Cricket: Ambivalence of the captain in waiting

THE ASHES 97: Australian vice-captain warns that one-day international whitewash served only to restore his team's killer instinct; Steve Waugh does not want to succeed Mark Taylor this summer. He tells Ian Stafford why
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Breakfast with Steve Waugh. With the first Test at Edgbaston almost upon us, and with the Australians approaching the series in the sort of disarray we normally associate with England, the chances of him being in a good mood are about as much as seeing him smile at the English fielders during the course of this summer.

Worse still, having realised he was not in the hotel reception, I telephone up to his room, to be greeted by a groggy voice. "Give me half an hour," he said. And so I did. On his arrival I told him, in a caring sort of way, that he looked tired. "Not really," he replied. "It's how I always look." So far Steve Waugh is living up to his uncompromising image.

Maybe it's just the shock of being totally outplayed in the one-day internationals and the near hysteria as a consequence in both the British and Australian press. At first Waugh, the Aussies' vice-captain, underlines the importance of the result. "We were playing for our country and none of us like losing at any type of cricket," he said, digging his fork into his sausage with some intent.

"There are a lot of people disappointed, especially back home in Australia. They've grown used to us winning just about everything, and they can't understand how we can lose a one-day series 3-0. I'm sure England would have had a few doubts after what happened in New Zealand and, in particular, in Zimbabwe, but the one-day series will have given them a great deal of confidence. We expected to win, there's no doubt about that."

I mentioned that one or two former Australian Test cricketers had suggested that complacency had crept into the side. "That's garbage," Waugh replied. "There's no easy game any more, especially away from home. Even in the last two tours against England, where the results say that we won fairly easily, we always knew that they possessed talented players. We just didn't play well, and England were the better team."

The funny thing is that when he talks it soon becomes clear that he is bothered only because he dislikes losing, and not because he has any fears about Australia's eventual success this summer. While we English seem to be whooping with delight at the unexpected turnaround of fortunes, the Australians, epitomised by Steve Waugh, seem to be biding their time, and making mental notes which they intend to answer back in clinical fashion.

"Believe me, the last thing we're doing is panicking," he said, warming to the theme. "We've had a bit of work to do, sure, but we didn't want to peak too soon in the season. I know that I'm beginning to hit the ball well, and Glenn McGrath was telling me last night that he was just beginning to find his rhythm."

And Shane Warne? Despite his seven-wicket haul in the Derbyshire match, he did not exactly look like the most feared bowler in the world during the Texaco series, did he? Waugh smiled. "Let's hope everyone's thinking that when the first Test starts. It wouldn't be a smart move. It will be nice to see him rip a ball through during his first over, and then see the faces in the England dressing-room."

So, in other words, the Australians can live with losing the Texaco because they have every intention of taking the Test series? "Well, we'd rather be in England's position, because they have a trophy and money in the bank, but we'll do something about it. They played well, and their younger players don't have too many scars or carry any excess baggage. But I think they'll discover Test match cricket to be a different ball game. We'll be testing them out to see what kind of characters they've got.

"We're the best team in the world, after all, and we've won many a series after losing the one-day games. I fully expect us to go out there and win. In fact, we've already talked as a team about the one-day defeats serving as a favour to us. The killer instinct and aggressiveness just wasn't there but, as a result, it definitely will be for the first Test. We'll be fired up and we'll play a lot harder."

Definitely no pleasantries on the pitch, then? "No way," he replied immediately. "Look, after we lost the third international at Lord's we all went into the England dressing room, congratulated them, and had a beer. That's fine. That's how the spirit should be. But when we're playing in the Test series, we won't be going out there to be friendly. We're going out there to win. It was like that when Allan Border was in charge, and you won't see any difference this time. I wouldn't enjoy it any other way."

If there is one place Waugh does enjoy his cricket, then it is in England. Now on his third tour here, the New South Wales batsman-cum-bowler plundered the hapless English bowlers throughout the 1989 and 1993 tours. "That 1989 tour was the turning-point in my career," he admitted. "I hadn't scored a century in my first 26 Tests, and I knew my place was in jeopardy." Since then he has scored 12 Test centuries, and has a Test average of over 50 which has, to date, spanned 89 Tests and an incredible 221 one- day internationals.

Yet he has never actually captained Australia in a Test match. Well, not up to now. The smart money is still on Waugh taking over from Mark Taylor some time this summer, unless the present captain can somehow rid himself of the wretched form that has dogged him for the past year. This, one assumes, causes a slight moral dilemma for Waugh. On the one hand, it can't be good for the team if their captain bows out due to an inability to score any runs. On the other hand, it would open the door for the man who was 32 years old on Monday.

Waugh, incidentally, is growing friendlier by the minute. He takes this thorny subject like a friendly long hop. "If I never captain the Australian Test side I'll never lose any sleep over it, mate," is his reply. "I always dreamed of playing for Australia, but I was never bothered about becoming captain.

"If it happens then, great, it would be a tremendous honour. Life would go on if we lost Mark, or me for that matter. After all, we've carried on winning after Border, haven't we? But the truth is that I want to see Mark Taylor captain the side for all six Test matches. Do you wanna know why?"

I nod my head. "Well, it's not because I see him as my captain, but as my colleague and friend. I've known him a long time, and I don't like to see anyone struggle. We've all been there, and we all know how hard it is. You've got to remember, though, that Mark's scored 14 Test centuries, and that's no mean feat."

So, a compassionate side of Steve Waugh rears its head over breakfast. It turns out there's a lot more where this comes from. This is his first tour as a father. Back home outside Sydney, he has a 10-month-old baby daughter. I swear he looks all wistful as he talks about this.

"It's hard for me on tour because I miss her a lot," he owned up. "I've got to come to terms with being away from her. I tend to shut it out for a couple of days, and then go and look at my photo albums for an hour or two." Albums? "Yeah, well, I've brought around 150 photos of her. Then I'll call home, talk to the baby, and try to get it out of the way in one, big hit. After that I can focus on my cricket again for a few more days."

His other passion is the writing of yet another of his tour diaries, which will be published later in the year. Tell him he's a useless batsman and you might get a black look but suggest, as one writer recently did, that he employs someone else to write his beloved diaries, and Waugh explodes.

"You can do me a favour, mate," he says. "I'm meaning to catch up with the person who wrote that for a little chat. The truth is that every word is written by me, and I take great pride in doing them. I write every single night on tour, and I take my own photographs."

So it's important to you, then? "Yeah, of course. I'm a lot different off the field than I am on. People think I never smile or enjoy life, but it's my job, and if I don't knuckle down and do it to the best of my ability, it won't be my job for long. But the books have been good for me, because it's helped to change one or two perceptions about me and the team."

What, then, did he write about on the night after the Australians' third successive one-day defeat? "I referred to the game, its turning points, my own performance, and the Lord's lunch." The Lord's lunch? "Yeah, well it was an absolute feast. I can understand why Mike Gatting's played for Middlesex for so long.

"Anyway, there must have been 400 plates of fantastic food spread out for us to eat. Do you wanna know what Shane Warne had?" Go on. "He got himself a roll with some butter, and filled it with HP sauce. There was all that food to choose from, and he had an HP sauce roll."

Now Waugh is laughing, hardly acting like a man bothered by recent results against England. The first Test, of course, starts at Edgbaston tomorrow. As the only member of the Australian side ever to lose an Ashes series, when Gatting's men took the honours down under in 1986, Waugh not only sees this first encounter as crucial, he sees the first morning as all- important.

"If you can dominate the first session, the chances are that you will dominate the first day. If you can do that, then you're well on your way to winning the first Test. That would place you in a great position for the series, wouldn't it?"

It certainly would. Waugh made a swift 92 a few days ago at Gloucester, and seems to be finding his groove, which is good news for him and the Aussies, and bad news for us. Oh, and there is one other omen.

He has insisted on keeping one half of a red rag with him at the crease ever since he scored an unbeaten 157 against, you've guessed it, the English at Headingley four years ago. Has he still got it?

"For sure mate," he answered, grinning. "But I didn't use it for the one-day internationals. I only use it for Test matches." He nodded his head with conviction. "I'll have it with me at Edgbaston."