With the Ashes series around the corner and tickets for the traditional Boxing Day Test match already sold out here in Melbourne, I took to indulging some cricket nostalgia.
Many years ago, in the 1984-‘85 season to be precise, the University stadium in Trivandrum was witness to a historic moment in Kerala’s sporting history. The touring Australian cricket team had come down to the city to play India in what was to be the first one-day international on Kerala’s soil. Torrential rains in the afternoon meant that the match had to be abandoned after only nine overs of the Aussie reply to India’s 177 in 40 overs. Within an year of that event, most of that team from Down Under save some like Alan Border were gone, having signed up for county matches in the then apartheid-ridden South Africa. Few returned from the mandatory ban and this aftermath period was one of conflict, self-doubt and much churn in Australian cricket. Hardly a couple of years from then and the Kangaroos had given the world a preview of things to come by winning the Reliance World Cup in Kolkota in style. They have not looked back since.
Some of the above events had had a significant part to play in the life of Stephen Rodger Waugh, the eldest of four boys born forty one years ago to a banker and his wife in Panania, New South Wales. Waugh was a shy, ordinary bloke with limited talent. He was nevertheless passionate about soccer and cricket from a young age. One of the characteristics about Waugh that attracted me as a cricket enthusiast was this ‘Simple Simon’ aspect of his. He was no genius like Sachin Tendulkar or Martin Crowe, to take two contemporary examples. For the initial period he even struggled for his place in the Test eleven. How did this cricketer take off from such a tentative position to reach where he eventually did – at the pinnacle of world cricket? His Test record reads 10,000 runs, 32 centuries, 10 nineties, an average of above 50 and a remarkable captaincy that saw a 16 match winning streak (which ended with V.V.S. Laxman drawing the rekha). He played a record 168 Tests, 86 of them victoriously! In ODI he led the Aussies to the ‘99 World Cup triumph at the Mecca of cricket, Lord’s. He was an agile fielder and quite handy as a stock bowler. If all these were not enough, he also managed to carry out charity work in Kolkota, starting a home called Udayan for the children of lepers. Waugh’s 750 page tome of an autobiography titled Out of My Comfort Zone, tells us that sagacious story, straight from the heart. Before and after Waugh, cricketing books – biographies and autobiographies, authorised and unauthorised – have been inflicted on us by the cartloads. Most of them alternate between pompous ego-trips and drab, thinly-veiled statistics. Waugh’s book is one of the exceptions. It is well-produced, lucid and readable in spite of its forbidding size.
Steve was older to his twin Mark by four minutes. Growing up they had all the problems that such siblings have, including competition among them. Both sweated it out to make it to club, county, state and national teams although Mark clearly was naturally gifted as a batsman. Wife Lynette was a constant source of support and encouragement for Steve throughout his 18 year international career. She not only managed the house with three kids in his absence but also revved him up with the strength to recover from the many lows that a professional cricketer at the highest level is wont to experience. A long time friend like the Melburnian Shane Warne did have his wayward ways in spite of being arguably the greatest bowler that ever took breath on earth. This might have helped Waugh inherit the mantle of captaincy from Mark Taylor even though Warne was vice-captain before him.
If you thought sledging was an Australian pastime, well this book will enlighten you that there were others equally good at it. As Waugh took guard in his last Test innings at Sydney in ‘03, the 18 year old Indian keeper Parthiv Patel chirped at him with ‘Let’s finish it off with a slog-sweep’. To this Waugh coolly turned and replied, ‘Listen, mate, how about showing a bit of respect? When I played my first Test, you were still running around in nappies.’ While this was good fun the ugly brushes had been with the aggressors from the Caribbean. While on an English tour Waugh met Edward de Bono who gave him tips for one day match strategy like not getting out a batsman who was playing slow! While this certainly was lateral thinking, it was also a bit too much to digest for an Aussie with his natural attacking instincts. Former selector Ian Chappell, initially a Waugh-baiter, later came to accept him. Waugh pulls no punches in his mention about the rude and aloof Sourav Ganguly who arrived late for tosses and just walked away by himself after the same. On the other hand the refined Rahul Dravid, who incidentally wrote the foreword to the book, comes out as a friend who was as earnest in his constant quest for knowledge as he was methodical in his batting. One can’t help chuckle at Waugh’s observation that if there is an Olympic medal for staring, the Indian public would win it hands down.
Cricket lovers will adore Steve Waugh’s book for many reasons. While it is motivational reading to understand how much grit and hard work can pay one back, it is also a comprehensive chronicle of the most incredibly successful period in the cricketing history of a nation. Australia rightfully retains its Numero Uno ranking in the game today. One can safely say that none perfectly represents the spirit that made it possible than S.R Waugh, or Tugga as he was popularly known.