SPORT

Betting against Waugh is a mug's game

MELBOURNE DEC. 24. Steve Waugh will leave the cricketing stage not as a sportsman bereft of desire and betrayed by his body but as a player near the height of his powers. Sport has few more poignant sights than an ageing pugilist who has fought one round too many, for then between the thought and the deed arises an interminable pause. Waugh has not lost his edge. His eyes remain sharp and his brain has retained its cricketing fury. Moreover, it isn't over yet. Waugh's faltering farewell tour has faded from the mind and now, once again, it is a matter of winning and losing. His career began in defeat and he will need to muster all his resources to ensure that it does not end on the same note. If Waugh's career tells us anything, though, it is this - betting against him is a mug's game.

Of course, he has raged against the dying of his light. Did anyone expect him to go quietly into the night? Always he has fought to the last and then some more. Such men cannot become civilised by decree, are not softened by experience. Waugh does not trust the world enough to drop his guard for an instant. His entire career tells of a man building a wall against a game that picked him up and put him down at an early age.

Insofar as Waugh is defensive and taciturn it has been because the game showed him its harsh face whilst he was still wet behind the ears, taught him a lesson he has not forgotten. Ever since, he has pitted himself against the threat of a game that hangs upon a thread. Cricket has not given another chance to toy with him. It has not always been the prettiest of sights but it has brought us to this stage, a full house in Melbourne, a hundred thousand people cheering a departing champion and a powerful Australian team trying to subdue a daring opponent.

Waugh may not miss the game all that much. Always he has had to summon an immense effort to succeed and a man can tire of that. He has not been driven so much by love of the game as a desire to succeed. Cricket has provided an outlet for certain parts of his character, parts about which Waugh himself has mixed emotions. He knows that as a cricketer he is mean, hard, tight and a lot of other things he does not really want to be but must because he has to score runs and win the match.

As far as cricket goes Waugh has been pushed along by fear of failure. He has fought harder and for longer than anyone else. Usually he has ended on the winning side because he has known how to win cricket matches better than anyone else and has often been able to execute his plans in person because he has never been afraid to be in the thick of the battle. Moreover, he can control his thoughts even amidst the explosions of fierce competition. He has been an extraordinary and underestimated player.

Even now it is too early to start thinking about his legacy. Instead let a few moments speak for him, the bumpers bowled to Viv Richards in Brisbane all those years ago, slower balls that helped to win a World Cup in India, flawless defensive innings in Manchester, defiance in the West Indies, a masterly innings against spin in Delhi and throughout that same shy, splay-footed walk and mutterings about umpires, commentators and a crook decision he had been given 17 years ago.

Civilisation has been reserved for the rest of his life, whereupon emerges a thoughtful, humorous man seeking to broaden his experiences from their original limitations. Waugh has spent a lot of time on his own, thinking about his game and his prospects. He has never been an insider, part of the cricketing scene, has always been willing to follow his own thoughts and to take them to their logical conclusion. Throughout he has been independent and original, a combination that has made him vulnerable. As he is attacked, though, so he has been defended for he has been able to take players and supporters with him on his journey. Everyone in public life has critics and followers. Waugh is unusual in one regard. In his case both of them are right.

He will not leave the field like a defeated warrior. Rather he will spend his last days trying to figure out how to beat the Indians. Perhaps the wheel has come full circle and it will end as it began. Perhaps Adelaide was an aberration and the Australians will storm to victory allowing their captain to end in a blaze of glory. That is the beauty of sport. No-one can tell. There is nothing except wickets, runs, blind chance and men playing with all their might upon a field. It has been Waugh's sporting life, a stage upon which by act of will a remarkable young man has been able to express every last ounce of the talent at his disposal.

The Indians will have appreciated him enormously and the feeling has been mutual. Doubtless supporters will wish him well even as they hope for an historic victory for their team. They might be forgiven for echoing the old prayer, "may India win and may Steve Waugh score a hundred.'' He will be missed. As the old folk singer said, "sometimes you don't know what you've got till it has gone."

PETER ROEBUCK

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