The Australia sporting jungle is a ruthless place and yesterday it claimed its biggest and toughest predator, the country's cricket captain Steve Waugh. Having delivered South Africa's head on a platter in the recent Test series, Waugh will continue as captain in the longer form of the game, but the man who has revolutionised one-day cricket with attacking fields has been deposed with all the abrupt brutality of a Third World coup.
In a terse press conference, the chief executive of the Australian Cricket Board, James Sutherland, announced that Waugh, who led Australia to victory in the last World Cup, was not only stripped of the one-day captaincy but of his place in the squad as well – a decision that brought widespread shock with police reporting an increase in traffic accidents as drivers fiddled with their radios in disbelief at the news.
His successor will be named within the week, with Adam Gilchrist, Shane Warne, Ricky Ponting and Darren Lehmann all being mentioned as candidates, as Australia set out to use the forthcoming series in South Africa and Zimbabwe to prepare for next year's World Cup.
These are heady times for Australia cricket and any persistent weakness was always going to be pruned before it became too unwieldy. In a country where sport is the only currency people trust, Waugh's failure to take his team to the one-day finals at home – only the third time Australia have not made them in 22 years – has been met with general disbelief. A dip in his own form has not helped matters and, with national expectations perhaps even higher than when Don Bradman was in his pomp, a tough response was always likely.
With 325 one-day caps, Waugh is Australia's longest serving one-day player as well as its most successful captain. Speaking after his sacking, he clearly felt that the recent blip on his near faultless CV should not have ended his reign as skipper.
"I'm disappointed and shocked," said Waugh. "It's never a good time to be dropped especially when you are captain. Although it's a setback, it is also a challenge and I've never shied away from a challenge."
Waugh, who skippered Australia to victory in the last World Cup in 1999, has long-stated his desire to help Australia defend their title in 2003.
"I'm a pretty determined kind of person and I remain available for Australia in one-day cricket. But with the World Cup campaign beginning in a year's time, my quest starts here by getting runs on the board."
At 36, Waugh is no longer young and the selectors, led by the chairman, Trevor Hohns, are sticking to the trend that recently saw Mark Taylor and Ian Healy, both leading players, unceremoniously axed a year or so before their sell-by date.
Apart from age, another reason felt to be behind Waugh's sacking is the removal of risk from his batting – a far cry his critics claim, from the gung-ho strokeplayer who set the last World Cup alight with the innings of the tournament against South Africa at Headingley.
Decline does not have to be obvious and one of the strengths of Australian sport is the ruthless lack of sentiment shown to its participants by those who wield power. Although a huge public outcry is expected, many are nevertheless hailing it as a courageous decision by the selectors.
The opinion polls around this sports-crazed nation will beg to differ, of course, but they cannot deny the sudden lack of complacency that follows such high-profile fellings as this. The axe will not stop here and other players are set to follow Waugh into the wilderness, with Steve's brother Mark another under pressure. If it comes to pass, it will not only be the end of another Waugh, but of an era too.
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