Multiple obsessions exist in many of us: varied reasons to pore over, dream about, be consumed by. In my corner, along with music sits cricket. That’s part explanation for why there’s been a two-part interview with Steve Waugh this week – read it HERE ... and HERE... – talking photography, leadership, India, lessons and the game.
The other part of the explanation is that Waugh represented something more than another fine cricketer to this obsessive. Why? Here I was, someone born in Mauritius, a country which, while notionally British until 1968, had no connection to or interest in cricket. Here was a boy and then man of no discernible sporting talent but incessant interest in almost any sport. Here was someone who knew if he was put in front of the bulk of his compatriots would appear not the least bit Australian in any obvious sense
In early 2004, as we neared the end of his professional career, I tried to explain how that bloke came to see this game and this player in particular, as something talismanic.
There was a longish driveway alongside the house my parents owned in the nondescript south-west Sydney suburb of Chester Hill – about 10 minutes from Bankstown. It was just about long enough for a good size run up before the tennis ball was delivered at the bin placed in front of the garage door.
Through hundreds of summer days in the 1970s, usually well into twilight, that bin witnessed thousands of deliveries delivered with the side-on action, high left elbow and dramatic follow-through of Dennis Lillee. Or so I imagined.
Oh I tried to fling it like Jeff Thomson, I occasionally threw in a Max Walker goofy-footed/double-arm delivery and when I was feeling particularly romantic I would pretend to flow like Michael Holding. But really it was Lillee I wanted to be, right down to flicking the sweat from my forehead with my forefinger - one flick to the left and one to the right – before delivering a perfect leg cutter or seaming it back into Viv Richards and taking that off stump on the last ball of the day at the MCG.
On alternate days I would take my bat around the side of the garage, to a battered door that was warping under the combined effects of the sun and thousands more tennis balls flung at it. The warping meant you couldn’t always tell how the ball would come to you and as it rebounded I would drive, cut, pull and occasionally hook the ball to all corners of the SCG, Old Trafford and even the tiny grounds of the West Indies I had only read about.
I wanted to be as elegant as Greg Chappell, as imperious as Barry Richards but being a left-handed batsman and already labelled by my tautological schoolmate Nicky Cesarone as “a black West Indian Kallicharan” (it was meant to be an insult you know), I pictured myself as a skinny brown-skinned and wristy player who would eyeball Andy Roberts and Derek Underwood from under my baggy green cap.
What has this got to do with Steve Waugh? Nothing and everything.
When he came into the NSW side in 1984/85 and then made his debut for Australia a year or so later I realised that not only had he been born four months after me but he had grown up only minutes away and had dreamt his Lillee/Chappell dreams in a nondescript suburban backyard like me.
I realised he wasn’t impossibly distant like all those I had watched or listened to in the middle of the night from Barbados and Lords. He wasn’t near-mythical like Bill O’Reilly and Neil Harvey, whom I had read about in my father’s sports biographies; he wasn’t so freakishly talented that he seemed in another sphere, like Gary Sobers or Don Bradman. He was nearly me.
Yes, I had no talent and he had bucket loads. Yes I would one day sneak onto both the SCG and the MCG (standing in the middle after an AFL game, looking up into the stands and secretly hearing the roar for my century) while he would score genuine hundreds there. Yes, my best moment was taking 4 for 15 in an inter-office game (with one delivery cutting in and taking off stump by the way – and yes I still have the ball) while he would bounce Viv Richards again and again.
But this man was my closest connection to the game I loved. And he would remain so. Ask my father who was badgered with phone calls and letters during the1988/89 season while I was backpacking in Europe and America, wanting to know how Waugh was faring against the West Indies. (And how so crushed I was to hear he fell in the 90s in Brisbane and Perth, when a first Test century loomed, that that day’s sightseeing passed in a blur.)
Ask my then-girlfriend, now wife, who was woken one cold winter’s night in 1989 so she could see Waugh score his first century against England. (And how her eyes glazed over as I prattled on about his square drives and cuts and that he was going to be one of the greats and weren’t the editors of Australian Playboy, who had rejected my suggestion of a feature on him before he left for that ’89 Ashes tour, feeling like fools now.)
Ask my daughter who last January was told to shush, sit still and pay attention as my wife (now a promising cricket tragic) and I watched the SCG century that said “no, not yet” to those who said he was done. It won’t mean anything to you now, we told her, but when you’re ancient like us you’ll remember it.
It was then that it finally dawned on me that for a generation of backyard batting and bowling kids now Steve Waugh was Dennis Lillee and Greg Chappell. That for a coming generation he would be Gary Sobers and Sid Barnes. That somewhere in the distant future he would be near mythical.
But not for me. For me he would be the western suburbs kid with the fantasies and the long hot days to dream them.