The great Steve Waugh

January 12 2004 / New Statesman

How many standing ovations can one man have before the adulation becomes meaningless? For Steve Waugh, this winter has been a procession, one of the longest farewells in sporting history. From wind-buffeted Perth through to his final game against a resurgent India at the Sydney Cricket Ground, this Australian captain has been applauded, cheered and celebrated, his every walk to the crease an act of exaggerated homage.

It is rare in international sport, at the highest level, that you have the opportunity to choreograph your own retirement, to choose the exact moment of your departure. Most sportsmen, fearful of what might happen once the music stops, play on for far too long, oblivious to what time has done to them. Too often a great career expires in disappointment. My abiding memory of Ian Botham is not of the young all-rounder who astonished with his verve and swagger, but of the overweight, mediocre performer he became.

Waugh is no ordinary sportsman. Ruthless and stubborn, he remade himself in his early twenties, after a series of failures against the fearsome pace bowling of the West Indies, as a batsman of singular determination. He was first selected for Australia as an all-rounder, a useful medium-pacer who was also a flamboyant batsman. As he matured and after those early failures, he attempted - unlike his twin brother, Mark, who was dedicated to attack - to eliminate unnecessary risk from his game. He became more defensive, eschewing the hook and the pull. He was at his best when his team were in greatest danger. Coming in at number five, he felt compelled to rebuild an innings, cajoling and nurturing tail-enders to support him as he grafted his way towards another century.

Australian cricket is in thrall to its own mythology. Rather as the nation itself constructed an identity founded upon the defeat at Gallipoli in 1915, so the Bodyline series of 1932-33, when Douglas Jardine led England to a great victory, has come to define Australian cricket. Australian cricketers thrive in adversity; they understand how much it means to wear and play for the “baggy green” cap.

Is there a more mythologised article of sporting clothing than the Australian cap? When Australia lost in Adelaide to India in the second Test of the recent four-match series, the Australian coach John Buchanan wrote an open letter to his players, suggesting their failure was “unbaggygreen”, as if the cap itself, rather than those who wear it, was the key determinant of performance. There was no mention of the majestic Indian batting line-up, perhaps the greatest in the history of the game, whose mastery of the Australian bowling has enticed me from bed too early and too often over recent weeks.

There is no prouder wearer of the baggy green than Waugh - his own cap is tattered, frayed, sun-faded. And so as he took the field for his final innings, it was fitting that, with two spinners in operation, he should be wearing not a helmet but that baggy green cap. He perished in that final innings for 80, caught on the boundary as he chased a century with the match safely drawn and his own future as one of the greats of the game secure. It was a noble end to a career in which, in 168 Tests, he scored nearly 11,000 runs at an average of 51.

Waugh may have been uncompromising and ruthless on the field; he may have been a consistent and enthusiastic sledger; he may have mocked the feeble Poms too often for my liking; but, when it mattered most, he showed humility and led his team with dignity. As a captain, he transformed the way Test cricket was played, urging his players to score at four runs per over and always to seek victory, never the easy consolations of a draw. As a philanthropist, he helps to fund a hospital in Udayan, India, for the children of leprosy patients. But it is as a batsman that I shall best remember him: courageous, prolific and, above all, immovable.