Exit Waugh: toughest of the tough

Captain, fighter, revolutionary and, above all, winner
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The toughest hombre of all has been run out of town. In the end, Steve Waugh was dispatched into the sunset by his own confederates. He kept them waiting, but he must have known that they were an opponent too far.

Nothing could save him: not his exemplary batting, personified as much by its attitude as its attainment; not his captaincy, which has been the most successful of all time; not the deliberate fashion in which his leadership transformed the way cricket is played; not the enduring love of his countrymen.

Waugh always said he never expected any favours from selectors, and at the last he received none. They decided that at 38 he had to move on, so that Australia's team can do likewise. Their hard-nosed belief entailed getting rid of their most hard-nosed player.

Waugh is now in the middle of his 167th Test, and unless the selectors decide to take hardness of nose to the extreme he will play his 168th and last next week at Sydney, his home ground. It is a world record he wanted to extend. He delivered a resignation speech before the current series against India began, but nobody should imagine that it was on his terms. Yet he has remained his own man to the bitter end, daring publicly to disagree with the team's coach, John Buchanan, who sent a critical letter to the players last week after the Second Test defeat by India.

A year ago, Waugh defied those who wanted to end his career. Throughout the Australian summer's Ashes series against England, his future was the subject of feverish speculation. The backing he was given by the chairman of selectors, Trevor Hohns, never reached beyond grudging.

They formed Steve Must Stay or Steve Must Go clubs, and the former easily outnumbered the latter. But there was an unmistakable sense that the black cap was being dusted off to see off one of the greatest Baggy Green caps of all. In the final Test at Sydney he cheated the executioner by scoring one of the most emotional Test centuries, the one that brought him equal with Donald Bradman on 29. It brought the country to a halt.

An hour or so later, an obviously touched Waugh went through the day and spoke of how you always had to strive for the perfect innings. "Age," he said, "is totally irrelevant. If you haven't got the burning desire, that inner strength, at 20, there's no point in playing, but if you've got it at 45 and you're still good enough you should still be able to play. It's what's inside you." He was going nowhere, and at that point there was not a thing Hohns and his accomplices could do. Not a thing. Waugh was as big as The Don.

His statement reinforced the point that, as much as his scores and his victories, it was always what was inside Waugh that has shaped his time in the international game. There is also that danger, which the selectors were so desperate to avoid, of letting sentiment cloud the issue.

Waugh had the mental steel of 20 men. If it had been transposed into physical strength, it was the sort with which a man could pull 20-ton trucks with his teeth. It also helped to grant him bodily strength. Twice in England he scored physically brave centuries: at Manchester in 1997 with a severely bruised hand; and at The Oval in 2001 when he played despite not having recovered from a torn calf.

England was also the scene of his greatest one-day innings, when he made 120 not out against South Africa with Australia in the cart. (It is said that when he was dropped on 56 he said to the perpetrator, Herschelle Gibbs: "You've just dropped the World Cup.")

This does not make him a paragon. Waugh knew that his strength helped to expose the weaknesses of others, and he spent 18 years trying to do just that. The euphemism which Waugh used to describe his approach to cricket has entered the game's lexicon: mental disintegration. Profound, but still sledging.

One Test series above all perhaps encapsulates Waugh's career. When Australia went to the West Indies in March 1995, the home side had not lost a Test series for 15 years. When Australia lost the one-day series 4-1 that run did not look as if it was about to be ended. Waugh's deeds dominated the action.

On the first afternoon of the First Test, Waugh at backward point juggled a cut shot from Brian Lara. Eventually, he held on and claimed the catch, but the television replay clearly demonstrated that it had hit the ground. The question was, and all these years later remains, did Waugh know?

The Caribbean crowds thought they would never let him forget it, but they reckoned without Waugh. He could forget all right. In the third match, on a grass-strewn pitch, he made the top score and had an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with Curtly Ambrose. Ambrose was incensed, Waugh did not flinch. "If you want an easy game, go play netball," said Waugh.

In the final match of the rubber he - along with twin brother Mark - repelled the West Indies pace battery. He was peppered by short balls on arms and body, but stood splint-straight, which dispelled one canard. Waugh scored 200, still his highest Test innings, and 121 runs more than any other batsman in the series.

It seemed daft to contemplate then that his average after his first 13 Test innings was 17.2. Under different management his career could have been terminated. He had played 111 Test matches by the time he was made captain, 14 years after his debut. He had had tremendous success as his side's one-day skipper, but he was still an unknown quantity. It is as a captain, however, that he leaves his greatest legacy to the game. His style altered Test cricket.

He took the lessons learned from his plethora of one-day cricket and from his vast experience as a Test cricketer and told his team to attack. Waugh worked out that the team who attacked and scored their runs quickly set themselves up with an opportunity of winning all games.

Mostly, it has worked like a charm. Of the 55 Tests under Waugh's stewardship, Australia have won 40 - including 16 in a row - and lost nine, a phenomenal winning rate of 73.9 per cent, greater than Bradman's 60 per cent. Waugh made the leap in thinking that Test matches were to be won (or lost), not drawn. He calculated that with his firepower he was going to win more than he lost. Until this year, he always had either Glenn McGrath or Shane Warne, the two outstanding bowlers of the generation, in his side, usually both. Simple, really; he banished the curse of sport and sportsmen down the ages, the fear of losing.

Since he has averaged more than 85 in his 11 Test matches this year so far against four countries it is a big call to say that he is finished. The Australian selectors have made it.

So long, Steve. There is a chance now that his side, 1-0 down, will lose their current series to India, but Waugh will go out in every session to win. When the Australian empire crumbles, as empires do, that is how Waugh will be remembered. As a winner. They may wish they had not asked him to leave so soon.

The great career

Stephen Rodger Waugh

Born: 2 June 1965.

Test career: debut v India at Melbourne in 1985-86. Playing in 167th Test (10,788 runs at an average of 51.12, with 32 hundreds). Has taken 92 wickets at 37.39 and 112 catches.

One-day international career: debut v NZ in 1985-86. Played 325 matches (7,569 runs at 32.90, with 3 hundreds). Took 195 wickets at 34.67 and 11 catches.

Also: Wisden Cricketer of the Year, 1989. Australian one-day captain 1997-2002, Test captain Feb 1999 to present (includes a winning streak of 16 matches). Made first-class debut for NSW in 1984-85. Nicknamed Tugga.