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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Mark Waugh -The connoisseur's delight


It is 21st of May 1993, the arch rivals England and Australia are battling it out for the prestigious texaco trophy. On that day, we saw two contrasting knocks which would be etched in my memory. On one hand, there was a batsman whose knock can be described as violent. He didn't bat, but butchered the opponents with supersonic cuts and pulls. On the other hand, there was also a batsman from Down Under, who played like as though poetry was in motion, he constructed his innings with filigree precision by playing silken smooth drives, flicks and cuts. I was already a fan of the butcher, but the man from Down Under just made me to forget all my worries about my homework and I became an instant fan of him.

If you haven't guessed it yet, the Butcher in this case was none other than Robin Smith and the other cricketer was the elegance personified Mark Waugh. I would talk about my love for Robin Smith's batting on some other day.Today though, it is all about the man, who made batting look so easy that you wanted to pay him million dollars to make him bat in in front of one of the wonders of the World Taj Mahal and that is of course Mark Waugh.

When Mark Waugh played, he was like the Mozart who wrote symphonies with a bat in hand. If Afghan played a shot, you wondered whether is he an expressionist painter, who uses his painting brush to draw cuts, flicks and drives. It wasn't just his batting, but even when he was fielding at slips, early in his career at backward point, or occasionally in the outfield, he made fielding look as easy as he would do with a bat in hand.

So, to trace the career of Mark Waugh through the years, let us go back in a time machine to the 80's and have a look at the tough and competitive Australian domestic cricket. Here, you have to think of someone, who was Afghan's greatest admirer and sometimes a critique too Bob Simpson.

The former Australian coach on Mark Waugh,

"When I first saw him, he was a real tearaway with quite a lot of pace. In fact, in his first season in first class cricket, in 1985-86, I had him opening the bowling for New South Wales and he could send them down as quickly as anyone in the side Mark loved to bowl bouncers and would take on any batsman regardless of his reputation"

It is very interesting to note that at the start of his career, Mark was a decent bowler too. Simpson also  said that he wanted Mark to develop as a batsman in Sheffield Shield cricket as he thought that he was too much of a leg side player. So, his elder twin got the first chance to play for Australia. Mark had to be content with playing the odd onedayer for Australia and had to wait for his chance to make his test debut.

In-fact, at that time everyone started calling him Afghan, the forgotten man, as in-spite of doing reasonably well as a batsman in the Sheffield Shield, he had to bide for his time. In hindsight,  it was a shrewd decision taken by one of his greatest admirers and the then coach of Australia Bob Simpson, as he wanted Junior to toughen up in the Sheffield Shield, so that he can survive  the hard grind of test cricket. During that time, he also played for Essex on a recommendation from another  great admirer of his batting Allan Border, who was also the captain of Australia.

Mark Waugh's chance finally arrived in 1990/91 against England, when he replaced his twin brother Steve in the team. On one hand, the Waugh family must have felt like celebrating on that day, as the younger twin finally got a chance to play, but at the same-time,  he was replacing his elder twin in the team. It surely must have been a bittersweet day for the Waugh family. Waugh's debut though, was nothing less than spectacular as he made a classy 139 against England. When I see the highlights package of that innings, I can see those trademark flicks, drive and  cuts which made Mark such a graceful player to watch. His greatest admirer and tough task master Simpson though, is believed to have said to him, you still have to work on your off-side play!

 Junior continued to show glimpses of what he can do, when he made a majestic 116 against the likes of Marshall, Amby, Walsh and Patterson in West Indies. Here, the main factor to consider is, his ability to come good when the team was in trouble, as OZ were in a spot of bother when he came to the crease. In that series against West Indies, he also averaged over 60 and topped the batting charts for Australia. I can just laugh, when a few say that against good pace attacks he was vulnerable. Surely a bowling attack of Amby, Walsh, Patterson and Marshall isn't a pop gun attack.

After a good start to his career, he did go through a horror period in Lanka as he could not even buy a run. A few jokingly even started him calling Audi as he made four consecutive ducks and 0,0,0,0 resembled Audi's symbol. A few also said, if he makes another duck, he should be called as five rings of Olympics.

Poor Afghan, he didn't know what had hit him, as in-spite of being a very good player of spin and having a decent start to his career, he wasn't able to buy a run against journeymen bowlers like Hathurasinge, Liyanage, Wickramasinge and co. Oh! what a cruel world it can be? During that time, Indian swing bowlers like Prabakar and Kapil also found a chink in his armour, by constantly getting him out on helpful tracks of OZ with swing.

On expected lines, there was immense pressure on him, when the Windies met the Aussies in 92/93 to do well. Mark Waugh though, responded to it magnificently with a fine hundred on a difficult pitch at Melbourne yet, I see comments like he was a fair weather batsman. Other than Boon, he was the only player, who stood up-to the might of Amby, Walsh, Bishop and co. I tell you that is some attack. He and his Aussie mates though had to watch the Windies retain the Frank Worrell trophy especially, that heart-wrenching defeat at Adelaide must have been hard to digest for the Aussies.

Yes, Mark was inexplicably dropped after two bad tests in the Land of Long White Clouds, but he came to UK in 1993 more or less having established himself in the Australian middle-order. During that series, he was very consistent as a batsman. Here, who can forget his sublime knock of 138 at Trent Bridge, which came when the Aussies were in trouble. Mark with his trademark flicks, drives, pulls and cuts lit up the stadium and turned the match on its head. He continued his good form on Samba Mamba tracks of the Rainbow Nation. Actually, if not for Junior, Border wouldn't  have retired with good memories as in Border's last test, Junior played the entire last day to take Australia to shores of safety against the Saffers on a bouncy track at Durban in 93/94.

During that time, there was also an interesting incident of Mark bowling just bouncers in Pakistan, as he was frustrated by the flatness of the wickets and the number of catches that were dropped by the usually reliable Taylor and Healy. As per reports, he even got one of the deliveries to get big on Sohail and it did hit Sohail flush on his face. Sohail did comeback with stitches on his face and made a fine century, but it reminded me of what Simpson said about his bowling during his early days.

In 95, when the Aussies went to the Caribbean Islands a lot was expected from Waugh twins and both of them responded to it in a great fashion. When Australia locked horns with the Caribbean team in the last test at Jamaica, the series was on a knife edge as OZ won at Barbados only to lose at Trinidad. The match in which the groundsmen perhaps on instructions by the Windies management, left so much grass on the wicket that it looked more like a cattle grazing ground rather than a cricket ground . No wonder, the giant Ambrose cleaned up the Aussies on that pitch.

 So going into the crucial last test with everything to play for, Australia went hard at the Windies and as a result bowled them out for a score of just over 250. The mighty kings from the Caribbean though, were smelling blood when Steve joined his twin brother in the middle and they were yet again facing up-to their old nemesis, the deadly duo of Amby and Walsh, or as popularly known as Wambrose. Just before lunch,  Mark launched into the WI attack with his trademark elegant cuts which in turn changed the tone of the match, as after the lunch session, both the twins looked in very good touch.

In that innings, Junior didn't just play like a Mozart who wrote beautiful Symphonies with a bat in hand, but played like a true gambler. No wonder, other than cricket, Mark Waugh loves gambling and horse racing. He took the mickey out of Amby and especially Walsh, by deliberately backing away and tempting both of them to follow him and bowl bouncers.Incredibly, Mark somehow would get under the ball and play cheeky little upper-cuts over the keeper's head for fours. As expected, the giants Walsh and Amby glared at him, but I am sure Waugh would have a chuckle every-time he played that shot. Mark went onto make a sublime century and his elder brother made a typical gutsy double hundred. Soon, Australia were celebrating a famous victory against the Windies. It was no doubt a path-breaking victory, as it ended the domination of Caribbean kings and heralded a new era in which we saw the Ozzies dominating the cricketing world.

The next time I watched Junior play a knock which can be described as masterclass was against the formidable Pakistan attack of Akram, Younis, Saqlain and Mushi in 95/96. On a turning wicket at Sydney, he tamed Saqlain's new discovery doosra and Mushi's potent googly by beautifully using his feet to the spinners. The innings was just poetry in motion. Every-time Saqlain, or Mushi gave it a bit of air, Mark  came down the wicket and played those silken cover-drives and lofted shots overs long on, long off and midwicket. This was also a match in which, all other Australian batsmen were at sixes and sevens against the Pakistan attack, but not Junior. Mark Waugh though, failed in the second innings and as a result, OZ lost the match. If I am not mistaken, it was the only time when Mark Waugh scored a hundred and Australia lost the match.

By the time of  96 WC, Mark Waugh had even started to open the batting in O.D.I'S and he did make a great impact in that tournament as he scored tons of runs. I still remember that classy knock at Madras against the Kiwis, when he looked all at ease with his trademark flicks and drives. In that WC, he even got the little master Tendulkar stumped with his off-spin by bowling a wide delivery. Mark Waugh saw SRT coming down the wicket and pushed it wide to get him stumped.

In 96/97 in South Africa at Port Elizabeth, he made a hundred which can be described as his best knock. The Saffers had lost the first test at Johannesburg on a relatively flat deck, so under pressure, the groundsmen at PE spiced up the wicket. Yes, the wicket was still slow, but there was grass on the wicket and it was uneven too. It made sure that batting on the wicket against, let it be genuine quicks like Donald, dibbly dobbly medium pacers like Cronje, or wrist spinners like Bevan, Adams and Warne a nightmare.

In that match, Australia required 270 to win, but when one considered the nature of the pitch, it looked like a daunting task. As I said though, Mark had this uncanny ability to come good when the conditions were difficult and the chips were down. In the second innings, Donald bowled at the speed of light, but Mark showed great temperament and exemplary technique to handle Donald.

In-fact, it was a knock which was constructed with filigree precision, as Junior would wait and wait for the fearsome Donald to bowl on his pads so that he could play those majestic flicks. There was also an on-drive he played against Donald which looked more like a top spin forehand played by a tennis player. Mark Waugh just flicked his wrists at the last nano second to play the on-drive. Donald must have thought what is the use of running in from the boundary and bowling quick, if the batsman just flicks it nonchalantly for a four? The left arm chinaman bowler Adams wasn't spared either. The Saffers finally dismissed him, but it was too late, as Aussies went onto defeat South Africa. The Wisden in its rankings rightfully recognises it as one of the best innings of all time.

In 1997 itself, I surely remember his fabulous shot of Vettori against NZ at Perth. He just came down the wicket and hit him with such effortless ease that you would wish to watch the shot forever. Till now, I have not seen a six which was more elegant to watch and that six went a long way. In that year, he also played a gusty knock at Adelaide against SA to take Australia to shores of safety.

During Australia's subcontinental sojourn of India and Pakistan in 98, he came up with a couple more superlative efforts. In India, he played a fine knock at Madras against Kumble and co. During this innings, Mark was said to be very sick, but in-spite of that he made a hundred.

In Pakistan, Junior came to Australia's rescue in the last test. Up against the wise maestro Akram, the young tearaway quick Akthar and potent spinners, Australia were in a spot of bother before Mark Waugh made yet another elegant hundred. Let it be Akthar's pace, Akram's wizardry, or the bagful of tricks of spinners, Mark Waugh had answers for all. He used the depth of the crease beautifully to counter the spinners by coming down the wicket and going back to play a few sumptuous late cuts.

In 1998 though, the betting scandal did affect Mark Waugh, as his form got worse. Yes, Mark Waugh did show glimpses of what he can do with a superlative effort at Sydney against England and on a difficult track at Auckland in 2000. The track at Auckland turned miles and there was uneven bounce too. Vettori almost looked unplayable in that match, but Mark played a delightful knock of 80 odd which helped the Aussies to gain the vital first innings lead. It was something to see batsmen struggling at one end, but on the other side, Mark was using his feet brilliantly to Vettori and taking him to the cleaners.

As the time went on, his form became erratic. Yes, he still had his moments like in England in 2001, but he played his final test in 2002 at Sarjah against Pakistan. I still remember that final innings of Mark, when he played two glorious cover drives of Saqlain only to lose his concentration and get out to Saqlain. It was like watching the Mozart still writing beautiful symphonies, but with a few unusual errors in between. It was sad to see him play his final knock in front of empty stands at Sarjah, but as it is said that all good things have to come to an end. Mark Waugh finally retired in 2002 after the final test in Sarjah.

Here a question may come to someone's mind like did Mark Waugh ever look ugly, when he tried to play a shot? The only time I have seen him play an ugly shot was when he tried a reverse sweep against Tufnell and got bowled at Gabba in 94/95. Sorry Mark Waugh, reverse sweeps are for men with lesser gifts.

I surely have to touch a bit on his fielding skills too as he was an outstanding fielder. A few of the catches he took like that of Haq at Hobart in 99/00 and the slip catch of a miscued cut shot by Kris Srikkanth going at the speed of knots were just outstanding catches. Early in his career, he would even field at backward point and do a good job. In the onedayers, he was occasionally seen patrolling the outfield too and even then he didn't look out of place. His greatness as a fielder can be seen by the fact that even when the ever reliable wickie Healy and the captain fantastic Taylor were dropping catch after catch in Pakistan in 94/95, Mark Waugh reportedly didn't drop a catch.

To end it, history may remember him as a player who didn't play to his potential as an average of around 42 doesn't do justice to his talent. One has to consider though, he played in an era in which, the pitches were more helpful for the bowlers and there were some mighty fine bowlers going around too. For me though, he was a match winner, who also made batting a pleasure to watch. Yes, he wasn't a great batsman, as he didn't get big scores like his elder twin, but his knocks helped OZ to win lots of matches.

To be honest, leave all those debates about averages, as watching Mark Waugh bat was the icing on cake. The fastest of bowlers and the best of spinners were dispatched to the boundary not with brute force, but with silken drives, cuts, flicks and lofted strokes. He was no doubt a connoisseur's delight.

In short, they don't make players like Mark Waugh anymore!


4 comments:

Sidthegnomenator said...

Always loved the Waugh brothers; to be fair I was always more a fan of the (slightly) older of the two but both are pretty legendary.

Soulberry said...

Anybody like him in Australia these days? Mark Waugh lends a retro elegance to a punk-infested batting world. Even when he played.

greyblazer said...

Lol and I liked Afghan more.

greyblazer said...

SB,

Thanks for the comment. Leave alone Aus. as leaving Laxman is there anyone at present who can be known as elegant in a game dominated by power hitters? Clarke and Amla are ok but I don't think they are that good to watch.