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26 April 2006

Cricket Great: Steve Waugh

Today Assistant Editor Roger Hermiston was one of the first to predict a glittering test career for Steve Waugh. This week he was reunited with the former Australian captain 17 years on from their meeting at Headingley Cricket Ground.

It's a picture that has pride of place in my scrapbook charting 25 years in journalism. It features Steve Waugh and I, sat on a bench outside the old red-brick cricket pavilion at Headingley, home of Yorkshire County Cricket Club. Steve has a bat in hand, having just finished a rigorous work-out in the nets: I've got a tape-recorder pointed towards him, eager to record the views of a 24-year-old I was convinced would, one day, take his place in the cricketing pantheon.

I have the yellowed cutting to prove this isn't just an act of hindsight. TheYorkshire Post article, dated Saturday June 10, 1989, is headlined "All-round talent is here to stay.... Roger Hermiston chronicles the rise of a new hero." It went on: "Waugh's technically accomplished batting makes it easy to predict he will score many runs for Australia.....he will be a problem for England for the rest of this summer and for many more to come".

Something of an understatement! Steve Waugh has been the scourge of England ever since, his jaunty stride down the pavilion steps of Lord's and The Oval a profoundly depressing sight for any home supporter. Seventeen years on he's one of the acknowledged greats (an overused phrase) of the game. He played in 168 test matches - more than anyone else in cricket history - and scored more than 10,927 runs, at an average of 51.06, with 32 centuries. He's also the most successful test captain of all time leading Australia to 41 wins out of 57 in the years 1999 to 2003/4. His Australian side was arguably one of the greatest sporting units of the modern - indeed any- era, talented, mentally tough, and utterly ruthless in pursuit of victory.

"You must think you're something of a Nostradamus" Steve remarked wryly, when we met up in the Today office this week and I showed him the old cutting, before he went on air to chat to our sports presenter Steve May about his autobiography "Out of My Comfort Zone". It's a whopping great tome which, at 801 pages, reflects the longevity of his career and the range of his achievements.

To be honest, there were plenty of clues to indicate that the young man from New South Wales had more than a promising test career ahead of him. True, he had struggled to make a test hundred since making his debut four years earlier: Australian selectors are not noted for their patience, and he was somewhat lucky to be still in the side. But, playing for Somerset in the County Championship in 1988, he was a prolific run-scorer and more than useful seam bowler.

Nonetheless, I reckon I was among the first to predict that Waugh would be one of the cricketing greats. What convinced me was his fluent offside play, the ease with which he pierced the field with punched cover-drives and square-cuts, apparently with a minimum of effort and a maximum of result. That technical ability, allied to a steely temperament, marked him out as something above the ordinary.

But in our first meeting he was clearly fretting a little about his career. "I can't be considered inexperienced any more, and I think I have to be expected to play a key role in the side."

Two days after I interviewed him he did just that and reached the elusive test hundred at Headingley, scoring a monumental 177 not out. A few weeks later he repeated the trick with 152 not out at Lords: England just couldn't get him out that summer.

It's strange to think of it now after such a long period of Australian hegemony, but in June 1989 Steve Waugh and Australia had no real idea when their next test win against England was coming from. He recalled: "That hundred was obviously a turning point for me, but it was a turning point for all of us. In that match at Headingley we batted on well into the final day, and didn't really believe we would win the game. But Terry (Alderman) and the other bowlers got a clutch of wickets around tea-time and we ultimately won convincingly. After that the confidence started to flow, we won the series 3-0, and never looked back."

Steve Waugh isn't your average sporting hero, cocooned in his narrow world, forever thinking about his game and analysing his technique. Of course he has done plenty of that, but this is a man with a hinterland and broader horizons than the 11-6 day job. He encouraged his players to learn about the cultures of the countries they played in: he himself has a special love for India . On tour there in 1998 he was moved by a visit to Udayan, a rehabilitation centre for children whose parents suffer from leprosy. He has funded a new wing of the home to house girls, who were previously ignored as they weren't seen as the breadwinners of families. He says in his book: "I'm forever grateful that we lost that Test match in India in 1998, not because of losing, but because we did it with a day to spare. Each time I walk through the gates of Udayan I feel a sense of belonging that has helped shape me into the person I am today, and given direction to where I'm heading."

My colleague Steve May looked in the index of Waugh's book and noticed that under the heading English Cricket, were the following phrases: "fear of Australia", "lack of self-belief", "local negativity", "no fun", "poor fielding", "volatile crowds" and "weakness against leg-spin". He told us he didn't write the index, and praised the current England set-up.

But this is a man whose batting skills and psychological strength as captain have haunted English cricket for years. God help us if he returns to coach his country at a later date: just pray he finds a new niche with his writing career!

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