Pic by Steve Waugh
You could argue that the Steve Waugh we remember from his time on wide green (and sometimes brown) fields around the world was not naturally set up to be a photographer.
After all, what exactly would you see with those eyes permanently squinting against not just the sun or a supernaturally tall and lethal West Indian bowler, but the possibility of doubt or failure, or worse?
Even the former Australian cricket captain, tour diarist and, latterly, philanthropist on several continents, describes himself as a one-time happy amateur. “I’ve written a lot on tours and taken photos, but it was basically I see something, point-and-shoot, and hope for the best.”
Sitting today in a corner of a Paddington gallery, whose walls are filled with large prints of photos taken by him for his new project, a full gloss 200-photo collection called The Spirit Of Cricket: India, Waugh – whose eyes are less wary but still feel like they’re evaluating the whole time we speak - is prepared to see himself a little further along the path: from happy snapper to committed photographer.
“I wanted the photographs to be a different level. I wanted to surprise people with the quality of the photos,” he says of the images he took while lugging around some high-end photographic equipment, advice from his mentor, professional photographer Trente Parke, and an eye for India, a country he’s been fascinated by since his first visit in 1985, the year he made his Test debut … against India.
“Patience is important in photography: you’ve got to see maybe, the photo before anybody else does, capture the moment before anybody else does. And I had the benefit of doing it 14 hours a day for 17 days. It was constant and in the end I knew what to do.”
One of us in the conversation is a genuine legend of the game with a 20+ year career as part of, and then as leader of, one of the most successful Australian sporting teams. He followed that with various initiatives through the Steve Waugh Foundation to raise awareness and money for research into rare diseases, and to support an orphanage in Kolkata, India catering for girls.
The other is someone who while an abject failure at the game, obsessively followed that career and in some ways took lessons from it (see Wind Back Wednesday this week). It seemed appropriate then to take some of those ideas raised by the photographs – patience and seeing the moment before others do, for example – and in the spirit of cricket, make the links between bat, ball, camera and life.
Photo by Trente Parke
In taking these photos people had to trust Waugh – he concedes that his name, face and reputation helped at least to break the ice - and he had to trust in the process and the experience of many trips through India that success would come.
“I look at all these photos and they were trusting me to capture them in the right light, and do the right thing by them,” Waugh says, then pointing to a photo of a young man who has followed his father into the family’s bat repair business, adds “It’s very hard, basic tools, and he was just happy to be part of the Spirit Of Cricket book. He recognised me and we had a connection … there was a connection pretty much all the time between myself and the people I was photographing.”
Taking it further, how important was trust in his playing career? From the outside the obvious thing is you have to trust the guy at the other end, trust the bowler is going to put the ball where you it to be given the field you’ve set, but also trusting the team and the team trusting you to do right by each other.
“You get that [trust] from respect, and you learn that over a period of time; it doesn’t just happen overnight,” Waugh says. “You’re right, I knew my players pretty well, I knew what they were capable of. Sometimes I pushed them beyond what they thought they were capable of, and all of a sudden, they were doing something they didn’t know they could do. And trust goes hand-in-hand with belief. I trusted them and they knew I was doing the best for the team and I wasn’t just saying stuff, I was actually doing it in actions.
“As a leader you can’t ask people to do something you’re not willing to do yourself. And that goes with my charity bike ride [the six-day Captain’s Ride], which is 800 km. I don’t ask people to go on that bike ride if I’m not going to do it. I’ve got to go through the same pain and all of a sudden you doing something together, you’re working as a unit, and that’s what happened with cricket: we were working together to the same goal.”
His own game, at least in the second half of his career, may not have earned him the gushes of commentators and fans for the beauty of his play – more about that later – but Waugh seems to have an eye for an aspect or an angle or image itself which is unabashedly attractive.
“I think I surprised myself with this because I’ve always been curious and inquisitive, and [he nods to a shot of a lad heaving his bat as his stumps are scattered] with that one I sat there for 45 minutes try to get that shot. I knew it was coming, I knew he’d miss one eventually because he was swinging like a rusty gate, and the stump coming out of the ground would be great shot.” But, he says, pleasures grew beyond the familiar.
Pic by Steve Waugh
“I started appreciating the little things. The bat and ball factory, for these guys it might look simple with them shaping bats or stitching balls, but that’s the best they could possibly be with what they’re doing and they want to be the best they can be. So I wanted to capture that.”
As he revealed in his tour diaries and autobiography, he only began to see that beauty after breaking out of the cocoon of the cloistered touring sportsman discouraged from participating in the life happening outside the hotel and the ground.
“My first couple of tours to India and Pakistan, they were tough tours. You were taught that this was going to be the worst experience of your life: three months with no alcohol, you can’t go anywhere, the grounds are rough and umpires are going to go with the home side, the food is no good. Everything was negative before you even got there so you’re in your head and as soon as something goes wrong you magnify it 100 worse than it is with this siege mentality,” Waugh explains.
“My first couple of trips overseas weren’t successful and I didn’t enjoy them as much as I thought, and I thought, well you’ve just got to get out and meet people: I’ve got a camera, I’m naturally curious let’s see how they live their lives and how it so different to mine from western suburbs of Sydney.”
How did that help his cricket?
“It helped by me realising the cricket wasn’t the be all and end all,” says the man who was famously ruthless on the field, as if there was nothing else that mattered right then. “That’s the way I played - once you step on the field, it was most important thing in my life - but once you step off-field, it wasn’t. People say do you regret what happened in the Kolkata Test match [which Australia lost from a seemingly impregnable position thanks to two of the great innings of Indian cricket] but literally, after the game was over, it was over. We tried our best and we were beaten by a better side.
Pic by Steve Waugh
“I’ve always believed that you played as hard as you can, and as tough as you can, but when it’s over, it’s just a game, and these people struggle each and every day of their lives while we are privileged to play cricket and have this great lifestyle.”
As any cricket fan will know, and as every far too intense or involved cricket fan can attest, it’s a game where the past matters almost as much as the present. In statistics, in tales of yore, in the rules and styles and trophies, what has gone before counts for so much, even as the new and the brighter and the revolutionary is created.
In a country like India this applies to life and not just cricket. Did history weigh on him as a photographer? Had it done so as a cricketer? Did history matter?
“It matters. One of the mottos of the Australian side was respect history and create the future history. If you want to do it differently, then go for it: just because something’s been done a certain way in the past doesn’t mean it’s right. But I was definitely aware of history on this trip.
I’m looking at history right in front of me,” he says pointing to a photo of the then oldest living first class cricketer in India on his 100th birthday, with Sachin Tendulkar alongside him. It was great talking to him because he had seen India’s first test match played in 1933, in Mumbai, and he saw, 86 years later, India’s first victory in Australia. He had seen the whole history of Indian cricket.”
And that matters to someone now because?
“It’s good to know about your past, particular when you’re playing, to know where your place is and maybe you can influence it and change it.”
Read PART TWO here. Steve Waugh breaks down discipline and patience, talks about women in life and cricket, and explains why sometimes giving up the thing you love most can change everything.
“I was sick of losing. I didn’t like that feeling and I wanted to be successful and once I had a taste of it, I thought this is the recipe, this is the blueprint, I’m going to stick to this because I don’t want to go back to where I was before.”
Steve Waugh’s The Spirit of Cricket – India, is self-published and is available now from stevewaugh.com.au