Saturday, 24 March 2012


True Grit

The gimlet eyes adjusted to the unremitting glare of the Australian sunlight (and the global spotlight); crow’s feet, the visible bodily inscription of many hours of unyielding concentration; the metronomic mastication, pausing only when a foe is to be faced down; a hint of stubble, on which perhaps to scuff a ball ready to swing Irish. Didn’t give much away, ‘Tugga’ Waugh.

Game face. Although primarily associated with the ice-veined players of high-stakes poker, the importance of a ‘game face’ is a commonplace of all professional sports, perhaps all competitive environments. Indeed, there are some strains of Cultural Studies that claim that in all our everyday social interactions we are in some sense performing (not for nothing does persona derive from the Latin for ‘mask’). Of course, such a desolate hypothesis gives the impression that us latter day homo sapiens are – from the cradle to the cricket field, nightclub to the negotiating table – all highly calculating über-pragmatists happy to pin ‘appropriate’ sentiments to our face according to context, when in fact we know full-well that our authentic, if unruly, emotions are always threatening to irrupt and overwhelm our self-containment, restraint, and decorum. Just ask Glenn McGrath. 

However, it is often assumed that once such fiercely driven sportsfolk as McGrath and Waugh exit the furnace of top-level competition, the game face is left there to burn. Suddenly, these predatory creatures are amiable, approachable, perhaps generous-spirited; where once they crackled with the energy of a seemingly bottomless ruthlessness and bristled at the slightest provocation, now they are affable, cordial, gracious even.

WAUGH: "What the fuck are you looking at?"
AMBROSE: "Don't cuss me, man"
WAUGH: "Why don't you go and get fucked"
For cricket lovers of a certain age, Steve Waugh was just about the most hard-nosed and remorseless competitor of his era: giving it, taking it, never shirking it, always meeting obstacles head on. There were those piercing, gunslinger’s eyes, which were either fixated on the source of danger or, from gully – the quintessential lone ranger’s position, off at the edge of the pack yet where the bullets fly fastest – boring into some fresh quarry. From a distance, the arch gum-chewer remained a largely taciturn presence on the field, words seemingly redundant when you are already irradiating such menace. This silence was but a fragile accord, though, and when his mouth opened it seemed to carry nuclear-level threat. At times, he seemed to be affectless, the reptilian brain of our hominid ancestors writ large, batting with lizard stillness and sporadic celerity, motionless until a sinuous snap took his body into a ball with width, either flaying cuts or dropping concrete-heavy hands on a square drive. Unfussy. Insatiable. Always happy to keep you on the wrack. Finally, there was that jaunty, ten-to-two gait and swinging shoulders that simply refused to sag, even when carrying his team through a tough day on tough pitches against the toughest of bowlers, giant bowlers who he would stare down, swear down, and more often than not wear down. The granite-hewn legend is well known.

However, Waugh is also – and always was, of course – a bright, articulate and open-minded soul, not only intensely aware of the traditions of his own culture but a pioneer in dragging the game forward, keeping it in step with (and sometimes a pace or two in front of) the changing desires of the audience. Most impressively, he used the wealth and fame that cricket has bestowed upon him to channel enormous quantities of financial and emotional assistance to the impoverished people of India (in particular, the Udayan leper colony in Kolkata). Here was a Baggy Green-revering citizen of the world; a humanist and humanitarian whose charitable impulses are blind to, and overflowed, national borders, nestling where need was greatest.

So it was that at the Trent Bridge library recently, I opened Waugh’s autobiography, Out of my Comfort Zone, expecting to see the gnarled Aussie warrior to have mellowed sufficiently to be able to express a certain amount of sympathy and suppressed admiration for English cricket, sentiments he was constitutionally unable to show while still competing against an opponent over whom his country lorded for all but the first series of a nineteen-year Test career (one that took in eight Ashes campaigns), a dominance in which he was as prominent as any of England’s other tormentors – be that Warne, McGrath, Gilchrist or whomever. 

Research took me to the Index, and there it was: the main entry for ‘English Cricket’, with a total of 14 sub-entries that, read as a list, provided an interesting…well, index of Tugga’s longstanding basic outlook on the old foe. Yes, there’s the caveat that this view is of only those sides that he faced, the calamitous, revolving-door years, and not ‘English cricket’ construed as some entity with permanent characteristics. There’s also the very real possibility that the indexing was not the work of his own hand. Even so, these 14 sub-headings are a gorgeous snapshot of an era of Aussie hegemony – perhaps contempt – from which England supporters will feel glad to have awoken, a summation in miniature of our myriad failings and the abject futility of our desperate hopes at the time that we might, might... They are a bullet-point bullet-proof indictment of why we didn’t have a prayer.

Readers of Out of my Comfort Zone wishing to investigate S.R. Waugh’s views on ‘English Cricket, 157’ could therefore have looked under the following headings, listed alphabetically:

English cricket, 157
Australian stranglehold begins, 273, 274
caught between youth and experience, 3
damned in the press, 114, 209, 609
‘dead rubber’ syndrome, 472
familiarity through county matches, 193
fear of Australia, 599
lack of self-belief, 496
lack of total commitment, 206, 207
local negativity, 609
no fun, 282, 283
poor fielding, 496
search for a captain, 609
volatile crowds, 600
weakness against spin, 497

In the same way that Waugh’s charitable works have transcended local, parochial concerns, I hoped my nationality would not overheat the passions and thus occlude the genuine tug of admiration I felt for this most cussed of cricketers, one who, from the moment he took guard – before, in fact – never, ever let his guard drop. Truly, the most formidable game face of them all. 

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