It is often said – only half-jokingly – that the job of the Australian cricket captain is more important than that of the prime minister. When the captain is a national hero who has guided his team to victory in the 1999 World Cup and a record 16 straight Tests, criticism of his leadership is virtual blasphemy.
Yet this is the situation in which Steve Waugh finds himself as his squad prepares to leave Australia on Thursday for a three-Test tour of South Africa. His career as limited-overs captain is under threat, as is the future of other leading players, following Australia's ignominious exit from the triangular one-day series last week.
The reigning world champions failed to make the finals for only the third time since 1980, leaving South Africa to cruise to a 2-0 series win after beating New Zealand by six wickets at a rain-sodden Sydney Cricket Ground on Friday night.
While the Black Caps crumbled in the finals, they showed impressive form earlier in the competition and will meet England with a new-found confidence in the five-match one-day series that begins in Christchurch on Wednesday.
With the World Cup in South Africa one year off, Australian selectors will subject Waugh and other leading players – including Mark Waugh and Shane Warne – to ruthless scrutiny during their seven-match one-day series against the Proteas. The tour will also include two Tests and three one-dayers in Zimbabwe.
"We have to look to the World Cup," said the chairman of the selectors, Trevor Hohns. "That is the agenda every country will have for their one-day cricket." The indignity of watching South Africa and New Zealand spar in the tri-series finals here grated on Australians, and the issue is sparking impassioned debate in pubs and offices. "The question is: is this the beginning of the end? That's what everyone is wondering," said John Ferguson, a Melbourne journalist.
Some cricket writers are already calling for blood, arguing that an ageing team have reached the end of the road. In The Australian on Saturday, Malcolm Conn recalled the forced retirements of previous captains such as Allan Border and said: "For all the joy and glory Steve Waugh has brought Australian cricket, he is in danger of heading down the same acrimonious route." In the Sydney Morning Herald, Peter Fizsimons said the tri-series showed that fresh talent was needed. "What can such a dismal result possibly suggest other than that the team need to be changed?" he asked. "Waugh... must face facts. His team came third in a three-team competition, one year out from a World Cup." Other commentators, though, are urging caution, and many fans believe that the carping against Waugh's men is excessive.
They point out that, after losing three straight matches at the start of the series, Australia played well and beat South Africa convincingly in the last qualifying tie – although their failure to secure a bonus point deprived them of a place in the finals.
More crucially, Australia extracted a 3-0 defeat from the Proteas – joint favourites for the 2003 World Cup – during the Test series on home turf late last year. Supporters say their shaky form is just a temporary blip on the part of one of the greatest cricket teams ever, requiring minor surgery rather than amputations.
Waugh, who lost his temper and swore at journalists after Australia's tri-series swansong in Perth last Sunday – defended the one-day line-up. "They've done very well over a long period of time and I've got faith in all the players," he said. "We lose a couple of games and everyone wants to be an expert and change the side."
He acknowledged, however, that his leadership was in question and said he did not expect any favours. "Everyone is under scrutiny," he said. "You've got to perform. If I'm not doing the job and someone is better, then they will get the opportunity." Other players under the microscope include Mark Waugh, who has performed dismally this summer, and Warne, who had a disastrous run in the tri-series.
With leading Australian cricketers earning $700,000 a year (£264,000) before endorsements, the likelihood of anyone stepping down voluntarily is slim.
But Steve Waugh might well be musing about the last time that Australia toured South Africa, in 1997. They had just missed the one-day finals at home; by the time of the World Cup, his predecessor, Mark Taylor, had been sacked from the limited-overs team.
Another cruel reminder of the passing of time came in Perth, where an official at the Waca ground stored away the stumps after last week's match. He suspected that the game might prove to be the Waugh twins' last international in Australia. If so, the stumps will be polished, signed and displayed for posterity.Reuse content