When the Waugh is over, Got to start again

The Sydney Test of January 1984 was a special event, as announcements came through during the match that both Greg Chappell and Dennis Lillee were to play their last Test for Australia. Although the match itself was nothing spectacular – Australia beat Pakistan by ten wickets – there was plenty of emotion as Chappell ended his career with a big century and Lillee ended his with a five-fer. Twenty years later, the Sydney Test of January 2004 will be no less special.

When Australia meets India in the Fourth Test at the Sydney Cricket Ground, it will be the last Test match appearance of Stephen Rodger Waugh. That most successful of Australian captains announced his forthcoming retirement at the SCG yesterday.

By choosing a graceful exit and giving six weeks notice, Waugh has added an extra theme to the Australia-India series, which becomes for him a personal farewell tour of the eastern states (his last Test at the WACA was against Zimbabwe last month – Hayden’s 380 game). And in case the series happens to be looking lop-sided after the first three Tests, Waugh has surely guaranteed a sellout at the SCG as his hometown crowd comes along to say goodbye.

By setting his own agenda for departure, Waugh has avoided the anticlimax of some of the other recent greats of the Australian game. While Chappell and Lillee went out triumphantly at the SCG in 1984, the fact that it was also Rod Marsh’s final Test was not made clear for several weeks afterwards.

Allan Border’s international retirement in 1994 was an abrupt off-season announcement, though he did hang around with Queensland long enough to take part in their first Sheffield Shield win the following year. When Mark Taylor walked off the SCG in 1999 having retained the Ashes, we all feared it was the end, but hoped that he would hang around a bit longer. However, with his batting form fast evaporating, he made the only sensible decision a few weeks later.

Ian Healy made a sudden decision to retire just before the start of the 1999-2000 Test season, as did Mark Waugh three years later. Both ended their illustrious careers in low-key circumstances, in Zimbabwe and Sharjah respectively. And both had almost certainly got the tap on the shoulder from head of selectors Trevor Hohns telling them to go before they were dropped.

Hohns may well have had the whisper in Steve Waugh’s ear as well, his dreams of playing on for another twelve months in hope of winning a Test series in India having now been abandoned. But he had already been down a similar road in early 2002, standing down from the ODI side to tour South Africa when it became clear that there was no guarantee that he was going to be chosen.

At the age of 38, the signs are there that the Steve Waugh machine is starting to wind down. In between some brilliant innings at the start of the 2003-04 season – two match-winning centuries against WA in the ING and Pura Cups, and a big ton against Tasmania – Waugh has made three ducks in six Pura Cup innings. His bowling is slow-medium these days, even though he has not lost his love of the bouncer, much to the disdain of Michael Hussey who fell victim to a Waugh waist-high short-pitched ball in a Pura Cup game that I witnessed a few weeks ago.

The captaincy, though, is still sharp. He is, statistically, Australia’s most successful Test captain ever. He’ll come close to matching Allan Border’s record for the most Test runs, though Australia’s expected dominance over India will mean that his batting opportunities in the coming series should be limited. He has provided so many great memories over the past eighteen years, that extraordinary moment of theatre with his last-ball-before-stumps century against England last season being just one.

There will be more eulogies during the coming Test series, one can be sure, for the man who quite possibly is Australia’s most loved cricketer since Bradman.

As to his successors, the next Test captain of Australia can be no one else but Ricky Ponting. He has shown outstanding leadership in the limited-over arena, and a World Cup is testimony in itself. I would have liked to have seen Waugh step down from the captaincy straight away and play out his career as a specialist batsman under Ponting’s leadership, however that’s not to be.

Looking at his successor in the Australian batting order, I see only one logical name. While Martin Love and Brad Hodge are showing highly consistent form at state and county level, both turn thirty in 2004. True generational change will be achieved by passing the role over to a young batsman, now 22, also from Sydney’s western suburbs, one of exceptional talent and maturity – already displayed to great effect in the one-day game. A cricketer already seen as, perhaps, the Australian captain following Ricky Ponting.

It would indeed be fitting for the Australian Number Five baton to be passed from Steve Waugh to Michael Clarke.

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