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Goodbye, Steve Waugh

Were it not for the small matter of deciding one of the tightest Test series in the contemporary game.

india Updated: Jan 07, 2004 01:45 IST

Were it not for the small matter of deciding one of the tightest Test series in the contemporary game — and perhaps the slightly larger matter of deciding if a challenge could be mounted on Australia's supremacy in world cricket — you'd have thought, had you been in Stephen Waugh's hometown in the run-up to this game, that there was only one rather than 22 players in this Test.

So when all of that was done — the wrap around special supplements in newspapers, the TV shows, the ad campaigns with the theme of retirement central to them, the discussions about whether Waugh jumped before he was pushed, the interview of his wife in which she talked, oooh, of the "lovely lingerie" he had given her for the New Year — when, as some put it, the circus came to its last stop, it came down to the cricket.

As TS Eliot put it: After such knowledge, what forgiveness? None. Neither Waugh nor Sourav Ganguly are the forgiving kinds on a cricket pitch. This would be a Test, despite the enormous emotional and historical implications of it, in which no quarters would be asked for — and none given.

Day I: They came in wearing Steve Waugh T-shirts and waving his characteristic red handkerchiefs, all 44,901 of them, to set an attendance record for the SCG ever since it was reconfigured in 1976. They groaned when Waugh lost the toss.

After that, they cheered for everything. When he came out to a guard of honour from his mates; when he touched a ball on the field; when he took it to have a bowl in the first session. You'd suspect that they'd cheer if he drank a glass of water. He did and they did in a long hot day as India batted against Australia in the manner that Australia are wont to bat against everybody else.

Day II: In the members' courtyard before play began, they were showing the Kolkata Test of 2001 on the big screen. Even the staunchest Waugh fan should have sensed that the omens were not good. Nothing went right for Waugh. Even the scoreboard, which endlessly gave us 'Waugh Test Trivia' and replayed bits of his famous hundreds got it wrong: it referred to him — three days too soon —in the past tense. With the SCG Trust CEO Jamie Barkley talking about a Steve Waugh stand in his homeground, Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman proceeded to put together a different kind of stand on the pitch. Victoria Bitter — the beer brand that sponsors the upcoming one-day series — spread much cheer among the spectators as the day went on but the fabulous farewell was turning into a long day's journey into night.

Day III: The rest of the day didn't much matter to the thousands at the SCG. Steve's father Rodger Waugh, over a lunch of Mediterranean lamb and roast beef with horseradish cream, spoke about how little he would have eaten had his son been out there.

After tea, he was. At 4.24 pm, Saint Steve came out and it was hardly as quiet as in a church. The Indian players stood in line to welcome him. The crowd went wild as he nudged one behind point for his first runs; they were on their feet as he thumped two through the covers for fours; they erupted when he reached 25 with a couple off Murali Kartik.

And then, on 40, he was out to an away swinger from a bowler 14 months older than his Test career. He walked back across the shadows cast by the floodlight towers and up the steps with the same brisk gait with which he had walked out 90-odd minutes ago. The crowds started leaving soon after.

Day IV: Sourav Ganguly declared in a way Waugh himself would have been proud to do, setting his final Test up for a thrilling finish. For once, the crowd didn't want to see Waugh. Australia had only four overs to bat. With 433 to get on the final day, the word was out that it wouldn't be a full house on the last day. It seemed as though a lot of people were changing their minds about coming to the SCG because of the way in which Waugh's swansong was being sung.

Day V: From a ground about a third full, the spectators began coming in as soon as the second wicket had fallen. And when, at 2.54 pm, the man emerged, for the last time for the 260th time, there were 27,056 people — a little over a half full house but still the highest ever for the final day at the SCG. The applause wouldn't stop, like an encore at the end of a show. Well, it was that but it wasn't quite the end yet. Waugh scored neither a Bradmanesque duck nor a match-winning century. He made, in characteristic fashion, a combative 80 and dragged his team out of a hole for the last time.

"When the next Test comes and I don't see his name in the team, it will be strange," said his father. It will be. Test cricket won't be the same without the man who revolutionised it in the 21st century. But Waugh was through. As he put it in his farewell speech: "I've said enough. I think it's time to go to the dressing room for a few beers." And then, on the shoulders of mates and a wave of emotion, with the scoreboard saying “Thanks Steve” and the light beginning to fade from the Sydney sky, Stephen Rodger Waugh went off into his own sunset.

First Published: Jan 07, 2004 00:45 IST