by Peter Roebuck
Stephen Waugh: “The eyes are cold, as if fixed on the target. All champions have that quality”
Down to his bootstraps, Stephen Waugh is an Australian and a cricketer. Pinched features, durability, a contempt for fuss and a quiet sense of space speak of a gum tree in the outback. Baggy green cap pulled over the eyes even when knocking up, a splay-footed walk, a preference for patting backs when others are smacking kisses, and the fiery eyes speak of 100 years of Australian batsmen who have asked no quarter and gained none.
Waugh is a steely-wristed fighter who is enchanted by history. He likes life to be simple, expects it to be tough and has no time for the shirker, a breed he contemplates as if they were a chook (a chicken) in a chook-raffle.
Without being remotely sentimental, without abandoning the national custom of irreverence, Waugh is a traditionalist. Typically, his bat is not a tree trunk and he picks it up when the ball is delivered, which is what they did in the past and. what he is going to do now. Technique interests him but he is suspicious of trends.
In the slips he is full of ideas and in the pavilion he might read about the methods of S. F. Barnes or listen to talk about Alan Kippax or Archie Jackson. To be part of this history, and to unravel cricketing skills, are his greatest desires.
Predictably, though, Stan McCabe, of the 19505, and Doug Walters, 40 years on, are his particular heroes. He has read a biography of McCabe and has met Walters. In McCabe he must find modesty, simplicity, courage and a capacity for great deeds when the time arises.
McCabe touches the Warmth in Waugh, a characteristic he otherwise hides with dry humour. In Walters he must find a man who could do it on his ear, a man who played cards, smoked cigarettes and then bashed the Poms all over the park.
With his penchant for hamburgers and mistrust of training, Waugh likes that sort of thing.
Determined to step into this tradition, and realising how many great Australian cricketers come from the bush (notably Bradman, O’Reilly and McCabe), Waugh sought the inner strength of the Countryman in a harsh land, and the spontaneity of the naturally developing style.
Reared in the hot, motorised and unquestionably unfashionable Sydney suburb of Bankstown, Waugh dedicated himself to capturing these qualities. Keeping his own counsel, he fought his way up. It wasn’t easy. Mark, his twin brother, was the stylist and many thought he’d go further.
Not so the coach of their schooldays, Harry Soloman, who sensed Stephen’s fierce will. “It was in the eyes,” he said. “Stephen had Border’s eyes, burning eyes. Stephen is hungry and the wanting is important. All champions have that quality. The eyes are cold, as if fixed on a target.”
Soloman recalled a family dinner at which cricket was discussed. Stephen sat silently fascinated. Mark was jumpy and eager to be fed. Listening to this anecdote, Mark protested; “I was hungry,” to which Soloman smiled and chided; “Yes, for food.” Stephen was the street fighter, who, in cricket, was a man before he was a boy.
Too early, Stephen was thrust into Test cricket as an all-rounder. Times were hard. Rival states were wary of this latest great white hope from Sydney. In Australia the states heartily loathe each other; so this suspicion was trumpeted around the country.
Waugh failed in those early Tests, often the victim of poor umpiring decisions to which his reaction could be surly.
His critics pounced as if Waugh had broken a binding promise. In trouble he survived, as good men do, by living on his wits, plundering vital runs in vainglorious one-day games and bowling a cunning mixture of slow balls and yorkers to win a World Cup final.
The native intelligence of the cricketer shone through. Yet, despite this brilliance, Waugh’s place in the Australian team was in jeopardy last winter, the more so when he padded up to Marshall in the first innings of the first Test. Critics were clamouring for his head and dismissing his valiant efforts for Somerset as irrelevant indulgences in third-rate cricket.
Then, like McCabe before him, Waugh decided to smash his way out of trouble. He stood up to the West Indian bombardment, gave as good as he got, bounced Viv Richards with his first three balls of the series and generally announced his intention to compete. He averaged 40 in the series.
But still he knew he wasn’t a proper Test cricketer because he hadn’t made a hundred. Proud to play for Australia, he felt bogus. Headingley put an end to that. Now Waugh is cock of the walk and can bat in the great tradition.
Of course, he can be stopped. Early jitters sometimes cause him to pad up to break-backs. Once set, he is formidably straight and, being a back-foot player, late in defence. His aggressive shots offer hope because they are played on the up and with an open face. Certainly on hard Australian pitches the West Indian slip cordon didn’t dare neglect its duty.
Nevertheless, he’s started hitting hundreds, started thinking as a batsman and can be expected to impose himself as a daring, combative and essential correct batsman.