Steve Waugh’s ruthlessness on the cricket field has given him a tough guy image off it. Ashwin Achal finds that image is not too off the mark

Take a barrage of nasty hits to the chest from Allan Donald (Sydney, 1997), one of the world’s fastest bowlers. Shrug it off with a wry smile. Take a snorter to the head from the raging bull Curtly Ambrose (Trinidad,1995). Stare right back; a steely gaze which suggests that the bouncer barely made an impression.

These are the images that help define former Australian international Steve Waugh’s ruthless, tough guy character. It has been nearly nine years since Waugh hung up his boots, and the man has certainly mellowed down. But his polite, yet firm replies to queries recreate a sense of nervous fear which opposition cricketers may have faced during his playing days.

The interview starts with the most obvious question. Is Steve Waugh, the cricketer, an accurate reflection of his general personality? “I played cricket a certain way, but that doesn’t mean it’s my off-field personality. We had lost matches for many years when I came into the team, so I learnt to put up these walls around me so that I could survive in the game,” he says, with an unflinching stare.

Could he then be considered a friendly, jovial man? “Yeah, perhaps. I could be, if you ask right questions,” he says with a straight face, though the intention to lighten the mood is clear only after Waugh chuckles.

Waugh broke into the Australian team in 1985 when the side’s fortunes were at an all-time low, a far cry from the dominant team he led during the 90s and early noughties. “It was sink or swim when I started; we didn’t win in my first 13 Tests, and I didn’t score a century for about three and a half years. I was hardened by these experiences. I saw what made the team fail, and what made the team succeed. And I knew I had to toughen up, to protect myself,” he says, “I generally like to be challenged in whatever I do, the things I have a passion for.”

As the interview continues, the 47-year-old stretches his neck purposefully from right to left, indicating that a battle is well and truly on. Well, how about his flamboyant twin, Mark? did he wish he possessed Mark’s flair? “I had his flair, and Mark had the determination. It’s funny, look at our records and you will see that Mark scored his runs at a strike rate of 51 in Tests, while I scored at about 50. Perceptions aren’t reality. You tend to get tagged as a sportsperson, and it’s very hard to shake them off.”

The 1999 World Cup winning captain loosens up when asked about the goals of his company Sporting Edge, which has tied up with the Brigade Group to provide a sports academy for budding athletes in Bangalore. “Indian children don’t have the facilities and grounds to play sports regularly. In Australia, kids have easy access to a whole range of sports. That’s what we’re trying to do here. We want kids to try different sports to get fit and healthy, which brings all-round positive development,” he says. “It’s something that has been on my mind for a while. I’ve travelled around India a lot, and I have seen kids playing cricket everywhere. I think these kids need some structure. Also, cricket seems to dominate here; it’s good to try other sports as well.”

Back to his time as an international cricketer, and the eyes narrow once again in concentration. The current Australian team under Michael Clarke appears like a peaceful bunch, at least in comparison to the team Waugh led, or even during his successor Ricky Ponting’s reign. Have the Aussies lost their mean streak? “Well, (fast bowlers) James Pattinson and Peter Siddle get in the batsmen’s face. These guys aren’t Labradors, they are Alsatians. We have been trained to play aggressive cricket right from the junior levels, and if we don’t play aggressive cricket, we don’t do well.”

Soon, a firm handshake signals the end of the interview, and he is off for his next appointment. Veteran cricket writers often state that with regular interactions, Waugh is best described as an affable bloke, the type of guy you would love to have around during a night on the town. For those minutes during this session, however, it was truly thrilling to witness his trademark ‘school headmaster’ qualities which once had everyone shaking in their boots.