Steve Waugh was mighty focused, mighty determined. Alas, he was from New South Wales
I am Australian. And I love cricket. So it is probably going to seem strange that the player I hate to love is Steve Waugh.
But Australia is a complex nation, made up of six states and two territories and, as I sit here typing on the afternoon of the first match of the 2016 State of Origin series, I need to explain the depth of the rivalry between tonight's combatants, Queensland and New South Wales, and hence why Steve Waugh and many of his Blues brethren have been hard to accept, if not love.
Each Australian state has its own characteristics, its own culture, its own way of life, and Queensland is… well, Queensland is Queensland. With its beaches and its surfing and its fishing and its grand timber homes on stilts and its laid-back way of life and its XXXX beer and its cane-cutters' cordial (or Bundaberg Rum) and its maverick politicians like Joh (for decades) and Bob Katter (more recently) and its great sporting heroes like Wally "The King" Lewis and Heals and Haydos and AB (who has morphed into a Queenslander to become one of our own), it is beautifully, distinctively, cavalierly, unashamedly Queensland.
And to live in Queensland is to believe in Queensland. To believe in its way of life, and to have serious doubts about life beyond its borders.
When sportsman, punter and (acclaimed) educator Matt O'Hanlon was growing up in the '70s, one of eight kids in a classic Catholic family from Rockhampton in central Queensland, his father would drive them to Sydney to visit relatives for the holidays. As they were crossing the border from Coolangatta to Tweed Heads he would turn to his flock in the back and yell, "Suck in the big ones, kids. You'll be breathing New South air for the next fortnight."
"What's Steve Waugh got that Greg Ritchie hasn't?" they asked. And sure as there's corruption and vice in Sin City, Steve Waugh got picked for Australia for the Boxing Day Test
The O'Hanlons were a progressive family. Many Queenslanders wouldn't consider leaving Queensland. "What for?" they'd ask - and mean it.
Queenslanders love their own, but they are consumed by suspicion when it comes to anyone from Down South. Sydney is no good - their clubs pinch all the good Queensland rugby league players. Melbourne is no good - it's full of Victorians. And Canberra is the absolute pits. Queenslanders just want to govern themselves. Secession is not out of the question.
When it came to cricket, Queenslanders were consumed with two deep frustrations in the 1970s and '80s: our cricket team couldn't win the Sheffield Shield, and our best players were consistently overlooked for Test selection. It was a miracle for a Queenslander to don the baggy green.
And we were always stiff in the Shield. We'd be a game or two clear each Christmas and then the summer wet would set in. Washout after washout would force us down the Shield table. Not even Viv Richards could arrest the tropical lows that would sit in Moreton Bay and bucket down on the Gabba.
In the 1980s we had the imports Greg Chappell and Thommo and AB. But they played alongside a squad of local talent, brought up on mangoes and seaming couch-grass pitches. Batsmen had to develop outstanding technique to survive if not prosper. But could these master craftsmen get a run in the Australian side? Robbie Kerr. Andrew Courtice. Trevor Barsby. Brett Henschell. They could all play.
But as they were putting together a string of masterful knocks, another teenager would be picked for New South Wales and you just knew he'd be anointed as the next great thing and would be playing for Australia by the end of the summer. In December 1984, Stephen Rodger Waugh made his first-class debut for the Blues against Queensland. His bowling figures were 23-12-34-0. He batted at No. 9.
Queenslanders love their own, but they are consumed by suspicion when it comes to anyone from Down South... like SR Waugh
© Getty Images
Queenslanders love their own, but they are consumed by suspicion when it comes to anyone from Down South... like SR Waugh © Getty Images
"This Waugh," they said in the public bar of the Pineapple Hotel just up the road from the Gabba, "he's modelled himself on Ewen Chatfield."
"He's okay," they said, "but he's no Glenn Trimble."
People took more notice of SR Waugh in the Shield final against Queensland that season. He made an important 71 and 21 in a match where the Blues snuck home by a wicket.
"He's a slogger," they said.
Queensland had been denied again.
The following season ME Waugh made his Shield debut, along with MA Taylor, and we all sat in the pub.
"You watch," they said. "These clowns will all play for Australia."
"Kerr and Courtice are the best since Hobbs and Sutcliffe," they said. "But will they get a look in?"
Steve Waugh made a couple of Shield hundreds. But he was cruising.
"Setting himself up for a 20-year career," they said at the Pineapple. "Bowling within himself. Not chasing too hard. Self-preservation."
"What's Steve Waugh got that Greg Ritchie hasn't?" they asked.
And sure as there's corruption and vice in Sin City, Steve Waugh got picked for Australia for the Boxing Day Test. He made 13 and 5.
The next summer he made a duck in the first Test, at the Gabba.
Queenslanders were consumed with two deep frustrations in the 1970s and '80s: our cricket team couldn't win the Sheffield Shield, and our best players were overlooked for Test selection
"He's cemented his spot," they said, sipping on their XXXX.
"Is he a bowler?" we asked. "Is he a batsman?" we wondered.
"Is he a No. 3? Is he a No. 7?" we speculated.
"Or is he just the Bob Cunis of Australian cricket?"
"He's no good, that Steve Waugh," they said when he was selected to tour England in what was regarded as an ordinary squad. "He'll never make a Test hundred."
SR Waugh wasn't dismissed until Edgbaston, the third Test, by which time he'd made 393 runs and Australia led 2-0.
But the antipathy did not subside. As the years rolled by and they made Taylor the skipper and the best cricketers in Australia were never given an opportunity, the voices grew louder.
"What about Stuey Law and Martin Love? What about Jimmy Maher? What about Kasper and Andy Bichel?" they said. "It's a bloody conspiracy," they said. "Not only do they not play Kasper, they make him 12th man. That's so he can't play for Queensland."
Steve Waugh's standing didn't improve Up North. "Red ink, mate," they said. "It's about keeping that average above 50. Look how he bats with the tail."
Of course he had a long and successful career. He made a lot of runs, he played in many Test victories. I had mixed feelings about it all. He wasn't my sort of cricketer. I was a fun-of-the-game man, a joy-of-sport man. He was too hard for me. But, I came to realise, that's what sport is about for a lot of Australians. Fierce competition. And pushing yourself to get the best from your ability.
I respected him; I respected his determination and the demands he placed firstly on himself, and then on others. I came to acknowledge that it was just plain silly of me to expect everyone to be like Lord Lindsay in Chariots of Fire or Roger Federer or John Eales. But I also knew there was Fortune in top sport and Steve Waugh kept some mighty fine players out of the Australian side.
And after he retired, and the Australians struggled, and I realised we missed him, I even forgot he was from New South Wales. But only for a moment.
John Harms is a contributing editor at footyalmanac.com
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