Steve Waugh – The Opposite of Ice

Two years ago, a couple of weeks from today, the man who, after my Dad, has taught me the most about life played his last Test match. A few weeks ago, he released his autobiography, which he claims to have written by hand and not on a computer. By all accounts, the book is excellent, with an introspective honesty not often found (or expected) in sports stars. A few days ago, I pleaded with a bookstore in Calcutta to open the shrink-wrap for me to salivate over the 700+ pages of a book I can’t wait to read. Christmas can’t come sooner.

The release of the book reminded me of an essay I’d written on Steve Waugh after he retired, mostly to try and understand why he’d been my favourite cricketer for over a decade. I half-heartedly tried to get it published then, with no luck. But I didn’t push it because I somehow wasn’t ready to send it out into the world. Times have changed, though, so here it is. Comments welcome.

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The Opposite of Ice

Fire not Ice

My first memory of Steve Waugh dates back to when, as a seven-year-old just fallen in love with cricket, I watched him castle Maninder Singh in that thrilling final over at the start of the 1987 World Cup. Maninder’s shattered stumps sealed an improbable victory for Australia and commenced an even more improbable march to the first of their three World Cup wins. His performances in that World Cup earned him the sobriquet ‘Ice Man’ and, ever since, references to ‘Ice Man’ and clichéd puns on ‘war’ have rarely been absent from any writing about Steve Waugh.

And there has been plenty of writing of late. Even before his last curtain call, rainforests of paper and masses of cyberspace eulogized the gritty yet glittering career of the most successful captain in cricket history. But little, if any, of the writing dealt with what we can all learn from Steve Waugh.

Ironically, I can’t think of a nickname less encompassing of Steve Waugh than ‘Ice Man’. Of course I understand that it refers to his seemingly nerveless bowling and batting in a crisis but, to me, Waugh has always been about fire, not ice. And his story (and what I have learnt from him) is one of controlling your fire so it works for you.

When he began his career, Waugh was a bit of a hothead. He was an impetuous stroke player – a compulsive hooker – with a motor mouth. Over time, he changed his approach so that the flames went out of his batting and into a mind that ruthlessly channelled that fire to spur himself on and to irk his opponents. Waugh calls his psychological pyrotechnics intensity; and intensity, Rahul Dravid says, is the word that for him defines Steve Waugh.

Stories of Waugh’s intensity are now part of cricketing legend. There is the apocryphal sneer at Herschelle Gibbs on ‘dropping’ the World Cup, the story of the teenager whom Waugh sledged so brutally in a club game that the kid went home and ripped Waugh’s posters off his bedroom wall, reports – including a recent one by Javagal Srinath – of how Waugh has walked in to bat with his team in disarray and immediately begun barracking the rampant bowlers. And no one who saw it will forget the image of Waugh standing nose-to-belly with Curtly Ambrose, practically waving the famous red hanky as Ambrose stamped his legs and blew smoke out his nostrils. Some of these stories are true and others are myths, but fact or fiction seems irrelevant here because we know Waugh is capable of having said or done most things ascribed to him. It’s the intensity that makes it all so believable.

A Fisher of Men

Watching the Indian team clobber a weakened Australian bowling attack in Sydney, Ravi Shastri observed that Waugh was not as great a tactician as Mark Taylor when the chips were down, thereby making Taylor the better captain. Nonsense. Taylor pales in comparison to Waugh because, irrespective of tactical ability (and lets not forget Waugh’s inspired tactics on that crucial first evening of the Melbourne Test), he wasn’t a better all-round leader and he certainly didn’t have the same influence on the game.

Writers far more illustrious than I have catalogued the way Waugh’s Australians have changed how cricket is played, from intimidatory batting in Tests to the embracing of foreign cultures as a way to play better abroad; these innovations are now copied with great success by other teams. Mr. Shastri is well within his rights to prefer Tactician Taylor to Visionary, Innovative Waugh, but I respectfully disagree.

Another frequent jibe at Waugh is that he inherited a great team and so was simply lucky. But did he? Granted Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne, Mark Waugh, and Michael Bevan were finished products when Waugh took over, but Ricky Ponting, Matthew Hayden, Adam Gilchrist, Damien Martyn, and Justin Langer all either received their starts under Waugh or came into their own only under him. Of the hundreds of descriptions of great leadership I’ve read, across disciplines, my all-time favourite one is simply this: getting people to a place they would not get to on their own. When some of your most important teammates publicly acknowledge your influence on their lives, as all the ones named above have done, you’ve led with distinction.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Waugh has somehow made his intensity infect the team. Under Taylor, the Australians would win series’ but usually draw or lose a match or two along the way. Under Waugh, clean sweeps became so commonplace that it’s easier to remember the times his team didn’t sweep a series than when they did. Intensity is difficult to sustain for all of us – even if you love your job, think of those times in your career when your mind drifted and your productivity slipped. Or, for a cricketing comparison, think of the Indian cricket team and how it slips from the sublime to the mediocre with effortless ease. Historically, our team cannot sustain the intensity that the Australians can. The ability to sustain intensity and complete whitewash after whitewash is tremendous, and that it is now expected is a phenomenal achievement. Taylor fed his team many a succulent fish, but Waugh taught his men how to fish.

Intensity can of course boil over and it is ugly when it does. McGrath’s run-in with Ramnaresh Sarwan is an example, and we in India well remember Michael Slater’s attack on Dravid. Waugh has, it must be said, failed to rein his players in at times, and he deserves criticism for it. But such confrontations are also the inevitable by-product of unceasing intensity and a game dedicated to all-out attack. Right or wrong, this may be how Waugh sees it; and, blemishes included, this intensity defines Waugh’s team.

Mental Toughness

Watching Waugh on the field, baggy green cap on head, slit-eyed and thin-lipped, it is easy to imagine him starring in a spaghetti Western. And like the gunslingers that define those movies, Waugh is as tough as they come. But with him, that toughness comes not from an imposing physique but from a mind that directs fire and channels intensity.

Waugh once told Justin Langer that mental toughness is not giving in to yourself. For a gripping demonstration, look no further than Australia’s last visit to England. In the final Test, with the series already won, Waugh batted for over five hours with a serious calf injury to score an unbeaten 157. Some suggested that he was thumbing his nose at the English team, several of whose players pulled out of matches with far less serious injuries. Again, whether true or not, it’s believable, isn’t it? The pain was immense – and the effort had further consequences on Waugh’s health – but he steeled himself and batted on, defeating not just the English but surely also his own demons and better angels.

Learning from a Master

So what can we – all of us, no matter our age, sex, profession – learn from Steve Waugh?

Sunil Gavaskar once wrote that the unfortunate aspect of the developed world is the undeveloped mind, which is not willing to soak in new experiences. After Steve Waugh, this is no longer a criticism levelled at touring first world teams since he has demonstrated the benefits – both to one’s game and one’s person – of actively seeking out new experiences in foreign lands. This is an attitude that all of us should emulate, in our professional and personal lives. And its fun!

We can also learn to respect tradition and history, and derive inspiration from them, but not be limited to them either. Waugh has instilled this ethos into his team. We can learn that many of us – in fact, I wager this holds true of every single person reading this sentence – are remarkably privileged to have the education and life-conditions we have, and that we should give of ourselves and our resources to benefit those without our luck. Waugh’s philanthropic work in Kolkatta has made him a hero there. We can learn that our world can always be shaped in different ways as long as we envision things being different, and that we can do the shaping. Waugh has changed the way cricket is played.

We can learn that loss and suffering are inevitable but it is how we respond to them, or how much lemonade we can make from life’s lemons, that defines us. Steve was dropped for his brother, and came back stronger. When the Indian team gate-crashed his farewell party, he responded with a match-saving final innings that personified him. He leaves with a full jar of lemonade in his kit bag.

We can learn that, with a little discipline, we can make our inner fire work for us and not against us, and that the benefits of this will surprise even ourselves. We can learn that it is imperative to walk the talk, if we are to hold our head high. Waugh does, which is why we believe the urban legends surrounding him. And above all, we can learn that to achieve greatness and distinction at what we do, our biggest challenge is to not give in to ourselves. To quote Rudyard Kipling,

‘If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew,
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them “Hold on!”
…Yours is the earth and everything in it.’

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