Cricket: Trappist monk bursts into song

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IT IS not easy to imagine that anyone could have played a better innings than Alec Stewart on Sunday, but Steve Waugh managed to do so on the third day at the MCG. Waugh came in to bat when the pattern of the Australian innings had been set. He knew it was going to be the hard business of trench warfare rather than the glamour of flashing sword-play which was going to take Australia past England and into a lead which would be psychologically so important. Steve Waugh often seems a curmudgeonly fellow.

His emotions are almost always under the tightest control; there are never any frills about his batting; he does not waste time on midwicket conferences with his partner unless there is serious business to discuss. His batting is strongly disciplined, his mental approach is impregnable.

When he reached fifty, the crowd gave him a big reception. Waugh walked away a pace or two to leg and very quickly raised his bat, just once and briefly, giving the impression that he was almost irritated at what he probably saw as an unnecessary distraction. All he was interested in was maintaining his concentration. He had set himself a task and, come hell or high water, he was going to complete it.

His only problem was whether or not he was going to run out of partners but, at the end, he found a most reliable ADC in Stuart MacGill. Waugh might have been a Trappist monk on a particularly severe self-denying ordinance. Pushes and deflections played with amazing precision and the odd push into a gap on the offside and always the brilliant running between the wickets and the impeccable defence with the invariably straight bat.

Every now and then when a half volley or a short ball wide of the off stump came along, he allowed himself a measured drive which almost invariably went for four or a no-nonsense square cut which had the same effect. There was only rarely a hook, for that is a stroke he more or less gave up years ago. It got him out too often and once Waugh makes up his mind, he is unshakeable. Never a smile and always the impression of a slight scowl on his face, Waugh went on and on. It was only as his hundred approached that his method changed. Being the man he is, it surely was a deliberate change of method rather than a frivolous change of mood.

The Englishmen were fighting desperately for those last two elusive wickets and Waugh suddenly decided he must get to his hundred quickly. Darren Gough was trying to bowl reverse swing and was pitching the ball up to give it every chance of doing so. Gough overpitched well wide of the off stump. For once, Waugh seemed to have a preconceived plan in his mind. His front leg went away towards a rather square midwicket, his back foot stayed where it was in the crease and, off balance but with a full flow of the bat, he somehow managed to hit the ball out of the middle into the gap between wide mid-off and cover for four. It was astonishing and took him to 92.

When he faced Gough in his next over, he needed just six more. Gough tore in and bowled a ball on a good length at middle stump and Waugh charged him and slogged him far over midwicket for four. It was a cow shot; the Trappist monk had burst into raucous song. Two more were needed, Gough bowled a bouncer, Waugh hooked at a ball high above his head - he would have needed to be standing on a step-ladder to control the stroke - and it skied to the left of Angus Fraser at fine leg. Waugh ran the first run like a demon and came for the second even faster and more furiously. And he made it.

The crowd stood as one man and yelled its appreciation. Waugh punched the air, waved his bat all over the place, took off his helmet and looked for a moment as if he was going to dance a jig. Then, in the nick of time, he remembered himself, looked rather ashamed, went back into his cell and got on with the business of building up Australia's lead.