Yesterday's men still dreaming of tomorrows

NIRMAL SHEKAR

SPORT would not be remotely as fascinating as it is if it does not allow us the luxury of dreams. Because of its infinite capacity to magnify life within the boundaries of a playfield, sport sets off millions of fantasies everywhere - in the dressing rooms, up in the stands, in drawing rooms in front of the television, in school dormitories, on bar stools. On a languid, humid evening a few days ago, as Adam Gilchrist pounced on the hapless South African bowling like a trained Rottweiler on a trespasser in an English country mansion, my own mind flew on the wings of fantasies.

Steve and Mark Waugh were dumped from the Australian one-day side one after the other in a span of three weeks. At age 36 - the Waughs would be 37 on June 2 - how much is still left in the Waughs as one-day players is debatable. But what seems significant is Steve Waugh's stubborn refusal to accept the inevitable.-N. SRIDHARAN

WORLD CUP FINAL 2003, SOUTH AFRICA: Chasing a hefty 275 to retain the title, Australia is pushed to a corner, four down for 38. In comes Steve Waugh to join his twin brother Mark in the middle. Over the next two hours, as a pair of ageing troubadours hold stage, cricket itself breaks boundaries and takes on the contours of super-sport, occupying an exalted realm as the Waugh brothers blend poetry and prose to produce an exquisite cricketing fantasy. If Mark, tenderly making love to the ball with his bat, is very much in the Byron mould, then Steve, using his bat a lot like Ernest Hemingway used his pen, produces gut level prose as the Aussies soar, and soar, and soar. It is the perfect flight, like the seagull's in Richard Bach's classic Jonathan Livingstone Seagull.

The point about fantasies is, they have a very brief life span when the dreamer is a hardened pro. In the event, one was jolted out of the reverie rather quickly and reality loomed large. For, even if Australia does make the final of Africa's first World Cup of cricket, Steve Waugh would perhaps be watching the match with his wife and kids at home in a Sydney suburb. And his brother Mark may very well ignore the whole thing and choose, instead, to follow the horses on a pay channel!

As recently as a year ago, it might have been inconceivable that the world's most successful cricket team would actually play a one-day international in the year 2002 without either of the Waugh brothers in the side.

But, then, sport, as we know, is a strange business. For all that it matters, yesterday, in reality, may be a million years in the past. In that, it is a bit like journalism, as a profession. Yesterday's report is already in the dustbin of history. You are as good as your tomorrow morning's story.

So indeed it is for an athlete. The glorious rich vein of form of the last series is hardly of any value. The question always is: What the hell did you do today?

Little wonder, then, the most successful brothers international cricket has known have suddenly become Yesterday's Men in the context of limited overs cricket. Twins who came into this world four minutes apart were dumped from the Australian side one after the other in a span of three weeks. And when Australia takes on South Africa in the first of seven one day internationals on March 22 in Johannesburg, it would mark the first time in 16 years that the team from down under would not feature at least one of the Waugh brothers.

"They run me out of my home. I played hard all those years for 'em, but when they used me up, they run me out," said the baseball player Willie Horton when the Detroit Tiger team dumped him in 1978.

Of course, in the world of sport, every season dozens of once-mighty champions are run out of what they might have believed were their homes. The older the neck, the more swiftly does sport's guillotine come down.

Pete Sampras waves to the crowd after losing to Marat Safin in the fourth round of the 2002 Australian Open. The ageing champion tennis player still believes that he has something left in him.-REUTERS

And it matters not how hard you might have played - could any cricketer have played harder than Steven Rodger Waugh? - "all those years". What matters is how hard you played and how successful you were in the last series, or, sometimes, the last match alone.

For the Waughs, their limited overs cricket figures are hardly impressive: Steve scored 187 runs in his last 10 matches and seven innings for an average of 31.17 while Mark make 162 in 10 matches and nine innings, for an average of 20.25.

In a team with the most impressive bench strength of any in international cricket today - an Australian Second XI would surely be good enough to beat most teams playing Test cricket - these figures are simply not good enough.

What is more, the Australian selectors were obviously ringing in the changes with their sights on the 2003 World Cup. Unlike in Indian cricket, where the Board generally plans for yesterday - in terms of disaster management, quite often - in progressive nations like Australia, managers look well ahead.

That Steve Waugh was the leader of the Old Boys Brigade was something that the men who control the game down under were seldom comfortable with. And when he became the first captain in 23 years not to put the team in the Triangular finals, and his form too dipped just that bit, the knives that were long being sharpened were out to draw blood.

The fact that Steve Waugh always stood up for his senior players made the Aussie Selectors all the more determined to have him out of the way well ahead of next year's World Cup so that they could then drop men such as Mark Waugh, who, incidentally, happens to be the fourth highest run scorer in one-day Internationals.

While Mark seems to have accepted his fate with a punter's shrug, Steve, as determined a fighter as cricket has seen, appears to have re-doubled his efforts - in terms of fitness and focus - to try and win his place back in the one-day side.

"I haven't given up hope of being here next year (for the World Cup). I am out of the side at the moment, but I plan on making the next World Cup," Steve Waugh said not long after landing in South Africa.

And more recently, in an interview with Peter Roebuck, which appeared in The Age, Melbourne, Steve said, "To survive you need a tough hide. People expect you to win and score runs all the time. There is something left in me yet."

At age 36 - the Waughs would be 37 on June 2 - how much is still left in the twins as one-day players is debatable. But what seems significant is Steve Waugh's stubborn refusal to accept the inevitable.

When Steve Waugh talked about winning his place back, my mind went back to a cool night in Melbourne last January as I sat in the post-match press conference listening to the incomparable Pete Sampras talk about still being a contender at the Grand Slam events after losing to an inspired Marat Safin in the fourth round of the Australian Open. And Sampras was saying, in essence, what Steve Waugh did: that he still has something left in him.

Every great champion who continues to hold a bat or a racquet or a ball in hand does so because he continues to believe - no matter his age and the obvious signs of decline - that he is still a world beater. And equally, every great ageing champion past his prime lives in a constant state of denial when it comes to his age and the ravages of time.

In the event, it is hardly surprising that Sampras should have hired a new coach to try and win the only major that has eluded him - the French Open - even as he became the most successful Grand Slam champion of all time, winning 13 singles titles.

But, then, it is less likely Jose Higueras would work the kind of wonders that would see Sampras being crowned at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris than there is the possibility that Steve Waugh would successfully take his place back in the Australian side for the World Cup in South Africa.

As good as Safin was on that night in Melbourne in the Australian Open, watching the peerless Pete Sampras being outplayed, it was difficult to resist the urge to jump into the bull ring of a stadium court and cry halt to the whole thing.

Why would a great champion who has accomplished so much put himself through such humiliation? Why would cricket's greatest leader and fighter Steve Waugh allow himself to look as clueless as he seemed to be against the New Zealand and South African bowlers during the last home season?

The point is, a great athlete's ego, his whole sense of self-esteem, is tied up with his sport. And the higher the profile of a sport and a sportsman, the harder it becomes to accept the fact that his days on centre stage are numbered.

When Pete Sampras is no longer a champion tennis player, who is he? When Steve Waugh is not a champion batsman and winning captain, who is he?

"I am 39, I'm tired, it's so easy to cheat and let my weight and legs go, stop working hard and eat everything I like, all the ice cream and chocolate and junk food. But then I couldn't play and I am so happy when I play," said Billie Jean King, the player who revolutionised women's tennis in the 1960s and 1970s, in a television interview many years ago with Bud Collins.

Underline the words "couldn't play." That's the key. As much as pride in performance, it is the fact that nothing can compensate an athlete for not doing what he enjoys doing most - playing - which sees men like Sampras and the Waughs go on and on till even their greatest of fans start asking the question: "Why is he still doing this?"

The point is, the kind of pressure that a professional athlete faces today is extraordinary. And to have been as good as Sampras and Steve Waugh have been for as as long as they have been is truly remarkable. These are extraordinary human beings - not just extraordinary players - who have adjusted to varying demands and have made great sacrifices to achieve what they have accomplished.

But sport is seldom kind to 36- year-old batsmen and 30-year-old tennis champions, however great they may be, whatever their track record. Even the greatest of them all, Muhammad Ali, fooled himself into believing that he still had what it took when he faced his one-time sparring partner Larry Holmes, who was rather kind to the great man in the ring because of the respect he had for the icon.

What happens with most athletes who linger on is that the legs go first. Pride follows. But you'd think that in a world where the ageing process becomes accelerated, it is intelligent men such as Sampras and the Waughs who'd know first when their time was up.

But, obviously, the big decision - to retire - is as difficult to make for even these giants. Of course, there are levels of ego involved in making that decision and when experience has taught you a few tricks to live down age and postpone retirement, it becomes even tougher to decide quickly.

After a nightmarish start against Safin at Melbourne, Sampras won the third set tiebreak and played a close fourth set before saying that he thought a few points made all the difference and that he played as well as he could have in the last two sets.

I could have laughed, actually cried. Who was he kidding? Himself or the audience? For, if Sampras plays as well as he can play, few men can even take a set off him.

For all this, to me there is nothing more soul-lifting in sport than watching an ageing champion score the greatest of sporting victories: the victory over encroaching age, over Time itself.

For, in a here-today, gone-tomorrow age, such victories underline the rare qualities of durability and strength of will that have underlined the great careers of a Sampras and a Steve Waugh.

This is precisely the reason why I am still dreaming... of Sampras lifting his eighth Wimbledon Trophy on July 7, 2002, with the most famous tennis court in the world awash in golden twilight... of Steve Waugh playing a match winning innings with typical in-the-trenches resolve in the 2003 World Cup final, and then walking back to the pavilion with every man, woman and child on their feet applauding.

In sport, there is nothing quite like watching Yesterday's Men coming good tomorrow.