When you walk on a tight-rope, balance doesn’t just serve as a skill, rather as a potent strength that can save you from the embarrassment of a fall.
Nobody wishes to lose a bone.
Nobody cherishes the idea of seeing the world mock when you fall.
From 1985 to 2004, till his last hurrah, Steve Waugh walked the equivalent of a nasty tightrope for Australia.
On either side lay Waugh’s nemesis.
In a game, where a Test win is cherished like an elder’s blessings and where a defeat is met with biting criticism, Steve Waugh, in arguably Australia’s greatest ever unit in the heydeys of mid-1990s to mid-2000s, emerged as an immortal, albeit possessing the DNA of a modest talent.
Yet, a question arises in everyone’s minds.
How come a batsman, who lacked flair and someone who could bowl with modest pace emerge with 10,900 Test runs, 32 Test hundreds, 95 fifties, 287 wickets?
And importantly, how come Waugh pummelled runs at an average of 51?
But just when you begin to side with ‘supreme luck’ being an answer to his success, the cluttered realisation only compounds worries by presenting you with some ground realities that met Waugh.
Steven Waugh was dropped from Australia’s 1990-91 unit. The form wasn’t good. That famous GM willow didn’t seem potent. Stellar careers such as brother Mark’s, no stranger to controversy while being no stranger to elegance either had emerged on the horizon.
Fans wondered if it was curtains for Waugh right when he began?
How could Australia not side with someone like a Mark Waugh who scored a Test ton on debut?
During this aching time for Steve, someone like a Boon, despite staring at his twilight was around and, younger chaps like Slater had emerged well.
So how did Waugh manage to bail out his career right at the start when the going got tough?
There are cricketers who succumb to pressure. And those who thrive on it. In doing the latter, with the sort of customary ease, with which he compiled those mighty 18000 international runs, Waugh stood tall amidst a hubris of despair.
And in here lay Waugh’s enigma
Form or no form, nothing bothered Waugh, it seemed. It also seemed, he undertook with joy a lifelong assignment of making men out of boys; talents that were undeniable in their promise.
He added steel to their ambition, concealing petulant vulnerabilities with the fabric of pious determination toward enabling Australia to soar unprecedented heights.
That is how the world got to see 1999 and 2003 World Cup victories as also numerable Ashes triumphs, wherein Waugh inspired talents to flex muscles. Thus emerged the bullies of international cricket in those days: McGrath, Warne, Hayden, Fleming, Gilchrist.
That said, make no mistake; Waugh was no Mother Teresa
Take nothing away from his temerity, however, you wish to brand Waugh’s mental toughness in a sport usually pegged on the exploits of bat and ball.
Their game, often upped by shenanigans like sledging, the Aussies found a ring master in McGrath, as much as a master of pace bowling as he was a vocal exponent of slipping in verbals.
Waugh, fielding either from the second slip or the third, saw mini fights happen as the ball would pass briskly from the batsman’s ear, carrying chin-music and needless expletives.
Did that make for a pretty site?
But, Waugh played on a pedestal of uncomplicated cricket, even as the world around him was often tempered disgustingly by a Shane Warne and Mark Waugh, who brought blithe to Australian Cricket, otherwise painted by colours of their virtuosity.
It could be argued that in balancing the light weight of his talent-short on flair when compared to Mark’s, Steve’s job might have seemed easy.
But, in balancing the somewhat harsh expectations of securing thumping glories for Australia against the effort of cultivating some of their finest talents- Warne, McGrath, Gillespie, Slater, Bevan, Healy- Waugh emerged as torch-bearer, whose task was to launch a space mission. Repeatedly. With excellence seeming the only choice acceptable.
But great men, it must be said, aren’t born to easy circumstances.
From emerging in 1985 to standing at the gates of uncertainty immediately after to reforming his approach by basing his Cricket on dogged determination, to finally finishing as a leader among men; the force among the mighty’s, Waugh’s 32 Test hundreds and 16 consecutive Test wins brought the world on its feet to hail a man who seemed more determined to give back to Cricket than many of his contemporaries.
In a country where a Boxing day Test holds as much value as faith for a Fifth Day Adventist and one for whom defiance of an Ashes Title finds greater purpose than anointing its Cricketers with fluffy nicknames- it helped that Steve Waugh was able to dabble beautifully in twin roles.
That of scoring runs exceedingly well and when it mattered along with soldiering his troops into a battle. Tirelessly.
When his stumps were sent flying, he took to the ball, going as far as holding redoubtable credentials of scalping 27 wickets from 33 World Cup games; 2nd most for an all-rounder ever, following closely to Jayasuriya.
When bat and ball both deceived him, he jogged at plush outfields of Adelaide, Nottingham and, Cape Town, going as far as colliding with one of his own to break his nose, in saving Australia’s in a Test.
Remember Sri Lanka? Remember 223 catches?
Perhaps Waugh reserved his best for his nation’s oldest rivalry ever- going as far as scoring 3200 of his 10,900 plus Test runs versus England whose bowlers suffered Steve Waugh’s 10 centuries.
Even as the Lara’s, Dravid’s, VVS’s and Chanderpaul’s continued to pile on Australia’s misery, showing vigour and form during the late 1990s and mid-2000s, Waugh managed to snub with customary understatedness, opposition’s pressure, emerging as inarguably the best No.5 of his time- collecting over 6700 Test runs from 142 innings.
A great leader, they say, is one who holds loose ends of a unit together, walking the terse middle path to challenges with an obduracy that can shake earthquakes.
And even in the retirements of old guards- Mark Taylor and Ian Healy and, with the coming of a young brigade of mighty maulers in Matt Hayden and Justin Langer, Waugh often stayed long out there, rallying often with the tail of to hold the fort.
Stats point to a relatively unsung phenomenon of Waugh’s grandiose career that reveal that between Jan 1, 1993 to Jan 6, 2004- Waugh was world’s foremost willow wielder.
But weren’t Lara and Sachin at their peak during this period?
Perhaps, even they couldn’t better Waugh, who crossed 8761 Test runs during this time from merely from 122 Tests.
The red handkerchief. The icy cool demeanour. Those Clint-Eastwood like eyes hinting at a master plan to dismiss the batsman with a glint of unflappability. And calm that would melt the arrogance of the aridest mountains.
Where most men looked at captaincy to find an opportunity to condescend, Waugh lavished praise on contemporaries like Dravid.
It is a fact that serves nostalgic offering about a time that offered exactly that which seems to have gone missing today- chivalry.