In a team where McGrath and Warne were bullies of the bowling department and where Steve Waugh, Hayden, Ponting, Gilchrist were quite simply superstars, how easy would it have been to shape your own place and create your own identity?
In an era where Sachin and Lara dominated discussion on one hand, just as Donald, Pollock, Akram, Murali, and Waqar made headlines on the other, how was one to enter one’s imagination and stay there?
It’s easy to be overawed by big names. It’s easier to compare batsmen and pass judgment. But it’s difficult to be remembered decades after you’ve stepped aside from the game. If you think about it, few batsmen have found themselves staring at intricate challenges than Mark Waugh.
What we remember about Mark Waugh is his stylish batting, laced with elegance. It’s true. It’s stood the test of time. But if you were to look at him closely, you’d find Mark Waugh was constantly fighting twin-battles at the same time.
In a team that was severe to disregard anything that seemed average, Mark Waugh had to be consistent at all times. For nothing else would do; else, he would’ve been shown the door.
Yet, at the same time, he had to do something special to form a place of his own in an era where constant cricketing attention belonged to Tendulkar and Lara.
To this day, we only stand in permanent admiration of Australia and its greatness during the Nineties, thinking ever so less about what a challenge might it have been?
But implicit in the well-oiled machinery which would produce an unbeatable array of matchwinners- regardless of the format- were batsmen like Mark Waugh. He was someone who appeared equally elegant whether confronting bowlers on the front-foot or dealing with them on the backfoot. Someone who was unhurried by scoring rates and seemed unflustered by the opposition.
But what warrants a serious discussion about this gifted hero of Australian batting is whether his easy-going style shadowed what, at the end of the day, are serious numbers?
Lest it is forgotten, it’s not Ponting and Warne who alone were responsible for collecting statistical wizardry; Warne with 1,000 wickets and Ponting with 27,000 runs and 71 centuries.
For in Mark Waugh’s ebb rest big numbers too: 16,500 plus runs, 97 fifties, 38 centuries. Albeit we hardly tread there.
For when it comes to Mark Edward Waugh, we delve heavily on those pleasing aesthetics.
We are remembered of the countless number of times he slew a Pollock and Donald without appearing hostile.
We are reminded of the 1997 heroics, wherein at Port Elizabeth, Mark Waugh single-handedly Donald, Symox, Pollock, and Kallis, scoring an unbeaten 115 of his team’s requisite of 222. Or his personal best Test score of 153 where he braved Bangalore’s humidity on way to his unbeaten 153 in 1998.
And each time we do our Mark Waugh rewind, whether, in friendly discussions with cricket-obsessed mates or countless reruns of YouTube videos, we remember the sobering cuts and the whips toward the on-side.
It’s never about bull-dozing power when the discussion concerns Mark Waugh.
Yet Mark Waugh was about the science and art of batting; about making it look all too easy, frustrating enough for bowlers to run wildly and lose all control; that sight of an unflustered, nearly expressionless man wielding the bat elegantly seeming all too overwhelming for bowlers to dominate.
Like when on 9 Feb 2001 he propelled Australia to an authoritative 338 (for 6) at Melbourne against the West Indies, scoring 173 of those runs against Nixon McLean, Cameron Cuffy, and Jimmy Adams.
An avid reminder that when needed, Mark Waugh would drop the customary elegant mode and don the boxing gloves. On that unforgettable MCG outing, he took 148 balls to launch into a beast-mode, notching up his best ODI score. Yet, at all other times, picture the partnerships with Slater in Tests and Gilchrist in ODIs, he ruled with lordly elegance.
If you were to spend some time hunting for vintage clips from the late eighties and early nineties, then you’d find in one of the Benson & Hedges World Series (1988-89), a young, long-haired bloke hitting rather expansive strokes, sending New Zealand pacers way into the stands over cover.
This, in some ways, serves us cricketing memories a correction about a man who wore cool weather. Probably, we’ve been myopic and been in a hurry to categorize the Canterbury-born right-hander.
Was it only elegance that defined the ‘other’ Waugh?
Wasn’t he a bit of a grinder as well, someone who batted for 445 innings (in all), someone who could throw around his bat unafraid about consequences?
In an era where a 270 score often seemed beyond the reach of the side batting second, almost comparable to a 320-330 odd score in today’s era, Mark Waugh participated in three consecutive Benson & Hedges World Series.
And while he never gathered more than a fifty from seventeen innings, his strike rate drew attention; it would never go under 75 and was exactly 100 in the 1989-90 series.
This was a man drafted into the lower order who proved himself worthy to be slotted first in the middle order, before switching to the full-time opener.
This is where magic would happen, where 5700 of his 8500 ODI runs would be struck in conjunction with 15 centuries.
Yet at all these times, the world around him expanded to accommodate a match-winner after another. Sachin got the likes of Dravid and Ganguly to help him out, while Lara strode off with Chanderpaul and Sarwan.
Pakistan had Saeed Anwar and Inzamam while Sri Lanka rested on Jayasuriya and De Silva.
Yet, the usual tale of eternal magnificence stayed the way it was for Australia: Mark Waugh batting at the top, swaying crowds with enigmatic ease.
So must it be remembered that before Sachin bossed the 1996 World Cup, there was just one man dominating it from start to finish.
In scoring 4 centuries and 484 runs in all, Mark Waugh was at his best. Yet, to this day, he’s perhaps not been given the due for taking Australia to the finals.
Just the way it didn’t occur to us that long before the likes of Kohli and Rohit even came to score 1000-plus calendar runs in ODIs, Mark Waugh was doing so minus any fuss.
Does it strike our stat-obsessing minds that way back in 1996- Mark Waugh notched up 1059 runs (ODIs) and in 1999, went several better, scoring 1468 (36 ODIs)?
And yet, in doing all of this, he was also the man you’d throw the ball to when wickets weren’t coming and donning the charismatic shades, ‘Junior’ would often find a way to dislodge the timber, taking 144 wickets in all.
And in a game where agility and flexibility were about as important as bowling a yorker or muscling a big six, Mark Waugh made himself even more useful by plucking blinders from the slip cauldron.
It was but in Mark Waugh’s grasp and safe as houses slip-fielding that Australia seemed so safe- right?
The usual pecking order in the nineties and mid-2000s was the scoreboard reading the mode of dismissal: “caught Mark Waugh, bowled Warne” or “caught M. Waugh, bowled McGrath!”
So in paying homage to the great Australian, must we broaden our imagination and make way for those 289 catches – let that sink in– just as we’ve got to admire the man who held less for numbers and played the sport as if it was just ‘fun!’