Hard man of cricket in his element

Steve Waugh: Never classical, seldom elegant, always extremely effective. The tougher it is the more the great competitor likes it. Stephen Brenkley watches the Aussie captain at his gritty best at Edgbaston
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The Independent Online

As usual, he ambled in with the sideways gait accentuated by the splayed feet. If you didn't know it was Steve Waugh going out to bat it could be some bloke wandering to an audition for Charlie Chaplin's part in a remake of City Lights, the bat doubling for the cane and the battered helmet passing for the battered bowler. The only lights Waugh had in mind, of course, belonged to England and how he was going to put them out.

Australia were 134 for 3, which meant that he was not at his most dangerous. He prefers it when they are in proper trouble at 34 for 3 and he can really dig them out of the mire. But the position was poor enough to recognise that Australia's captain was a threat. The conditions for batsmanship were fraught with difficulty which, perversely, merely aggravated England's problems. If the ball was not moving about all over the place it was shifting laterally regularly enough to make observers move their heads as if they were at the tennis. For the elder Waugh, the tougher the better.

He duly, inevitably scored his 26th Test century, his eighth against England, his first at Edgbaston. It was probably like most of the rest of the canon, hardly pretty, far from ugly, much more than workmanlike, idiosyncratic. Waugh senior is always worth watching in what passes for full flow. It is hardly that he adapts to the perceived situation of the game. By instinct, he is an attacking batsman.

No doubt Waugh would like to spend his entire life on the back foot, adjusting his shot late, preferably whipping it through the on side but content to force through the off side. There, he gives the impression that he must hit in the air as he shapes to scoop the ball as is if he were digging out frozen ice cream. It then goes arrow-straight along the ground.

Later, he placed his innings in the best six of his Test centuries, which made it pretty special. During it he became the the third player to pass 9,000 Test runs, following Allan Border and Sunil Gavaskar. He knew he had batted well, and said so. "I played and missed a few times but it was difficult out there. England had their tails up and expected to take early wickets. I was more pleased with the runs that I got in that situation."

Waugh has made a career out of this, and at 36 his powers of getting right on the opposition's case exhibit no sign of waning. He did not say much during his three hours and 44 minutes' tenure at Edgbaston, and if they were sensible nobody said much to him. He is a stone-faced so- and-so at the crease – more Buster Keaton than Chaplin. The captaincy has probably made him a better batsman. Since assuming control he has scored nine hundreds, and the other figure which testifies to his enduring craving is that half of his Test-match hundreds came in 92 matches, the other half have taken 32.

"I have always enjoyed responsibility on the cricket field, going back to Somerset as the overseas professional," he said. "It did me a lot of good to pay my way. When you're the man you have got to do the job." In 1988 he was 23 and he scored 1,286 Championship runs that English summer, more than 1,000 in June, at an average of 80.37. Thanks a lot, Somerset.

On Friday, having come in to face the day's eighth ball, he thumped England's bowlers for four boundaries through the on side – where he looked most often to play – and nine through the off, finding space and hitting either side of the conventional cover positions. He thought that England bowled well and that Australia had "a fair amount of luck". Perhaps the wicket suited his style, he said, giving him a bit more time to get back. Funny how the good players make the bowlers deliver to their strengths.

This is Waugh's fourth tour of England and he was displeased with the third. On the eve of this series, when somebody congratulated him on his form in 1997 and how he had hit the ball round all parts of England, Waugh said that was not his recollection. "Apart from my two Test hundreds at Old Trafford, I was pretty disappointed with my tour." He is relaxed this trip; the ball is coming out of the middle better than for some time. It was the 1997 first innings at Old Trafford that he said most closely resembled his Edgbaston compilation. But then he had entered the arena in the genuine Waugh territory of 42 for 3 and made 108.

The formative part of the innings, which ended to the 12th ball of the day yesterday, was spent with his twin brother, Mark. They are right up there with high-achieving sporting siblings now, and past most of them, the Charltons, the Searles, the Abbagnales, the Spinkses. They have been next to each other in the order for yonks now, which is probably as close as they get. This was their seventh century Test partnership. Mark, or Junior, looked completely at sea for most of his innings of 49.

If Stephen cared, he was not coming to the rescue in a lifeboat. Mark, he would think, was quite capable of looking after himself. This, after all, is a player and a captain who believes in rotating the strike with tail-enders. What he did, however, noticing Junior's discomfort, was to take on the attacking mantle himself. He had declared that Australia had set out their stall to score 300 runs on every day, and – no matter what the ball was doing – was keeping to that. The pitch and fast outfield, he said, gave value for your strokes.

He will not be drawn on whether he can overtake Border and Gavaskar, conceding only that he still likes playing. There is no hint of retirement, though he talked often of his family and their sacrifices and why he waved his bat at them in the Birmingham crowd. He wanted them to be part of the moment.

When he waddled out yesterday morning, the eyes giving nothing away, it was to bat all day. It did not work out, for Darren Gough put an off-cutter which kept low through his defences. Waugh had faced 181 balls. He shambled off, his feet at ten to two, his bat helping to prop up the gait. Sadly, for England he was not the little chap wandering into the sunset. Not yet awhile.