Even now, at the last frontier, he is raging for more

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The Independent Online

Steve Waugh thought his reputation as captain of Australia would partly depend on winning a Test series against India, in India, having lost one in 2000-01. "2004 is a long way off, but I think for all the team the India tour is a significant one for Australian cricket," he wrote. The selectors robbed him of that opportunity. Now his reputation is much more vulnerable because he must contrive not to lose again to India, and in Australia too. Losing would mean a radical revision of the script. It would be a sorry ending to a great Test career.

Waugh's literary output begins to rival that of Charles Dickens: a book a year, sometimes more. All written by himself, and it means that he has fewer secrets than other cricketers. So we know what he thinks of the selectors' decision to give him his cards at the end of this series on 6 January in Sydney. He was disgusted.

"I have made no secret of my desire to be part of a series-winning Australian team in India, and also Sri Lanka. They're gaps in my resumé I'd like to fill," he writes. "I know I'm 38 years old, but I feel like I'm 20." He referred to Graham Gooch, saying pointedly that he played his best cricket when he was 40.

The selectors evidently did not share Waugh's sanguine view of his prospects. Nor did many Australian commentators after India's exhilarating four-wicket win in the Second Test at Adelaide before Christmas. A strategy that had brought record-making success was suddenly suspect; the team were ageing and showing it.

But the selectors had already begun to tap their feet impatiently when England were in Australia a year ago. Only Waugh's brave hundred in the Fifth Test at Sydney ended speculation then.

He was captain for the next three series, and the relief he felt after the Sydney innings was because he believed it would end the unrelenting scrutiny about his retirement. He declared that his age would not be a factor before the tour to India. The selectors seemed not to hear.

A couple of months ago, rumours of his impending departure were circulating again, though no one confided in Waugh. Relations with the Australian selectors were frosty. Waugh has never been tolerant of selectors who disagreed with him. "He'd be the last to know," said a friend.

A couple of weeks before he was ungraciously informed that he had only four more Tests as captain, his latest volume was published in Australia. Titled Never Say Die, it has become a draft of his last will and testament as Australia's skipper.

The Poms come in for customary criticism. Speaking of last winter's Ashes series, he said: "I was disappointed with the way England refused to be aggressive and back themselves. Instead, in pressure situations they too often seemed reluctant to have a real go. I have felt for a long time that the Poms need to play with passion and purpose, be prepared to play through injuries, take on any challenge with relish, and have each man participate with a goal of collecting the man-of-the-match award."

Another theme in the last act of Waugh's captaincy has been a mild disenchantment among his admirers. After 55 Tests as skipper it is obvious that Waugh is a permissive captain, happy to let his players do their own thing on the field, even if it offensive to Australia's own fans, as was the case during the Tests against West Indies, when Glenn McGrath behaved like a short-tempered bully.

Waugh is, of course, unapologetic: "There's nothing wrong with a bit of confrontation. That's what Test cricket is about. It's got that bit of edge to it." He actually makes a case for his permissive approach: "As captain, I make the guys aware of their duties, but once they step on to the field they're accountable for their own actions." Pontius Pilate could not have expressed it more clearly.

This is a philosophy of a self-conscious cricketer. It appears to date back to adolescence. He reveals that when he is at the crease, his concentration on his own score was born of necessity. "[My brother] Mark and I would know exactly how many we'd made, but the scorers would have it wrong. We got into the habit of making sure we counted our runs. This is a habit I've never been able to break."

Since he knows his own score, Waugh looks at the scoreboard only to check on the team's total. Indeed, veteran observers believe that Waugh not only knows his score, but keeps his average up to date as well. (He has every reason to be proud of it: 51.12 in 166 completed Tests.).

Waugh writes: "I think if I ever start to doubt my ability to contribute... then it will be time to give it away." It now seems possible that Sourav Ganguly's Indians may be the ones to have sown the first seeds of doubt.

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