This is another episode in the Steve Waugh series of this blog. Its also about captaincy and its associated calculated gambles.
“When you’ve got to drop a player as a captain you become emotional. You don’t cry, but you feel like crying. It’s hard to hold back. You’re very … different in your emotions. It’s hard to get out what you’re trying to say.”
In the era in which Steve Waugh played, there were three notable Hard Men to play for Australia. Allan Border, David Boon and Stephen Waugh. In a way, it was Waugh’s misfortune that the first two were on the four man selection panel, because neither Border nor Boon would likely have been swayed by the Old Mates Act and the fact that both men had played for many years with Waugh. Instead, as Hard Men, they did what had to be done and brought the curtain down on his one day career.
How do we know that Stephen Rodger Waugh would have done the same, for the good of the team ? We don’t. But at the very least we know that it was Waugh himself who tapped Michael Slater on the shoulder just before the fifth Ashes Test in 2001 and told him it was over. It was a brutal decision at the time, but it was ultimately vindicated by the form of the man who replaced Slater, Justin Langer.
1999. Steve Waugh had just taken over captaincy…
It was, however, either Steve’s misfortune or his misguided leadership that Australia came up against a Windies side in the West Indies that was suddenly rampant with – that man again – Brian Lara scoring runs at will to guide his team to a 2-1 series lead after three Tests with one still to play.
Much of the byplay of the series to that point has been the batting duel between Steve Waugh and Brian Lara.
After Australia’s victory in the first Test, Steve had followed up with a century in the second Test in Jamaica to have Australia well on its way to retaining the trophy, when Lara made a stunning 213 to change the course of the match and guide the Windies to victory. In the third test in Barbados, Waugh had continued his fine form to post 199 runs in the first innings, but it was Lara’s 153 not out in the second innings which just, just managed to get the Windies over the line for a one wicket victory. At this point, while commendations of Steve Waugh’s batting were suitably glowing, the reviews of his captaincy were lukewarm at best. The general view seemed to be that after the thrill-a-minute captaincy of Taylor there had now been a reversion to safety-first, steady-as-she-goes guidance by Waugh, reminiscent of the Border era.
And it bloody-well wasn’t working in this day and age ! After everything that had been achieved in 1995, when Tubby Taylor had been at the helm to finally wrest the Frank Worrell Trophy off the long time strutting and haughty West Indians, could it be that after just seven weeks of Steve Waugh’s command, the symbol of supremacy between the world’s two strongest teams of the last two decades was going to be handed back ? The stakes were indeed high ….
While it may not have been immediately obvious to those in the press box, within the team Waugh had by this time started to find his feet as captain and was demonstrating a progressively stronger feel for the role. One thing that helped was a quiet chat with Allan Border, who was over there doing commentating duties and who encouraged Waugh to go with his finely honed cricket instincts and to not worry too much about what the textbook said. After all, this had worked before, when it was Waugh who had pushed for the wicketkeeper Adam Gilchrist to become an opening batsman in the Australian one-day team – a stunningly successful move – and Waugh who, in his first time as NSW captain, had opened the bowling with his off-spinner to gain an unexpected victory.
And there had been other changes the new captain had made that were gradual, but pure Waugh, and were now starting to bear fruit. Always a big believer in the power of one-on-one, he was often having meetings with players, going through what he wanted from them and how he thought they could improve their input to the team. Steve was also fond of memos, which usually included inspirational quotes, and encouraged an even more aggressive approach : “If we get a sniff, we must go in for the kill …”
Speaking of which ….
The crunch now came with the lead-up to the fourth Test, in Antigua, when Waugh, with coach Geoff Marsh, had an extremely hard decision to make. In the series to date the Australian team-member who was clearly out of form was the team’s most famous player, the vice-captain of the whole shebang and Waugh’s comrade for nigh on the last decade – Shane Warne. Since coming back from a bad injury earlier in the year, Warne had take only 4 wickets in his last 4 Tests. On the last day of the third Test, when they had most needed him to make a breakthrough, Warne had not taken a single wicket. Now, Waugh had reluctantly come to the view that Stuart Macgill – who had earlier in the tour taken 13 wickets in a game against the West Indies Board President’s XI in Trinidad, was to be preferred as the one spinner they had decided they would take into the coming Test. Geoff Marsh agreed. In short, they were going to have to drop Shane.
They were going to have to drop Shane, the vice-captain of the tour. To many it was unthinkable, but in Waugh’s mind it simply had to be done.
It wasn’t pretty. They called Warne into the team room at the Rex Halcyon Hotel in Antigua for what Marsh would later describe as ‘a horrible hour … one of the toughest things I’ve ever been part of’. The shocked and outraged Warne mounted a sterling case to the skipper and coach as to why he should be included and why the last thing on earth he needed right now was to suffer the humiliation of being dropped. In short : Were they $%^&* kidding ?
No, they weren’t.
Waugh did not relent, and neither did Marsh. Warne was dropped, and Waugh did not take the soft option of putting the responsibility of it on Marsh. He told the press that it was every bit as much his decision as the coach’s, and that was that.
Not only did Macgill then play the match but, on a roll now, Waugh threw him the new ball in the second innings of the match ! To some it might have seemed the most unheard of thing anyone had ever heard of, but after reflection Waugh had decided to follow Border’s advice and go with his gut.
It worked. Macgill took three superb wickets, including the crucial one of the opener Adrian Griffith. Another move made by Waugh that stunned the critics was to throw Greg Blewett in the bowling maelstrom, against perhaps the finest batting side in the world, even though in his whole career Blewett had taken just nine Test wickets. Never mind, Waugh had the hunch that Blewett could do the job for them, and so it proved when he picked up Carl Hooper’s wicket. Australia won the Test by 176 runs, meaning the empire was saved and the Frank Worrell Trophy stayed in Australian hands.
This was Steve Waugh’s first series as Captain … Chances are it taught him a lot. It says a lot for the dignity of the man and the difficulty of that decision that it barely finds a paragraph in his 900-plus page autobiography….