The Interview: Steve Waugh - Blinkered visionary

The beautiful game is... cricket. Australia's new captain tells Stephen Fay how he rediscovered it
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STEVE WAUGH curtly rejects his stereotype as a grim, determined and unsmiling professional cricketer: "Just because I don't smile on the field, it doesn't mean I'm not enjoying it." On the contrary. Waugh, the new captain of Australia, is a closet romantic who speaks in a language now lost to most English professional cricketers. Waugh talks unselfconsciously about "the beauty of the game".

His own faith had wavered 18 months ago when he felt flat after playing too much Test cricket. To restore his enthusiasm and enjoyment Waugh sought out a sports psychologist named Sandy Gordon, who diagnosed a loss of appetite for the game's finer points. "The keeper takes a catch down the leg side one handed, and you say, 'Well, that's no big deal; it's his job'." Gordon told Waugh to respond to his feelings: "If you think about that catch, it's a great piece of cricket, and you're lucky to have seen it."

Waugh has harnessed the power of positive thinking, and his enjoyment in the game has survived the burden of the captaincy. His new life is a bit more lonely. Taking over from the legendary Mark Taylor earlier this year has been a big learning experience: "The most pressure I've been under, probably. Everyone has an opinion when you take over as captain. You don't expect everyone to like you, and some of the stuff that was being said was unfair, but you can only prove them wrong in the long run."

Waugh hopes to prove the critics wrong quicker than that with victory over South Africa today, and wins in the semi-final and next Sunday's World Cup final at Lord's. "You've got to be able to handle yourself under pressure in this World Cup. Experience will win the day," he says. He does not rule out either South Africa or Pakistan, but Waugh's description best fits his team. He will be a disappointed man if Australia do not win.

Steve Waugh does not waste much time on verbs. His style is terse and laconic, though neither grim nor unsmiling . The smile registers fairly faintly on the fine stress lines that are beginning to show around his mouth. His twin brother Mark's face is filling out and, at 34, it is becoming easier to tell them apart. Steve was wearing a blue sweat shirt, blue shorts and trainers when we met for breakfast at the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington last week. It was the uniform of a man who was too busy to watch India and Pakistan later that morning. Waugh would be solitary and sweating in the gym instead.

He toyed with boiled eggs, tea and toast, described his therapeutic visits to the London theatre - he has seen Buddy, Phantom of the Opera (fifth time) and Chicago - and listed some of the hardships of having been on tour for 115 days (he knew exactly how many). His wife is pregnant and his grandfather is seriously ill in hospital. Waugh is a victim of the tyranny of distance: "I spend a lot of money on phone calls." He talked about the captaincy, the coach, the "amazing" (his word) recent series against the West Indies, the hardship inflicted on promising cricketers in this country and the England team. Thinking positively, Waugh is more optimistic about England than any Englishman.

After he had listed the England team he would pick, he suddenly said: "I'd like to be the next coach. He has a huge opportunity." When I offered to pass on this interesting news to the ECB, Waugh withdrew from the running. He wasn't thinking of himself, he said, but whoever does it will have a great job: "They've got the raw material there; they've just got to mould them a bit."

Waugh would disqualify himself, anyway, because he is Australian. His advice to the ECB is to appoint an Englishman as England coach. "When it comes down to that real crunch time, that desperate time, if you haven't got it within you or you're not born with it, you don't have that same passionate feeling. We've got our own team song. I can't imagine someone from England singing that team song with us after we'd won a Test match. Don't know whether we'd want someone from another country singing our song." That leaves Jack Birkenshaw.

Waugh's England team? "[Nasser] Hussain has the right attitude. [Graham] Thorpe could be a great batter and, if he becomes that, others will follow. You only need one. I don't know why Robin Smith isn't playing Test cricket. [Darren] Gough, [Alan] Mullally and [Dean] Headley are a very decent bowling attack. [Alex] Tudor bowled well in Perth. That's why we took a lot of confidence to the West Indies, because the England attack is as good as theirs, almost."

He feels sorry for Graeme Hick ("struggling to get back into form and, all of a sudden, he's the man who's going to win the World Cup for England"); he would open with Alec Stewart; and he thinks Leicestershire's wicketkeeper Paul Nixon is a tough, hardened cricketer. That leaves a place for Mark Ramprakash ("possibly") and a full team, bar an opener and a No 6. But Waugh identifies an Australian phenomenon known as tall-poppy syndrome as a peculiarly English vice. "I think good English sportsmen are almost afraid because they get put up so high and they know they are going to get taken down, whether it be on or off the field. It's only a matter of time. You put yourself under enormous pressure, you get ridiculed, and, if you fail, you feel worthless. It's really hard for any sportsman to be at the top. You've got to put blinkers on and take no notice."

This blinkered state of mind may explain the mysterious disappearance of bottle - what the Australians call "ticker" or heart - among England cricketers when they need it, as they did in the World Cup against South Africa and India. "It's important as a cricketer that you see challenge as exciting. Maybe that's where England have fallen down. If it's a great challenge they get intimidated, too worried about it, instead of enjoying it and testing themselves."

Most Australian cricketers have played in England and enjoyed it: "Fair crowds, the outfields are green, and the wickets are pretty good," he says. They are familiar with the English game, and have strong opinions about it, but no original remedies. Waugh says: "The problem is the counties come first because that's where the players grew up and where they get paid. You've got to identify the right players for England and have them all contracted to the ECB. They'll give players the break they need. Angus Fraser said for the Brisbane Test last November he felt flat. You can't go into the First Test flat."

Flat was how the Australian team felt in the early stages of the World Cup after Waugh's first Test series as captain in the West Indies. It was one of the two best Test series he has played in (the other was in the West Indies too, in 1995). The players were drained when they arrived in England and their loss to New Zealand could still endanger a semi-final place. Waugh was especially happy with the memory of his 199 on a tough wicket in Barbados and the 100 in Jamaica when he scored faster than Brian Lara in his resurrection innings of 213. "There's a theory that a new captain stops scoring runs and we scotched that after one game," he says. Waugh is generally a good sleeper and an early riser, but the tension in the West Indies interrupted that pattern: "During the last Test I hardly slept that week, worrying and thinking 'what's going to happen?' and 'how are we going to win?'"

Waugh is a contrarian who delights in proving people wrong and attacking cliches, stereotypes and theories that do the rounds year after year. "That's one of the things I love about cricket." This quality could make him a formidable cricket writer, although we may have to wait. Being captain means not criticising people he has played with. (He does, however, produce best-selling accounts of Australia's overseas tours, heavily illus- trated with his own photographs.)

As captain Waugh is part of the hierarchy now, though he is still feeling his way. "I think one almost becomes more professional. You've got to know everyone in the team a bit differently and recognise when someone's struggling on the field, for personal or cricket reasons; different players have different needs. It means you can't become too close to the senior players. You've got to keep your distance, and you do become a bit more detached. In the past you were always out with them, having a drink. Now you sometimes miss out. That's why it's more lonely in a way. More responsibility."

He remains a committed team man: "I wouldn't like to think it's just one or two people who decide how the team is going. The whole team should monitor what's going on." Young players as well as seniors: "Fresh faces give you energy. Guys who haven't been around can see the beauty of the game more than guys who've become numb to it."

It is not the beauty Waugh would deny. More the idea of cricket as a game. "It's more than a game these days," he says abruptly. "Go to India and Pakistan if they don't qualify for the semi-finals and you'll find that the whole economy will be down. We go on tours where travellers are advised not to go because it can affect trade between two countries."

The corollary of this, of course, is that Steve Waugh is more than a cricketer. A good captain of Australia usually is.