Cape Town – There are others, both home-based and abroad, but Steve Waugh is one of my favourite cricketers.
“Tugga” was just so typically, enviably Australian in his playing days … not the most naturally gifted of Aussies (or all cricketers) who have played the game, by any means, but simply as gritty and unyielding as they come.
My awe is at least partly based around being at Headingley, in the 1999 World Cup, to watch him make one of the most ballsy centuries I have ever witnessed first-hand in international cricket.
It was the one (120 not out) against South Africa, regrettably, which gave the Aussies their critical lifeline in the tournament … and from a position where they looked dangerously close to “out of it”.
Waugh had taken guard with his team 48 for three in pursuit of a steep (at the time and in the circumstances) 272 for victory, but he clearly doesn’t know the expression “run up the white flag” as he showed a combination of huge mental fortitude, cool-headedness and bursts of punishing enterprise to nurse his charges over the line.
It is history now that the win set up that fateful semi-final against the same foes at Edgbaston, and the Australians duly marched onward to clinch the trophy in a one-sided final against Pakistan at Lord’s.
I will also never forget the moment I accidentally got closer to Waugh than on any prior occasion … and in the most bizarre of circumstances.
Already under pressure from the domestic press to vacate his one-day international leadership as his world champs were in the midst of a pronounced wobble, his troops had beaten but effectively “lost to” Shaun Pollock’s Proteas in a closing round-robin fixture in the VB Series triangular in Perth of 2001/02.
South Africa were pipped on paper by 33 runs, but had crucially got to a secondary, more important “target” enabling them to elbow the Aussies out of their own tournament on net run-rate.
I had got to the routine post-match press conferences a little late, intending to catch at least the SA portion of it, and as I arrived in the packed room, a thunder-faced Waugh was just exiting, right up the cramped middle passage I was negotiating in the other direction.
He was stomping vigorously (his 325th ODI, it turned out to have been the great player’s last) and our shoulders unavoidably brushed – alas no, I cannot brand it a “charge” – and I instinctively and probably reverently muttered an “oops, sorry”.
Waugh simply responded darkly “this room’s full of f**king c**kheads” below his breath and continued his spirited passage out.
I was more bemused than anything, and remember taking absolutely no offence; clearly in a tight and emotional spot, he had just been marvellously, spontaneously, honestly Australian.
It wasn’t merely my anatomical proportioning he was calling into question, after all. I very clearly recall the plural element.
I did speak to him one-on-one in the mid-2000s, via long-distance PR-opportunity phone call, and, in an immeasurably less fraught environment, he was characteristically straight-talking, agreeably forthcoming.
Yes, he certainly remains one of my cricket heroes.
In very general terms, I have also always liked Australia – five visits, three personal more than professional – and Australians. (Some South Africans can be a little ungenerous toward the place, their gripes about its more sanitary hallmarks, if you like, perhaps disguising a secret envy that it is also a land of fewer murders and other impediments to everyday harmony and calmness.)
Like so many players from that country, Waugh handed out plenty of verbal stick to opponents, by all accounts, and wasn’t exempted from a raspberry or three out of the stands at South African venues, among all the others.
I strongly suspect his attitude was “fair dinkum”: although open to correction, I do not recall Waugh or any of the other major Australian icons of his and surrounding times – an exceptional era for Aussie cricket, too – bleating incessantly about their treatment from rival players or fans when abroad.
But that is pretty much what has happened on the 2017/18 Australian tour, the eighth here since isolation ended and almost certainly the most consistently acrimonious.
Did the Aussies actually set out on their safari wishing that to be the case?
The thought has crossed my mind.
For it has felt as if they have somehow, deviously adopted a “Bell Pottinger” type of poisoning, division-sowing climate while in our country – whether they are aware of the damage and toxicity caused by that more politically-motivated saga or not.
They have whinged, to borrow highly popular Aussie terminology, almost incessantly about crowd conduct toward them, even against the deeply ironic backdrop of gates at Kingsmead and St George’s Park being almost too pitiful at times to suggest large, rowdy doses of bile have even been possible.
Thank goodness for the necessary, no-nonsense retorts from weather-beaten combatants like Mark Boucher and Paul Harris – why, they could almost be Australian – that Down Under is one of the most formidable locations on the planet as an eye-opener for blunt, often rank crude, crowd “interaction” with rival international players.
Certainly there has been mass mirth in England, the home of Australia’s most long-standing rivals of all, along the lines of pots calling kettles gloriously black as they observe the determined Baggy Greens’ campaign to cite victimisation and persecution in South Africa.
I lost a bucket-load of respect in one go for skipper Steve Smith when he made a novel (for cricket) meal of his minor shoulder-contact incident with Kagiso Rabada, so consciously pointing it out to an umpire in a clear quest to “nail” the disciplinary tightrope-walking fast bowler.
Call me misguided, but I firmly believe that the equivalent of a footballing “dive in the box” is not something Steve Waugh, or a battery of other luminary Australians, would have resorted to.
What of Smith’s official, but provisionally stripped-of-authority, deputy David Warner?
It has been constantly bewildering to monitor his specific, well less than angelic role in the enduring summer kerfuffles but virtually simultaneous gripes over own treatment on our shores.
He has a swollen history of stroppiness, to put it quite diplomatically, and is it any coincidence that his showdown with Quinton de Kock – significantly with him the one having to be held back, in puce rage, by a team-mate in the Kingsmead stairwell – appeared to kick off the bilateral acrimony?
Yet in one of, frankly, the naffest scenes I have witnessed at a cricket ground, the supposed tough-nut opening batsman theatrically either requested or was assigned an Aussie squad “security official” on the ropes at Newlands, ostensibly to protect him from verbal abuse at a venue where there is no special history of nastiness from the stands.
It really did make Warner look far too suspiciously like the sort of bully who takes umbrage when the sand he has kicked returns to his own eyes.
“The biggest sledger in world cricket now has a nanny to accompany him on the boundary, what a joke,” gleefully opined one former SA cricketer, though not without a pinch of merit.
I have little doubt there are plenty of fine individuals in the midst of the current, besieged Australian touring party, so do not wish to tar them too collectively with the same brush.
Indeed, I feel strong sympathy for those in their dressing room who probably simply desire to play good, competitive, uncompromising but fair cricket in South Africa, as it has so often been before in bilateral combat.
But there appear to be some pretty rancid pears in their 2017/18 ranks; most unusually so.
At an early stage of the Newlands Test, I tweeted that much about the present touring group disappointed me: I accused them of preciousness, a faux morality, and being riddled with double standards.
It earned a far more lingering, overwhelmingly thumbs-up traction on social media than I am used to, even if pro-South African partiality in the “likes” obviously must be considered.
Still, I have to say I sensed a powerful poetic justice in dramatic, shattering, premeditated ball-tampering events that transpired so rapidly, subsequently.
We have to be extremely careful not to come across as too gloating, too squeaky-clean in our neck of the woods, of course. That would steer us toward a flimsy glass house, too, and inspire possibly rightful accusation of parallel hypocrisy, considering our own stormy cricketing tapestry.
But a great many Australians back home so clearly disapprove of plenty that’s gone down among their cricketers, both at Newlands and in the days and weeks before, and this weight of sentiment seems set to prove telling and influential (much-debated ICC censure dished out thus far may amount to a drop in the ocean in relation to Cricket Australia’s steps; watch this space).
That fills me with an even greater sense of relief and satisfaction.
Some day soon enough, cricket between South Africa and Australia will restore many of its more treasured, salubrious qualities.
But – and I never thought I would have reason to say it – I will be reasonably happy when the 2017/18 Australians go home.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing