been affected by bushfires over the past couple of years," said Waugh. "We know the dedication those guys (fire fighters) make and the sacrifices they make to save other people's homes and lives. It's a small sacrifice from us."

While his leadership figures are good, Waugh's personal performance this summer was well short of his best.

Hindered at the start of the season by a minor bout of Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT) while recovering from a calf strain suffered in England, he averaged just 19.5 against New Zealand and 35.25 against South Africa.

"The DVT set me back a bit because I was on track to get back preseason and have a lot of cricket," Waugh said.

"Since Trent Bridge I really only had that one innings at the Oval. There was really a four-month period where I didn't bat at all. I thought I could just come back and switch on and do the job. It didn't quite happen that way.

"I nicked a couple of balls early in the season, one or two things didn't quite go my way, the odd runout. It's funny how it builds up on you. It's certainly not my best season but in a way it's been even more satisfying to see the other guys come through."

And with that, Waugh immediately aimed up for the one-day series against South Africa and New Zealand. His will to keep succeeding is amazing.