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A triumph of mind over matter

The phrase 'end of an era' would not have fitted better the retirement of a cricketer other than Steve Waugh.

india Updated: Jan 06, 2004 18:19 IST

The phrase 'end of an era' would not have fitted better the retirement of a cricketer other than Steve Waugh. For, the 38-year old Australian captain was one who respected the game's history and valued his baggy green; yet, revolutionised the way the game was played.

He was a true colossus and, after Sir Donald Bradman, the game's most enduring legend of the century and its greatest ambassador in modern times.

Waugh was the most capped player ever with 168 Tests to his name. He made 32 hundreds and is the second highest scorer in Tests with 10,927 runs behind Allan Border (11,174).

He was the most successful captain of the game with 41 wins from 57 games besides winning two World Cups, as a player in 1987 and as a captain in 1999. He also has the unique record of having registered a ton against all Test playing nations.

But, as most often in sport, statistics alone do not say who was Steve Waugh.

Waugh symbolised the typical Aussie grit and never flinched when thrown into the cauldron. The umpteen number of times he came to his team's rescue were game's folklore each in themselves.

As a captain, he instilled in his players an aggression to ruthlessly exploit the opponents' weaknesses.

Waugh taught his teammates to intimidate the opposition and dominate every facet of the game. Perhaps, the greatest of his contributions would be the high scoring rate with which the Australians had accumulated runs match after match in recent years.

To Waugh, fast batting was not just an element of entertainment but a tactic to get at the opposition from the word go. It might have had its root in his obsession with success, nevertheless, it did help bring back the crowds and revived Test cricket.

That drive for success at all cost was not without its ugly side: Waugh refused to rein in his players when they indulged in sledging. He, in fact, described it as "mental disintegration" to exert psychological pressure on the opponent.

And none will forget his instruction to his batsmen to slow down the chase of West Indies target in a 1999 World Cup match so as to keep arch-rivals New Zealand out of the tournament.

Born on June 2, 1962, in Bankstown, Sydney, Stepehn Rodger Waugh made his debut as a 20-year old against India on Boxing Day in 1985. He had an inauspicious debut and famously confessed that he doubted "if I would ever score a run in Test cricket."

Australia then were rebuilding under Allan Border from the ruins of rebel tours to South Africa and Packer's World Series Cricket.

The emphasis was on choosing players who had the bottle for a contest and Waugh proved his worth during the successful World Cup campaign in the subcontinent when he showed great temperament in bowling at the death.

He, however, had to wait for his 27th Test to score his first hundred. Although that first and the next hundred helped Australia reclaim the Ashes from England in 1989, Waugh struggled to keep the promise of the early days and was dropped from the national team in 1991-92.

Taking his place in the team was none other than his younger twin brother Mark and that proved to be a double inspiration for him to fight his way back. He returned to the fold within a season's gap and there was no looking back from there on.

The two brothers provided a pleasant contrast in batting. If Mark was style, Steve was substance. Together, they delighted the fans for more than a decade with innings of character of their own.

The elder brother then established himself as the bulwark of the Australian middle order. The defining moment came on the 1995 tour of the Caribbean when Waugh hit his career best 200 as Mark Taylor's Australia beat West Indies in West Indies to be unofficially crowned the world Test champions.

Waugh took over from Taylor as one-day captain in 1997 and the Test captaincy in 1998-99. But the beginning was not perfect.

Brian Lara almost single handedly won the Test series in his backyard, only a win in the fourth Test helped Waugh's men hold on to the Frank Worrell Trophy.

And in the World Cup in England, the Aussies faced exit early after losing to Pakistan in the group stage. What followed then was the most remarkable recovery in the game's history as Australia won seven consecutive matches to reach the final where they beat, who else but, Pakistan to win the Cup.

Waugh earned himself the nickname 'Captain Courageous' after his back to the wall unbeaten 120 against South Africa in a Super Six match. The Aussies rubbed it on the Proteas for a second time, earning a historic tie in the semifinals to sneak into the final.

From there began a dominance unprecedented in the history of the game as Waugh's Australia won 16 Tests on the trot before faltering at the Eden Gardens of Kolkata in 2001. For Waugh, India would remain the unconquered final frontier but it was a tribute to his captaincy skills that he galvanized a bunch of individuals into a fighting unit who labelled by the pundits as The Invincibles.

In trying to turn his team into world beaters, Waugh would draw the attention of his players to the agony of defeat suffered by the previous Australian teams in the 1980s. Those early years of humiliation had whetted his appetite for success and he made sure his players too had some of it.

That the man who cherished the game's history has finally become a part of it was appropriate indeed.