WOW! What a man!

NIRMAL SHEKAR

STEVE WAUGH is wasted on sport. More significantly, he is wasted on cricket. As a sportsman, as a cricketer, he is playing way below his league, rubbing shoulders with mere mortals and wasting his time, and great reserves of mental and physical energy, on something as trivial as winning or saving a ballgame.

-S. THANTONI

The more you see Waugh on the international cricket stage, the more you are convinced that he is one of sport's biggest outsiders. It is merely an accident that he does what he does for a living.

For, had he been part of another era in history, Waugh might have walked through an enemy ambush, dragging his comrades' bodies along, blood dripping from his face and from wounds on his arms and legs, but head always held high and eyes focussed like a panther's on its prey.

If you had watched the last of the three lopsided Test matches between Australia and Pakistan, at Sharjah, on a day when temperatures soared to 50 degrees farenheit, you might have marvelled at the one-pointed focus yet again.

On that day, Waugh had nothing to lose. By the time he stepped in, Australia had enough runs on the board for Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne to try and bowl out Waqar Younis's side twice. Nothing to lose, really, but his own place in the side as captain for the Ashes series.

Time after time after time, one has watched the great fighter haul his side back from the brink with courage and resolve of gladiatorial proportions. But this was one time the great man was fighting for himself.

Then again, on the field this distinction made no difference. As he carefully played himself in against a modest Pakistan attack, with the in-form Ricky Ponting, his heir apparent as Test captain, blazing away at the other end, you could not but marvel at the determination in the man's eyes. It was as steely as the helmet grill behind which the eyes were visible.

Those were the eyes of a man inching his way up the last few metres of Everest amidst a monstrous snowstorm; the eyes of a soldier waging war alone against a pack of enemies in unfamiliar terrain; the eyes of a brilliant scientist cocooned in his lab at midnight trying to put the last few pieces of the puzzle together in an attempt to find a cure for AIDS.

Steve Waugh could have been any of those man. A legendary summiteer, a celebrated soldier who became an all-conquering Field Marshall, a nobel laureate scientist whose drive and determination gave the world a weapon against a great scourge.

But, as it happens, Waugh is a cricketer. And a cricketer of rather modest ability compared to the Bradmans, Richardses, Warnes and Tendulkars.

He can never hope to dominate the bowling like Tendulkar does; never attempt to become as elegant and stylish a player as his twin-brother Mark; never aim for the sort of heroics that a Viv Richards came up with time and again.

For, it is not Waugh's bat that reflects his genius so much as his mind, his heart.

As a longtime Waugh-watcher, a longtime admirer of the man's awesome stature as a fighter, the moment I saw him make his first few runs in the third Test, I knew that he'd get his 28th Test hundred.

That he did - and made a good 20 of those runs in the company of McGrath, reaching three figures with successive sixes - was hardly a surprise in the end. To me, it was a matter of time.

"Once I got to 80 with Glenn I thought I may as well have a crack at a hundred and play a few shots," said Waugh.

Then again, time has been unkind to Waugh in recent times. From the time he outfoxed the English attack on one leg to score an epic hundred in England in the last Ashes series, Waugh has been struggling with the bat.

And the selectors' decision to dump him and his brother from the Australian one-day side, now led by Ponting, did not make things any easier for a proud man to whom digging deep is second nature. Fourteen long months he spent without a three-figure knock in Test cricket and not for the first time, many a critic gleefully wrote him off.

"I have said all along that it is nice to be captain but you've got to score runs to stay in the side. So it is good to get a bit of the pressure off," said Waugh. "It (pressure) has been pretty strong."

Then the great Aussie spoke about how it was "amazing that it turns around when you put in the hard work."

Hard work, yes. But, in truth, there is a lot more to the turnaround than the Aussie captain would admit. Any number of players are capable of working as hard as Waugh but how many of them have accomplished what he has in the face of adversity?

How many middle order batsmen in world cricket have scored as many big - and more importantly influential from the point of view of the match result - knocks after walking in at a precarious point in the innings?

Time after time after time, the great man has left the dressing room to do business in the middle with his team's score reading 34 for three of 52 for four. And more often than not on these occasions, Waugh has played innings of substance, innings that underlined his character as a champion, innings that held a mirror to his heart, innings that set him apart from every great contemporary of his for the sheer fighting qualities they reflected.

Waugh, in my book, has never been a great entertainer. He can never do what a Virender Sehwag does. His presence in the middle doesn't get the pulse to race as when a Viv Richards or a Brian Lara, at their best, set about demolishing bowling attacks.

Unlike a Tendulkar, Waugh is not someone who might have reminded that late Don Bradman of himself, reminded him of how he himself played. His presence in a match won't help sell thousands of tickets at the Wankhede stadium or the Eden Gardens or at the Oval in London.

But entertainment is easy to come by. Charisma, for all its value, in terms of adulation and dollars, is still no match for character, pure character.

And the story of Stephen Rodger Waugh is all about character, something that in sport, wins more games than does pure talent, which is often over-rated in terms of its influence in close matches.

For all that, it is not as if Waugh is invincible. Actually the opposite is true. He is very, very vincible. And this is precisely why the one-pointed determination and steely resolve that he epitomises are so vital to his success as a leader and as a batsman.

As successful as Waugh has been in leading a very talented side to victories time and again, he has had his moments of despair, his hours of failure as a captain.

At the Eden Gardens in early 2001, Waugh clearly erred in judgement when he asked India to follow on. V.V.S. Laxman came up with the innings of a lifetime in the company of a never-say-die Rahul Dravid and India brought off the miracle.

Again at Chennai, in the third Test, it is unlikely that India would have won if Waugh had not, on impulse, handled the ball at a time things were going swimmingly for his team.

These mistakes, and a few others as well over the years, only go to prove that he is no all-conquering, infallible science fiction hero. He is as human as you and I. It's just that he happens to dig a lot deeper than any of us.

Some day soon, he might keep on digging, sweat in his brow, anguish on his face, and find out that there is nothing left there. It is a risk that all sportsmen run in the twilight of their careers.

But knowing Waugh, I am certain that he will be the first to know - and to acknowledge - that the great reserves of courage, stamina and willpower have run out(in the context of cricket, to be sure), if and when they do.Right now, of course, there is a bowl of Ashes to defend and nobody defends such time-honoured possessions better than Waugh does.

Still, as serious as this Ashes business is in sport, as focussed as Steve Waugh is in its cause, I will continue to believe the man is wasted on sport.