Waugh of attrition delivers spoils

Alisdair Ross in Port Elizabeth finds the key to Australia's strength
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The Independent Online
Ask Mark Taylor who the most important man is in his all- conquering Australian line-up, and he does not hesitate very long. "You simply can't over- estimate Steve Waugh's value and importance to the Australian side," he said. "He is the cornerstone of our team."

Taylor used the most recent example - the brilliant 160 which helped set up the Australian's First Test win against South Africa in Johannesburg - to explain why. "The length and manner of his innings at the Wanderers was typical of the guy but, crazy as it sounds, it was just a regulation Steve Waugh performance. He just bats and bats. He is so solid and that's why he makes so many big hundreds. When he got out for 160, he was really upset. It doesn't matter how many he makes, he's always disappointed when he gives it away."

Bowling attacks the world over have found this out the hard way as the 31-year-old has built up a reputation as the most resolute and relentless of run- getters. His career has been one of remorseless improvement, but possibly the big breakthrough came two years ago in the Caribbean when Waugh made the highest of his 12 centuries, an unbelievably brave 200 against a fired- up West Indies pace quartet.

Earlier in what was an epic series, on a brutish Port of Spain pitch, Waugh had exchanged pleasantries with Curtly Ambrose after a succession of wicked bouncers. As one vicious delivery screamed past Waugh's battered helmet, he strode down the track to eyeball big Curtly - or at least his breastbone.

On a lightning Sabina Park strip it was payback time. Waugh never took a backward step. By the time he was last out, his left arm was swollen and blue, his wrist was bandaged, he had his double century and Australia were on the verge of becoming the first side to win a series in the Caribbean for 29 years. That was reward enough.

For Waugh says he is interested in neither awards nor records, even though watching him accumulate runs around the world with a ruthless efficiency, that seems difficult to digest. "I'm far more concerned with performing to my best ability, playing a full part in a successful Australian side," he said.

"Batting for so long in Johannesburg gave me a lot of satisfaction. When we lost the Fifth Test against the West Indies at Perth earlier in the year, I made one and nought so I wanted to put that match behind me."

He did so in no uncertain fashion. Joined by Greg Blewett late on the second day, the pair were not parted until just before lunch on the fourth morning. "It was a particularly great effort to bat throughout the third day without losing a wicket," Waugh said. "Greg and I had to keep each other going because we both knew that you don't get opportunities like that very often. When they do come along, you have to grab them.

"I kept telling myself what Allan Border would have done in that situation. When he got a team down he always kept them on their knees. That held me together even when I was struggling with leg cramps just before I got to my hundred.

"But then I always seem to do better overseas. I guess the team just bonds a lot better when you're away. Back at home, someone always wants a piece of your time."

His most recent series, against the West Indies at home, seems to bear this out - although Waugh himself has another explanation for what was, by his standards, his modest role in Australia's 3-2 series win. "I made a conscious effort to be a lot more attacking. I was trying to go for my shots earlier and I guess it really wasn't me because I didn't make a hundred.

"I realised that I didn't need to change a great deal. I was better off concentrating on playing my normal game."

By doing just that he averages just over 50 (50.23) - ahead of Ian Chappell (42.42) and Neil Harvey (48.41), and within range of Border (50.56), Jack Ryder (51.62) and Greg Chappell (53.86). Only Sydney Barnes (63.05) and Sir Donald Bradman (99.94) stand significantly ahead.

Waugh is giving himself a chance to move further up the list. He is playing his 88th Test against in Port Elizabeth and may yet overhaul Border's all-time record of 156 international appearances. "I feel I am only just starting to reach my peak, so I've still got plenty of good cricket left in me."

England might have hoped to be seeing the last of "Tugga" this summer. As one Aussie cricket writer put it: "The Poms should be so bloody lucky." Quite.