'I didn't think I'd play another Test. So to play 168 is a bonus'

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The Independent Online

As of last Friday, there has been just one story in Australia, one sole topic of conversation, one theme that has dominated newspapers and news bulletins.

Fans who could not squeeze into the Sydney Cricket Ground for Steve Waugh's final Test crowded around televisions in pubs, offices and shops. Others walked around with a glazed expression and a radio glued to their ear. "What's the score, how're we doing?" strangers asked each other at bus stops.

You could almost taste the disappointment in the air when it became clear that, barring a miracle, the best that Australia would be able to salvage from the series against India would be a draw. "It's only a game, but it hurts all the same," was the headline yesterday in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Still, a draw was better than a defeat and Waugh helped prevent that outcome. Meanwhile, the absence of the fairy-tale ending so ardently desired by 19 million Australians did not diminish the Waugh-mania nor did it detract from the phenomenal career of one of the country's most highly respected and longest-serving sporting figures.

For the 27,056 fans who crammed the SCG yesterday, setting a fifth straight record - this time for a last-day crowd at the stadium - the privilege of watching Waugh's swan-song performance was enough. They gave him a standing ovation when he arrived at the crease, wearing his "baggy green" cap, and another when he left. Even some Indian fans said they almost wished for an Australian victory.

The Australia captain was left in no doubt about the sentiments of the crowd, who chanted his name, waved banners and, in the case of two young women, wrapped red handkerchiefs emblazoned with the words "Steve Waugh" around their bosoms. Spectators cheered his every sentence when he addressed them at the post-match ceremony.

His compatriots call him "The Iceman", but there were definite traces of emotion when Waugh reflected on his career in front of the crowd. "It's been a long journey - 18 years," he said. "I must admit I was nervous the first time I played for Australia. I didn't think I'd play another Test match. So to play 168 is a massive bonus."

He said he had mixed feelings about retiring. "I don't know if this is a sad moment or not. I'm happy. I've achieved quite a lot in this game. It's been a privilege to captain this side over the last four or five years. Now it's time to get in the dressing-room and have a few beers."

The fans responded by chanting, "Steve Waugh, Steve Waugh". His team-mates carried him around the field on a lap of honour.

As Australians reflected on his extraordinary achievements - notably, being the most successful captain ever, the most-capped player in history, the second-highest Test run-scorer and the second-greatest century-maker - Indian fans hailed him too. "I've come from India just to say bye to Steve Waugh," one supporter said.