Captain Courage

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Here's something worth remembering about Steve Waugh on the eve of what could be a momentous Australian summer: nine years ago, his life as a Test player stalled when the selectors discarded him for his twin brother Mark. From more than 40 Tests, Waugh had accrued a respectable average and ample stories with which some day to enrapture his grandchildren. In similar circumstances, some players might have shrugged and gone looking for a real job.

Waugh would no sooner have done that than take up tap dancing. His response was to turn himself into a better player, to confront his limitations and work around them to become cricket's immovable man. Good for him, you might say-he's made himself a hero. But the legacy of the new Waugh goes further than that. It extends to the Australian team he now leads as it closes on a prestigious record: the most consecutive wins in Test cricket. If the record falls, the feat would be Waugh's reward for years of hard work, for suffering more than any other player in the fight to depose the West Indies as cricket's kings, for putting Australia in the Windies' place-and for keeping them there. "Steve Waugh epitomizes what is good about Australian cricket," says Kepler Wessels, the former South African captain. "As a player, he is gutsy and aggressive. As a captain, he leads by example. He is a tough nut, but he's earned the respect of cricketers around the world."

Do we now know why the 35-year-old Waugh has been squinting all these years? Has he been peering into the future, grappling with the possibilities for himself and his team? One of these is now in focus: if Australia can extend their run to 12 by winning the first two Tests of the summer (in Brisbane Nov. 23-27 and Perth Dec. 1-5), the world record will be theirs.

By chance, their opponents will be the West Indies, whose 1984-85 teams set the existing mark [see box, overleaf]. Grudgingly, the West Indies have acknowledged Australia as cricket's top dogs-having lost 13 of their last 15 away Tests, they could hardly claim the title themselves-but on the eve of another showdown, they're defiant. "We will not bow down to Australia," says Andrew Sealy, executive secretary of the West Indies Cricket Board. "A West Indian victory in Brisbane would dent Australian pride, and that is what we aim to do."

Change is hard, especially for the gifted, who can breeze through-for a while, at least-on talent alone. Waugh was like that. His parents provided good sporting genes and an ideal environment in which to exploit them. Father Rodger had his boys playing catch as toddlers in their big western-Sydney backyard, where they later rigged spotlights for night games and hours of extra practice. Waugh played his cricket on the parched fields of the area, where the game's niceties perish in the heat. The twins' contrasting batting styles emerged early: Mark's blade was a wand; Steve's an ax.

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Waugh was 18 and soon to spend a few months on the dole when he dined one night with his girlfriend and some of her family. "How do you plan to make a living?" her cousin asked him. "Play cricket for Australia," Waugh replied.

Everyone except girlfriend Lynette-who's now his wife-fell silent and stared at their plates. They dismissed him as a dreamer. Even if the boy had talent, they thought, he'd need more than that to be a Test player. Lynette hadn't known him long, but she had an inkling that beneath his shyness lay many fine qualities-determination, maturity, pluck. Within two years, her faith was vindicated: Waugh was called up to the Australian team.

No one could blame the West Indies if they never saw their conqueror coming. Maybe someone did mention Waugh to them back in the mid-'80s, but they probably laughed at the fool and turned up the volume of their reggae. Waugh arrived in Test cricket when the West Indies were unbeatable and Australia were floundering. Fair-skinned and physically unimposing, he felt like an imposter, he says, as he shuffled out to bat on his debut against India at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in. That's when cricket stopped being easy. "Looking back, I probably wasn't prepared," Waugh says. "Nothing was going right for the side, and I was probably a little bit scared and surprised."

Though he failed in both innings-with scores of 13 and 5-he had two defining experiences during that Test. The first was the way he was welcomed-or, rather, not welcomed-by senior players. Waugh, his nerves a mess, craved guidance and didn't get it. "They were too worried about saving their own necks," he says. "It was almost as if they were thinking, I hope that guy fails so I can keep my position for a bit longer.'"

Today, though a hard-headed skipper himself, he makes a point of reassuring the newcomers, an approach that helped Adam Gilchrist and Brett Lee make spectacular starts in Test cricket last season. In paceman Lee's case, Waugh pushed for his selection, some thought to the point of impropriety. He later called Lee-publicly and privately -a "once-in-a-generation player." Says Gavin Robertson, a fringe Australian player through most of the '90s: "Whenever I made the team, Steve spoke to me in a way that made me feel like there'd never been a doubt in his mind that I should be there-and that he was thrilled that I was. He'd say, You can win the match for us-and if you get the opportunity, do it.'" Waugh also insisted on adding a symbolic touch to the protocol for giving new players their baggy green caps. Previously, the captain or team manager had handed them out. Now, past greats of Australian cricket do it; Waugh believes it shows the newcomer he's become part of a proud tradition.

Waugh's second key experience was watching his captain bat in Australia's second innings, in which Allan Border made 163 of Australia's 308. Waugh had never seen such resolve. It would take years, but he would learn to play similar innings, like his 200 in Kingston in 1995, when he resisted celebrated speedsters Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh in a 425-ball marathon that won Australia the deciding Test, ending the Windies' 15-year reign over world cricket. (In an interview months later, Waugh pointed to a handful of areas on his upper body that were still sore or numb from being hit during that watershed innings.)

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Such a performance would have been beyond him a few years earlier. "He had a problem with the fast guys," says Bob Simpson, Australia's coach from 1986 to '96. As Simpson saw it, Waugh was helpless against a West Indian tactic of bowling constantly at his ribs. Simpson taught him to play these balls with a more open stance, allowing him to steer them to the leg side for singles and curtail the barrage.

To balls aimed at his head, Waugh resolved to duck, sway, twist-to do whatever was effective, regardless of how inelegant he looked. (Hooking was out: sooner or later he would top-edge a catch.) Unlike his brother, Waugh had never given the impression that 0.5 sec. was ample time to select and execute a shot against the quickest bowling. Now he would move even further from the ideal of crowd-pleasing batting, with Simpson in his ear saying beauty was for the birds and survival all that mattered. "That wasn't easy for him," Simpson says, "because until then I think he fancied himself as a stroke maker and a bit of a macho."

In a way, he still does. He's simply disciplined himself to be choosy about the balls he tries to belt, and to find satisfaction not in sending bouncers into the crowd but in skilfully evading them. It's a strategy of risk minimization, and while Waugh feels singed when critics imply that his batting is stodgy, his statistics are a balm. In the eight years since his recall to the Test team he's lifted his average from a touch above 38 to a champion-class 50.43. And his average in the West Indies-where the local speedsters have shortened many careers in Waugh's time-is a telltale 66.92.

Nothing grabs cricketers' attention like great numbers, and the lesson in Waugh's figures has been absorbed by several of his team-mates, such as Ricky Ponting, another former wunderkind. When he was dropped from the Test side in 1996, Ponting used the same return path trodden by Waugh. "I worked out there's only one way to score runs-and that's to bat for long periods," Ponting says. "Steve Waugh did it beautifully. He came back with a game that's so solid and which he knows back to front."

Better, anyway, than most of the current West Indies' batsmen know theirs. With few exceptions, these players bat with the impetuosity of their celebrated predecessors-Viv Richards, Richie Richardson-without the physical gifts to back it up. The results, on occasion, have been disastrous: the West Indies' 3-1 series loss to England earlier this year included embarrassing innings totals of 61, 54 and 51. Plainly, in their approaches to their craft, the Australian captain and most of the West Indies batsmen have little in common. But Waugh is a hard-bitten creation of the contests between the two countries over the past decade, contests that sometimes seemed more like battle than sport.

In no small way they prepared him for the next stage of his cricketing life: captaining his country. Against the West Indies he had felt, at different times, just about every emotion a leader needs to understand, including despair. From the deciding match of the 1992-93 series, in Perth, Waugh carries one of his worst memories. "I think it was the only time in my Test career when I felt incapable of scoring a run," he recalls, "absolutely helpless against the pace and bounce that their bowlers, especially Curtly Ambrose and Ian Bishop, could generate."

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To most commentators, Waugh was the only man fit to succeed the universally admired Mark Taylor, who stood down shortly before Australia's tour of the Caribbean in March-April 1999. But one prominent observer, former captain Ian Chappell, suggested Waugh was too selfish to make a good leader and pushed strongly for the more outgoing Shane Warne. Even when Waugh was appointed, Chappell wouldn't let go. A "glorious opportunity" was missed, he said, when Warne was shunned for Waugh, who is "tactically astute but such a singleminded player that he will find it harder to adjust to team requirements."

Less than two years later, Waugh's achievements as captain are a custard pie in Chappell's face. With 12 wins from 17 Tests, Waugh will start the summer as the most successful Test captain of all time. On the strength of these numbers, it would be premature to make a categorical judgment on his leadership, but so far there's been much to like. Says Matthew Engel, the editor in chief of Wisden, cricket's bible: "He had a very difficult act to follow, but he has done it with absolute elan."

The Caribbean series of '99 brought the first crisis of Waugh's leadership. Brian Lara, the West Indies' mercurial batting genius, had with two inspired innings carried his team to a 2-1 lead with one match to play. The winning in 1995 of the Frank Worrell Trophy-the symbol of Test cricket supremacy between Australia and the West Indies-had been the high point of Taylor's term. Was Waugh going to hand it back in his first series in charge? Courage was needed, and Waugh showed it, dropping the underperforming Warne from the St. John's Test despite the bowler's seniority and their personal friendship. Though Warne had made a compelling case for his retention, Waugh had stared him down during what then coach Geoff Marsh later described as "a horrible hour in the team room ... one of the toughest things I've ever been part of."

As all strong captains do, Waugh has molded his team in his own image. "No Regrets" and "Never Satisfied" (the latter the title of his latest published diary) have been two of his team slogans on recent campaigns. A "regret" for Waugh is throwing away an innings with a rash stroke on the right side of 100; "being satisfied" can mean easing the pressure on an opponent's jugular when a series is won.

At a team meeting in Christchurch last February, Waugh's topic for the day was: "The Difference Between Being Good and Great." Shortly afterward, he made this entry in Never Satisfied: "I have been asked if I am happy with the way the team is playing at the moment, and the answer is happy, yes, but fully satisfied, never. We want every team we're playing against not to want to face us. Our ambition is to keep improving, to the point that we have an aura of invincibility about us."

And the effect of all this? Perhaps it's coincidence, or the influence of player changes, or the contribution of new coach John Buchanan, but under Waugh, Australia has shed its two main flaws of the '90s: fragility in pursuit of small fourth-innings targets, and a habit of losing dead-rubber Tests. As a result, they're on the verge of making history. Already Waugh has led Australia to its longest winning run: 10 matches-surpassing the eight consecutive wins by Warwick Armstrong's team of 1920-21.

As a student of cricket, Waugh relished that feat; as an insatiable competitor, he's come to see it as a stepping stone. "I'd be rapt if we beat the West Indies' record," Waugh says, "because only a great side could put together a run like that. A series of words best describes ours: unity, openness, honesty, dedication and enjoyment. We always look to bring a high level of skill to bear in everything we do, and off the field we've got the best physiotherapist and coach in world cricket. We also place great emphasis on fitness, which allows us to perform at our best for longer. All in all, I hope we've got every base covered."

Maybe bad weather will deny them the record. Or maybe the West Indies have unearthed a lethal fast bowler and Australia will have to fight to save their skins and the series, never mind the record. More likely, however, there'll be a commanding Australian performance. And as someone who, over more than a decade, has been bewildered, battered and shaped by the West Indies, Waugh more than anyone will see the beauty in that.

-With reporting by Guy Hawthorne/Cape Town and Kate Noble/London

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