Waugh reflects on final Indian summer
Legendary former skipper takes a trip down memory lane, revisiting the classic four-Test Border-Gavaskar series from 2003-04
Across seven decades stretching back to the days of Don Bradman, no India touring team has been able to secure a Test series win in Australia.
But for a few weeks during their visit of 2003-04 – a summer that was supposed to celebrate the final chapter of Steve Waugh's storied cricket career – that seemed apt to change against the tide of history and sentiment.
Ultimately, it required a typically dogged counter-punching century stand between the 38-year-old skipper and Simon Katich on the final afternoon of the series' last Test to prevent Australia suffering defeat and India claiming an unprecedented success.
But even when Waugh was dismissed inside the closing hour and left the SCG to a poignant and prolonged ovation, he feared he might have misread the scenario and left his team vulnerable as a consequence.
Which was pretty much how that ever-fluctuating summer had begun.
Waugh admits he toyed with the notion of quitting Test cricket a year earlier, when surfing the wave of national adoration that flowed from the century achieved off the last ball of a day's play in the fifth Ashes Test and which, in turn, ended a run of low scores and shored up his leadership.
Having regained the urn and etched a place in Australia's sporting folklore for that enduring moment amid the softening light and lengthening shadows of a midsummer's evening, Waugh fleetingly wondered if it was not ordained that he similarly call it a day.
There was, however, unfinished business.
Partly the Caribbean campaign that loomed post-Ashes to reprise his maiden offshore series as captain against the West Indies in 1999, and the subsequent opportunity to finish on home turf against India, Australia's opponents when he made his Test debut at the MCG in 1985.
"I didn't know I was going to get a hundred in that last (Ashes) innings in Sydney, and I think if I didn't get a hundred I would have been going out in a different way – out the back door, maybe," Waugh told cricket.com.au. "I just felt there was a bit of something to finish.
"I started my Test captaincy off in the West Indies, so I wanted to finish off with an away tour there, and then play well in Australia.
"I just felt that I had something more to give as a leader."
Having decided that the Caribbean series would mark the end of his touring days, Waugh confided with then (and current) selection panel chair Trevor Hohns that, form and fitness willing, he would stand down from captaincy and the team following the fourth and final Test against India.
He felt no need to share that decision any more widely, subscribing as he did to the philosophy of former teammate Carl Rackemann who maintained 'you don't make a statement to let everyone know you're debuting, so why should you have to declare your intention to finish?'.
But events escaped his control when Cricket Australia asked for confirmation of his planned departure date and media got wind of his plans, which meant Waugh was compelled to front a press conference well in advance of the summer's first Test to confirm his impending departure.
From that moment, Waugh battled a dual national narrative that oscillated between a newspaper-driven campaign to turn his swansong into a succession of misty-eyed curtain calls, and a cynical backlash among critics who decried the 'farewell tour' scenario as selfishly indulgent.
Waugh rejects suggestions that the resultant sideshow became a distraction for a team already robbed of leg-spin wizard Shane Warne (serving a doping ban), and number one seamer Glenn McGrath, who had undergone surgery to shave bone spurs from his ankle.
"I didn't make it for my benefit, to have the big swansong as some of the commentators mentioned," Waugh said. "People never really know what's going on behind the scenes, but suffice to say I had to make a decision and that's the decision I made, to announce it before the series, to almost clear the air and let people know."
Those who subscribed to the self-indulgent thesis were handed a surfeit of ammunition in Australia's first innings of the opening Test in Brisbane when Waugh was out for a duck in ungainly circumstances, having trampled his stumps in fending at a short delivery from India's Zaheer Khan.
Only the second time in almost two decades of international cricket he had succumbed in that manner, the first in an ODI against West Indies' quick Michael Holding 17 years earlier.
His Test dismissal in Brisbane coming two balls after he had ignored a call from Damien Martyn to return to his crease after Waugh had skittishly taken off for a sharp single, which resulted in his batting partner being run out at the bowler's end.
Clear evidence, Waugh's critics argued, of his hellbent desire to seek the spotlight of the striker's end as well as his fading ability to handle the heat of Test cricket once he got there.
"The first Test wasn't the best Test – I trod on my stumps and was involved in a run-out, and of course the cheerleaders against me were celebrating and licking their lips up in the commentary box, but you can't do much about that," he said. "There's always people going to be for and against you, all I could say was I was trying 100 per cent."
After the first Test ended in a rain-affected draw, life got even tougher for Waugh in Adelaide where India had never won a Test match in seven previous attempts, having not enjoyed success at any Australian Test venue since 1981.
Waugh's team, which had already established a new benchmark for most consecutive Test victories (16 from 1999 to 2001) then created more history. Albeit, of the unwanted persuasion as they became the first in more than a century to plunder 550 in establishing a first-innings ascendancy, only to lose the match.
A result due almost exclusively to the unwavering application and undeniable ability of Rahul Dravid who followed his first innings double-hundred with an undefeated 72 as India chased down their final-day target of 230 in the second. The win duly delivered when Dravid belted a long-hop from leg spinner Stuart MacGill past Waugh at cover point, with the vanquished skipper then retrieving the ball from the boundary gutter to present to the deserving batter as India celebrated a famous win.
"The pitch in Adelaide seemed to get better, and it was like we were playing in their (India's) conditions," Waugh recalled of the first home defeat in a 'live' Test match of his captaincy.
"And while it was frustrating not winning a Test match, when you see batting artistry of that calibre you think 'I don't mind watching this – but I'd rather it not be me as a captain'."
Waugh's supposedly celebratory summer then teetered on the brink of disaster when India opener Virender Sehwag launched an astonishing Boxing Day assault on Australia's attack, further diminished by the absence of Jason Gillespie.
Sehwag clubbed 25 fours and five sixes in racing to 195 before he mishit a knee-high full-toss from part-time spinner Katich to deep midwicket in attempting to reach his maiden Test double-century in a solitary blow.
It proved a turning point in the match, indeed the series, given the intent the India opener had shown throughout the day when, as Waugh ruefully recalled, "he looked like he was going to get about 490 at one stage".
"He was an incredible player who just didn't seem to care that he was playing in a Test match, it was like he was playing in his backyard against his mates, he would just throw the bat," Waugh said of Sehwag. "He'd go out and dominate from ball one, and that was a different type of Indian player than we'd seen in the past."
While Australia then rallied on the back of Ricky Ponting's second consecutive double-ton, the finale that Waugh and his fans had foreseen in the traditional New Year's Test at his home patch – the SCG – looked to have derailed at the penultimate stop.
Having helped carry Australia to a first innings advantage, Waugh – who had waged many a bruising battle with the feared West Indies quicks of his time, most memorably Curtly Ambrose – wore a delivery from modest India seamer Ajit Agarkar on his left forearm. For only the second time in his 18 years as a Test batter – as was the case with his rare dismissal in Brisbane – Waugh succumbed to medical advice and retired to the dressing room as the result of an impact injury.
"I honestly thought I'd broken my arm because I couldn't form a fist at all," Waugh said. "I had this haematoma swell up straight away and I thought 'that's the end of my career basically'.
"I retired hurt, and I think I'd only retired hurt once before in Test cricket (after being struck) and I remember going to get my x-rays with the physio Errol Alcott, and waiting for the result to come back.
"I said 'look, if it's broken, can I play the next Test?' and he (Alcott) said 'no, you won't be able to play'.
"I thought 'well, I might have just played my last game of Test cricket'. I really thought I'd broken my arm."
For the first time in a mostly forgettable summer to that point, fortune shone on the outgoing skipper. But while the scans cleared him of a fracture, Waugh had only two days between Tests to reduce the painful swelling in his arm and prove that he could properly grip a bat before he was passed fit to take the field one final time in his tattered Australia cap, before an adoring capacity crowd.
Waugh's abiding memory of the last Test match prelude of his playing days was the crowds that spilled out of early opening hotels and breakfast businesses between his home and the cricket ground. And the throng who had already taken up their seats, commemorative red rags at the ready, once he was inside the historic arena's perimeter.
The other element of his farewell that remains sharp in his recall is not one of overwhelming emotion, but a hybrid – an almost dizzying sense of lightness and relief that the unrelenting force of top-level competition was nearly relieved, melded with the gnawing of what, at age 38, might await.
For a while, similar uncertainty hovered over the likelihood of Waugh earning a last, symbolic cheer in the guise of Test batter given the infallibility of India's most revered player, Sachin Tendulkar.
The Little Master had endured an Australia summer almost as unrewarding as Waugh's, having failed to reach 50 in his five preceding innings. But he boldly announced pre-game that he would shelve his usually exquisite cover-drive because he had too often edged to the slips in previous innings, and saved his daunting best for the series decider.
For the third time in as many Tests, Waugh could not help but grudgingly admire an opponent's innings, this time out of respect for sheer mental will as much as pure batsmanship.
True to his word, Tendulkar simply retired one of his most productive strokes and, without it, proceeded to 241 and was involved in a 350-run fourth-wicket stand with VVS Laxman as India batted into the third day before declaring at 7-705.
At which stage, even with the Adelaide turnaround still clearly relevant, it was obvious only one team could take a win from the final Test of a series balanced 1-1.
It was late on day three, after tea on a Sunday afternoon, that Waugh's main moment arrived. To standing applause that went with him to the wicket and echoed still as he scratched his guard.
A brief moment's silence was then punctuated by rival wicketkeeper Parthiv Patel, barely 10 months old when Waugh first took the field in a Test – also against India – and grown not much taller than the stumps he policed in his intervening 18 years.
"Let's see if you can play one of those famous slog-sweeps, and miss one," the adolescent gloveman chirped irreverently.
"Show a bit of respect," Waugh good-naturedly countered, to the amusement of the India close-catchers hovering at pitch edge. "You were in nappies when I played my first Test match."
Far from unsettling him with a world of expectation already focused upon him, Waugh reckoned the exchange instead worked as a comfort and allowed him to switch his focus from the occasion to the battle.
"It's not sledging," he said of the tête-à-tête with the rival keeper. "People say there's too much sledging in the game, I think you can do it in a different way and have a bit of a laugh and a bit of fun.
"While people say that was a sledge, to me that was banter."
Waugh's final Test innings, two days later, did not play out against a backdrop of symbolic triumph as the romantics had hoped, but with a dogged struggle to save the Test that carried neat comparisons with the early days of his career when Australia rarely enjoyed success.
Chasing an unprecedented 443 to claim the match and the series, or needing to bat out the final day to secure a more probable draw, Australia risked an historic loss and a greater anti-climax when Waugh entered at mid-afternoon to another tumultuous ovation, with the total showing 3-170. Though it was the whiteboard in his team's dressing room rather than the electronic scoreboard that glowed beneath thick cloud which occupied the soon-to-be-former captain's thinking.
Prior to Australia's fanciful pursuit beginning late on day four, coach John Buchanan with Waugh and his teammates had sketched a mud map of how success might be achieved despite the daunting scale, and that remained the skipper's mission when the acclaim died down.
Despite the whiteboard showing an updated last-evening victory equation of almost 100 runs per hour, across the final 200 minutes.
"In the back of my mind, we were still playing for a win," Waugh recalled. "I think the greatest accolade we could get from that last day was that (India captain) Sourav Ganguly started to put his fieldsmen back on the fence because he was starting to panic a bit.
"For us to think – after India declared in both innings, and particularly after 7-700 – we were a chance of winning was pretty amazing.
"There was a moment in that afternoon session where 'Katto' (Katich, 77 not out) and I got together and said 'let's see where we can take this'.
"We were going for it for about 10 overs, then Sourav Ganguly put the field back and it became a bit of a lost cause."
There would be one belated twist in the Test, and the tale of Waugh's time in international cricket.
With 100 still needed and little more than half an hour playing time remaining, Waugh's career ended with a final, ambitious heave over midwicket as called for by the diminutive.
Which left Australia's own gloveman, Adam Gilchrist – soon after stumped for four – and the tail-enders to see their way to a stalemate.
As he left the arena he had first graced in senior state ranks as a teenager – a month before Patel's birth – to another round of farewells, Waugh took with him a nagging anxiety that he might just have opened the door for an India win by succumbing to one last competitive adrenaline surge.
"Just proving that after 168 Tests you can still do dumb things," he laughed. "It was a rush of blood.
"There was a about 40 minutes to go in the Test and there was a lot of rough, and I said 'don't try and slog-sweep Kumble because that's going to be impossible' because he used to bowl at a quick pace into the rough.
"I said 'set yourself for the left-arm spinner (Murali Kartik) … he's the one you should slog-sweep'. "My plan was just to work Kumble around and have a crack at the other bloke, then I saw one outside leg stump, couldn't resist and played the slog sweep, got a top edge out of the rough and was caught by Tendulkar on the fence."
In keeping with recent history, Waugh's parting flourish as an Australian cricketer was viewed through the polarised lens of personal prejudice.
His champions saw a captain forsaking his own wicket in the ceaseless pursuit of victory at any cost; his critics a departing act of needless selfishness when in search of the limelight.
As it was, Katich and Jason Gillespie survived until stumps were pulled, at which point Waugh was paraded around the SCG on shoulders of teammates.
And India's proud men returned to their rooms, their ambition of a Test series win on Australia's turf thwarted once more.
India Tour of Australia 2018-19
Gillette T20s v India
First T20: Australia won by four runs (DLS method)
Second T20: No result
Third T20: November 25, SCG
Domain Tests v India
First Test: December 6-10, Adelaide Oval
Second Test: December 14-18, Perth Stadium
Third Test: December 26-30, MCG
Fourth Test: January 3-7, SCG
Gillette ODI Series v India
First ODI: January 12, SCG (D/N)
Second ODI: January 15, Adelaide Oval (D/N)
Third ODI: January 18, MCG (D/N)