Waugh leaves his stylish mark

ROHIT BRIJNATH

IT was a week of three continents, two channels and one choice. In America, Lleyton Hewitt was busy mocking William Tell by producing a similar precision but on the dead run. To put it another way, he was insisting, between grimaces, that Pete Sampras line-up for his pension cheque and Tim Henman pursue an alternative profession.

In South Africa, Mark Waugh was impersonating an artist gone colour-blind, a ballet dancer with a fear of flying. Or to put it another way, he was insisting that it didn't matter how wide his bat was somehow he'd find an edge.

In Australia, I weighed the remote in one hand and my options in the other. What to watch. One man's rise or another's fall. It took me 1.35 seconds, or somewhere about there, to decide. South Africa.

Let's put this as gently as we can. Mark Waugh, even in decline, confused over shot selection, sluggish in footwork, will still every seven overs (if he's still there), maybe every second innings, produce a shot of such flair and imagination that museums will vie for it. Hewitt, in ascension, will produce a winning shot every odd point, that has all the charm of a falling axe, which coaches will vie for as an example of technique and tenacity, perspiration and perseverance.

One man is making a living constructing brilliant shots; the other made his carving beautiful ones. One man leaves you impressed, the other incredulous.

In life beyond sport, their job options are clear. Waugh would sculpt in a studio, Hewitt break stones in a quarry. Waugh would paint landscapes, Hewitt houses. Waugh, suited, with a rose in the lapel, would toss money disdainfully at the race track; Hewitt would be the horse.

He will soon be gone, and cricket will miss Waugh.

Sport needs Hewitt, of course it does. He is tough and resilient, hard-working and patient. He creates the illusion that he is built from sweat, and becomes a sort of role model for everyman. He is a triumph of effort and method.

Sport needs Waugh too, more so perhaps, for his breed is dying. If Hewitt comes off a conveyor belt (though in some senses, he is an original), Waugh arrives from a design studio. When he plays it is obvious, no, I cannot do that, there is something too extraordinary, too instinctively individual and fluent, to be replicated. He is the triumph of invention, of mood and whimsy.

Each man is important, because only in contrast do we see them clearly, only when opposed to one another do their virtues shine. Without Gooch's doggedness we could not appreciate Gower's audacity. So too with Ali and Frazier, and Lendl and McEnroe.

It is a difficult marriage, this style and substance. Some like Ali, find the perfect blend. Most do not, and are viewed then as undisciplined talent. As players more concerned with the delicacy of a shot or a pass or a stroke, the very flourish of it, rather than the bottom line (i.e. winning). But it is somewhat a fallacy: what comes so easily to some men is interpreted as casual to others.

One morning, at Eden Gardens, I chatted with David Gower in the commentary box as Kambli batted. As the Indian swished lazily outside the off stump and was caught, a technician teased Gower, "Looks familiar doesn't it, David."

In reply, Gower smiled ruefully, pointed to the scoreboard and asked, What's he got... a 150?

Gower's headstone, as might Waugh's, may well read, 'Finally laid back,' for no other cliche followed him so closely. When I questioned him about it, Gower replied: "What I will try and remind people who use it too freely (the phrase laid-back) is that although there is a certain amount of it in me, in order to play Test cricket well over a period of time, obviously there is a little more besides."

Waugh, a cricketing poet of some measure, is similarly taken to task. Recently, it was pointed out that he has a best score of 153, despite scoring 20 centuries, the criticism signifying, one presumes, an inability to go the distance, a flaw of character, a reckless grace.

It may not be altogether untrue. But that said, while spectators paint flags on their patriotic faces and come primed to watch their teams pursue victory, they search too for entertainment, for theatre, and that demands all manner of actors. Sport is a chase for glory, but also a creative pursuit.

Some of us do not care if Glenn Hoddle did not tackle as long as he could conjure passes into spaces that didn't appear to exist. We did not really care if McEnroe could not touch his toes, or countered Lendl's computerised Haas diet (prepared by nutritionist Robert Haas) by saying I'm on a Haagen-Daas (ice cream) diet, as long as he fashioned an improbable sorcery on the court.

And yes, on enough occasions we felt let down, and frustrated by their indiscretion, and foamed wildly over some artles's impetuosity, and slammed palms down on tables in frustration, and used words like discipline about Waugh and caution for McEnroe and prudence for Roberto Baggio. But in some warped, twisted way this was part of our pleasure, their ability to make us gasp but also sigh, to move us so dramatically between the exultant and the despairing.

So much of this Mark Waugh takes away when he leaves the crease forever. Cricket has too few such men, indeed does sport, men whose virtues one day are vices the next.

In the end, Gooch had more runs than Gower, and Lendl more Grand Slam titles than McEnroe. In the end Hewitt may go further in his sport than Waugh has gone in his.

But one might travel further, across more continents and through more time zones, to watch the cricketer. Even for an over, just for the promise of what might come. It is not a bad legacy to leave.