The secrets of Waugh: intelligence, passion and integrity

Australia's captain staggered by changes to laws for Test matches and stunned by English negativity
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The Independent Online

All through the summer of potentially historic conquest, Steve Waugh has keep the tightest rein on his emotions. A masterful captain and batsman of a great Australian team poised to match the 80-year-old achievement of Warwick Armstrong's whitewash of England, he has also displayed the style of a crack diplomat.

But now, as he sits on a Headingley balcony after another hard day of injury rehabilitation, Waugh is angry. It is, you can be sure, no mere fleeting irritation in this least whimsical of men. It is as deep-seated as the slow-burning passion which over 16 years has shaped him into the outstanding cricketer of his generation.

Waugh is incensed that the rulers of cricket have almost casually announced their intention to change his game.

"Test cricket," he says, "has always been about presenting the highest challenge to any player, of presenting a true test of ability and character and next month in my opinion that is going to be thrown away. I'm amazed and, yes, I'm angry too."

The offending legislation has been handed down by the International Cricket Council's cricket committee under the chairmanship of the great Indian batsman Sunil Gavaskar – another point of confusion for Waugh, who adds: "I can't believe so many ex-Test cricketers have given these changes their approval."

From next month a bouncer which flies over the head of an upright batsman is a no-ball and a delivery pitched into the rough which goes down the leg side – the basic modus operandi of Shane Warne – will be automatically called a wide.

Waugh shakes his head in disbelief. "I just don't know what they're on about beyond the fact that they propose to change the fabric of Test cricket. Effectively eliminating the bouncer is just changing the face of the game. The bouncer is the classic test of a batsman, and every opposing captain knows that to offer him the chance of hooking is one way to get him out.

"Maybe in the past the West Indians, particularly, overdid it, and the result was that it was impossible for a batsman to score quickly, and back then you could see the case for limiting the use of the bouncer. But eliminating it? No way. You cannot take away a legitimate part of the game, something that the fans enjoy and great batsman will always accept as an integral part of the challenge they face, something which really can define how good they are.

"The spinning thing is just crazy. They're saying that if you pitch the ball into the rough, even if you're intention is not negative, and it goes down the leg side, that's a wide. It's not the spinner's fault there's rough on the wicket, they didn't put it there, so maybe they should be saying we can't have fast bowlers because they put the rough there.

"I just can't get my head around it. What are they doing? If your bowling leg spin and you want to turn it. You've got to pitch it outside the leg stump. If you outlaw that, you're taking away a great leg spinner like Warne, and really I have to say you can read so many things into this. Look, I'm not just defending Warne's position. What I can't work out is why those ex-Test players have okayed these rules. I can only think there must be some other agenda. Common sense says that."

Another agenda? A check and balance on the irresistible march of Australian cricket under the hand of Waugh? The captain stops short of such a claim but perhaps only in his ultimate reluctance to dot the i's and cross the t's. At 36 he has, after all, mastered the art of making his meaning clear enough, and not least to the phenomenally motivated team now pushing so hard for a fourth straight crushing victory over England.

He says that after the fifth Test he might address the question of England's apparently institutionalised weaknesses with a little more candour, but in the meantime he will say that he and his team-mates were staggered by the burden of negativity their opponents carried into the series. "In some ways it has been a tougher series than some people imagine, and no one should forget we have played very, very well and have needed to at times, but I will say when we were out and about at functions before the first Test, we just couldn't believe the negative vibrations surrounding the English team.

"In Australia we take defeat personally and as cricketers looking around the other sports we'd be just so embarrassed if we let the side down. But for any nation's sport there has to be some momentum to get on a roll like that and if I was an English sportsman I would be looking to someone like Steve Redgrave as a starting point – five Olympics in a row, that's just phenomenal. I'd have him as a focal point, and I would remember we had produced so many great people down the years – a Daley Thompson and a Nick Faldo for examples, and in this era of cricket there has been a batsman like Mike Atherton – someone who has shown great character and toughness and gives everything you would want.

"After the fifth Test I'll maybe say where I think England have gone wrong against us. Over the last two years they have done very well but perhaps their performances against us has put that in a little perspective. Basically, I believe the selectors have to get down to deciding who are their best players, and then really back them, show a little faith, and not keep changing the team for the sake of it. They have to make a judgement and stick by it.

"I must say I find it a little strange that someone like Mike Brearley is not more involved. He's a renowned winner and the bottom line is that you have to get people involved who are winners. Experience of winning, of knowing how to do it, and enthusiasm are the key ingredients. You have to get the right people to put themselves on the line, and then something might start happening.

"My own perfect scenario? It is to win every match." He says it with a straight face but there is a hint of self-mockery in his eyes and he is quick to remind you that when he started off in the Test arena 16 years ago he was not exactly an embryonic Geoff Boycott. "I guess I succumbed to peer pressure," he confesses. "I was caught up in a very unprofessional era. The captain, Allan Border, was very professional but the rest of us were struggling. It was straight after Lillee, Chappell and Marsh and there was the rebel tour of South Africa. It meant that 20 guys were thrown into it and had to survive the best way they could. Our attitude wasn't what it should have been. But we came round. Border was a great influence.

"Now recently nine of us went to the Victoria Police Academy to pick up some leadership techniques. Over the years one thing I've learned is that it's important for the guys to push themselves and learn things outside of cricket; I think we're a much better team because we've learned about things in the big world. Things, for example, like conflict resolution, which can be useful on a long tour. The hardest thing in cricket, and I guess life, is to get to and stay at a certain level. As a group of sportsmen, we're not afraid to say it : we want to go down as one of the great sides, and so we do a lot of things together and we agree we don't have a bad objective."

After England had the life squeezed out of them at Trent Bridge in the third Test, their coach, Duncan Fletcher, said that the most striking thing about the Australians was the relish they brought to their work, how they filled an early morning pavilion with the buzz that accompanies the expectancy of more success.

Waugh nods in recognition of the tribute, suggests that indeed it goes to the heart of his team's success and his own development as a captain. "Basically, it is a question of seeing the next match," he says, "as a completely new ball game. You don't carry baggage into that game, you don't dwell on the past. You go into the new game with things to achieve, saying to yourself: 'Maybe I can do something in this game that I've never done before.' You see it very clearly as a separate event with a new challenge and new possibilities that you can get better.

"You lose something if you look too far ahead; you're better living in the moment, even though you do have an eye for your place in the history of the game you love. So you let the comparisons between the teams of different eras sort themselves out, though of course you want somebody in say 10 years' time to say: 'You know, those guys were right up there."

Guys like Ricky Ponting and Damien Martyn. Waugh agonised when the proven performer Justin Langer, boasting a Test average of more than 40 – the generally accepted yardstick for determining front-rank players – was required to give way to the bristling form of the stylish Martyn at the start of the series. He was less troubled, though, by the need to keep faith with Ponting in a run of low scores through the first three Tests. "It wasn't a question of hoping Ponting would come through with a big score," says Waugh. "We knew. People don't lose their class in a couple of games. You have to recognise that class, then back it all the way. We had a difficult time leaving out Langer, a great player who has never let us down, but the point was Martyn was at the peak of his career and you just had to play him."

Waugh believes that he has a few more campaigns left, in an arena, it is to be hoped, not too sanitised by the legislators, and he is emphatic that cricket will always be part of his life. But he is grateful too that his travels have helped him gain insights in a wider world. His charity work for an organisation in Calcutta dedicated to easing the lives of young women afflicted by leprosy happened by accident when a request for help was pushed under the door of his hotel room in the Indian city. He was aggrieved by defeat and was, he recalls, feeling rather sorry for himself. Now he reports: "I can't really tell you why the Calcutta thing happened other than that when I made contact a fantastic lady approached me and told me what they were trying to do. I really believe I have got more out of it than anyone else. It's been good for the kids and fantastic for me. What it has taught me is that you can make a difference – and that lot of sportsmen don't realise the power they have. Perhaps the biggest thing is that I've learned there is more to life than cricket."

But then if cricket is your business, you might as well do it as well as you can possibly can. "I don't want to sound big-headed," says Waugh, "But I have tried to work things out for myself. I haven't taken anyone else's blueprint. Maybe that was why my batting and my captaincy got off to a slow start. What do I want on my gravestone? Maybe only that I was guy who learned from his mistakes, a lot of them anyway, and that he did get better. Someone who played hard but fair, and in the end found out that cricket wasn't the only important thing in life."

That last assertion is not blazingly apparent as he pushes himself through a series of painful work-outs and intense physiotherapy in his effort to make a record recovery from the calf injury which required him to be carried off at Trent Bridge on a stretcher. Will he make the fifth and possibly historic Oval Test. "I don't know," he says, "but I'm trying my best." Naturally, he is keen to make history in the flesh.

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