In the middle of January I had some photographs developed. They were of the fourth cricket Test against India, January 2004. Steve Waugh in his striped jacket, walking with Sourav Ganguly to the pitch for the toss. The guard of honour his team formed when he stepped onto the field of play at the start of the first session. The crowd’s standing ovation when he walked off with his bat for the last time in a Test match. Waugh below my stand, chaired on the shoulders of his teammates, and in front of me spectators waving red handkerchiefs.
Two summers ago I switched on the TV and flicked through the channels, and instead of moving past the cricket I figured I’d watch it for a few minutes. The last time I had watched cricket was 1983. Since then a lot of different things have happened to me. ‘Waugh’ was a name I’d come across here and there, because even if you’re not a cricket-follower some player’s names are in the news all the time.
It was during that summer of 2002, sometime around Australia Day, that I spotted Steve Waugh fielding. he was nibbling on his fingernails. I don’t know why that hooked me, but it did—so much so, that I borrowed some of Waugh’s books from the local library. Not long after Tugga was sacked from the one-day side—the St Valentine’s Day massacre.
SBS’ World Sports program showed the press conference; Waugh looking as if it was him against the world. He was out of one-day international cricket, and I remember feeling rather peculiar about it all. By then Waugh had already made me glad he was around.
When I came to this country as a small child it wasn’t good to be different. In the early 1970s I couldn’t go into the school playground or walk home after school without a white Australian giving me stick about having brown skin. ‘Blackie’, ‘abo’, ‘go back to where you came from’. Children and adults would walk past me in the street and let me know they thought I was dirt. Such attitudes started to fade away at the end of the 1970s, but in the following decades there were still some idiots who assumed that if you were a darkie you talked funny and didn’t understand English.
In the 1980s I became an Australian citizen in order to get work. My identity as an Australian was only on paper; in my mind I didn’t consider myself Australian as I didn’t want to be the same as those morons who gave me a hard time because of my brown skin. For years the last country I’d support was Australia. Australians didn’t seem to like me being here, so I didn’t see why I should be on its side.
That’s the way it was until January 2002, when I watched some cricket for the first time in years and saw Steve Waugh biting his nails.
From Tugga’s cricket diaries, I got the idea he was an all-round nice guy, a softie who got on with everyone and liked a laugh. Yet there were many people saying he was hard, mean and unflinching, a sledger and the toughest SOB ever to walk onto a cricket ground. He was the iceman. Some even said he shouldn’t be captain. He had dropped Warne and Slater from the team, and on the field he subjected opponents to ‘mental disintegration’. When South African Herschelle Gibbs dropped a crucial catch in a World Cup game in 1999, Waugh is said to have asked him how it felt to have dropped the World Cup. Waugh seized the trophy in the next game when Australia beat South Africa and became world champions. Sometimes it was as if the Captain of Australia was not one person but two. In contrast to the on-field ruthlessness, Waugh sponsored a girls’ orphanage in India—a school for the children of Lepers. He loved his wife and kids and missed them when he was away. He stood by the blokes he believed in. He was proud of his baggy green cap and playing for his country. He was a scrapper who got through the hard times and didn’t back down. For the first time in my life I found myself proud of being Australian, though I can’t explain how it was that Waugh made this happen.
So, in January, I was there at the SCG for his last Test. During that time every waking minute was about the Test—either I was getting ready to set off to the SCG, at the SCG, returning from the SCG, or thinking over what had happened at the SCG. Every moment of those five days was magic, even when on day three I sat next to a middle-aged white woman who gave me a dirty look and was loud in her dislike of India and their big first-innings score. Even on day five when another middle-aged white woman asked if I was ‘going over there to join my friends’. When I asked her what she meant she nodded across at the flag-waving group of Indians on the hill. I think she was a bit surprised when, in my Pommie/Irish/Canadian/Swiss accent, I told her ‘I’m an Aussie who supports Australia.’
Being at the SCG was about saying farewell to Steve Waugh. Many have thanked him for what he’s done for Test cricket between 1985-2004. My thanks are for the past two years; he’s made a huge difference to the way I think about this country and my life here.
I’ll never forget that February evening where I heard the sports news report that he was out of the one-day international team. Or when he made his century at the SCG on 3 January 2004. Or when he was chaired around the SCG on 6 January 2004 and I waved and cheered along with thousands of others. Or when I arrived home that night and realised it was all over, but as Waugh said, ‘There was some sadness there, but only a little bit. There were that many smiling faces in the crowd, I could only be happy about it.’
Gabriel Smith lives in Sydney. She has attempted a number of stories and novels and now thinks she is grown-up enough to attempt non-fiction.