Cricket: Waugh excels as the going gets tougher

Australian captain's heroic display against South Africa can help lay ghost of his predecessor
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IT WAS a captain's knock that re-defined the genre. Like Brian Lara's recent three figure Test scores against Australia in the Caribbean, Steve Waugh's century against South Africa was made under the most intense pressure. If it wasn't quite beyond cricket, it was certainly beyond belief and its significance will undoubtedly have a bearing on Thursday's semi- final when these two heavyweight sides meet to slug it out again.

As Australia chased a mammoth 272 after a moderate bowling display, Waugh joined Ricky Ponting at the wicket with his side stumbling aimlessly on 48 for 3. What followed was something that few will have the privilege of seeing again as South Africa's bowling elite were dispatched at will on a pitch where 230 ought to have been a good score.

Waugh is something of a one-off, even in Australia. Like HP sauce or Angostura bitters, the ingredients that make him tick are a closely guarded secret and ones that even twin brother Mark, with his share of genes, is unsure of. Even when he stretches himself to the limit, as he had to against South Africa, the inner workings remain hidden. Indeed, he has delivered in times of strife so many times that when he says it was his best ever one-day innings, out of the 246 he has so far played, we simply have to take his word for it. All we can add is that he relishes a challenge and gains immense satisfaction when it falls into place.

Tom Moody, a team-mate since the 1987 World Cup, which Australia won, reckons it was the best one-day knock he had seen, given the situation, the conditions and the bowling attack pitted against him.

"To see his team over the line really required something special," said Moody, who was also batting when Waugh hit the winning runs with two balls to spare. "Allan Border was really tough mentally and Steve, who grew up in his footsteps, has acquired that toughness. In fact he's probably gone beyond it."

Moody, who once broke the world record for Haggis throwing, has seen the Steve Waugh phenomenon at close quarters for the last dozen years and still marvels at his captain's voracious appetite for the fight.

"Steve thrives on a challenge and South Africa nipping at his heels was the perfect situation for him. Mind you, what was needed was beyond a challenge really. In the end he was too determined for us not to be there."

Although someone like Michael Atherton is a tough nut to crack, Waugh has an ability to tailor shots to almost every ball. Like Lara, his hands are so fast that he does not have to pre-determine the big shots like mere mortals.

Because of this combination of steel, speed and resolve it is difficult to think of a current England player who could have played a similar innings.

Moody concurs. "I don't think there is a current England player with his mental make-up. Actually I don't think there are many players in the world who could play an innings like that. The likes of Lara and Sachin Tendulkar are both capable of scoring 120, but they'd have scored the runs and got out five overs before the end. Steve's an extreme make-up. His no-compromise attitude makes him the ideal Test player and he's already proved that.

"It's all to do with inner belief and Steve backs himself whatever the situation. He talks a good game, but he delivers as well. Before the match against South Africa he said: 'It's going to be my game tomorrow. I love playing against South Africa'."

Waugh has been outspoken about Hansie Cronje's South Africa before and believes that they "choke" when it comes to crunch games. Such talk might appear macho, and one-dimensional, but Waugh is actually well rounded for a cricketer. He might fix his Lee van Cleef eyes on opponents, but off the field he is keen to see what the rest of the world has to offer.

"People read him the wrong way," says Moody. "A lot of people feel he is bland and boring with no depth. Actually he has a lot of interests outside cricket and has a very funny, very dry, sense of humour."

Apart from producing journals of his tours, all illustrated with his own photographs, Waugh has adopted an orphanage in Calcutta, which he raises funds for.

If Waugh has suffered a setback, it is that his succession to the mantle of Mark Taylor has not been without its critics. A tough act to follow, Taylor comes over as more fallible, and therefore more human, than his slit-eyed and unsmiling successor. Ultimately, it will probably take something as momentous as winning the World Cup to end Australia's love affair with its former captain. If that is the case, Waugh's incredible knock could well be cited. Mind you, he will probably have to do it all again on Thursday, just to make certain.