January 3, 2003, was easily Steve Waugh’s finest day in his cricketing career. Under pressure to perform or perish, he smacked one of the greatest tons in Ashes folklore off the last ball of the day and, in the process, amassed 10,000 Test runs and equalled Sir Don Bradman’s record of 29 centuries. Karthik Parimal revisits the epic Test that saw the second-biggest crowd in the history of the Sydney Cricket Ground.
Just before the third Test at Perth during the Ashes of 2002-03, a partly out-of-form Steve Waugh, then a veteran of 154 Tests, met Trevor Hohns, Australia’s chairman of selectors, to design a plan for succession. Waugh left the meeting accepting that if he didn’t up the ante in the remaining two Tests, it would make the decision easy for all concerned. The chairman didn’t refrain from blurting what transpired at the meet to the media: “At the moment, Stephen has our support until the Sydney [fifth] Test. The decision is then up to him whether he wants to continue or not. If he does, he will be judged on form like any other player.”
The leak to the press distressed Waugh. Australia annihilated England at Perth and with the Ashes no longer up for grabs, the spotlight was now completely on Waugh’s impending retirement. Newspapers published tribute articles and crowds flocked the stands during the Boxing Day Test at Melbourne, where Waugh smashed 77. The knock was nonetheless a subscript to Justin Langer’s double-century. Waugh, however, was clear he was still well far from the finish line. At Sydney, during the pre-Test press conference, he was asked about his career-defining moment by a reporter, to which pat came the reply: “Well, perhaps it will happen in this game.”
The Australian cricketers of that era were the embodiments of grit. Like players from any other team, they had their share of sombre patches, but each had a resurgence story that was uplifting. The likes of Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Matthew Hayden et al. were almost written off before they fought back to claim their place in history. Waugh was their leader, and he certainly wasn’t new to having his back against the wall. It was during such moments he thrived, and while some drove hours to watch him bat for one last time, Waugh knew it wasn’t swansong yet. Nevertheless, he made up his mind to enjoy the experience and felt he could express his gratitude by notching off a ton.
On the second day of the Test, in response to England’s first innings total of 362, Australia were teetering on 56 for three. In a few seconds, the stony silence caused by Langer’s exit was replaced by a raucous applause at the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG) — which on that day was host to the second-biggest crowd in history at the venue. Waugh’s journey from the edge of the boundary to the centre of the pitch was marked with people standing in the aisles and cheering at the top of their voice. A product of Sydney, he was moved by the gesture and immediately settled into his zone.
Steve Harmison was the first bowler he faced on the day and the dug-in deliveries were deftly handled. In the next over, a clip off the toes behind square-leg off Matthew Hoggard sped to the boundary, and this shot instilled Waugh with the confidence he yearned for. Andrew Caddick was the next to get flayed. His concentration monk-like, Waugh, with nimble feet movement and an aggressive mindset, looked invincible from the outset. “The ecstasy of knowing that a shot is destined for the boundary, the sweet sensation of a perfectly timed stroke as it pings off the blade and the power of piercing a gap and winning the duel over the bowler still stimulated me,” writes Waugh, on this knock, in his autobiography Out Of My Comfort Zone.
On that evening, one in nine Australians turned on their television sets to watch their skipper script an epic. Despite the fall of a couple of wickets at the other end, he continued pummelling the ‘Poms’. When a boundary off off-spinner Richard Dawson took Waugh to 69, the stadium erupted, yet again, for he’d now amassed 10,000 Test runs, and was the third player to reach the milestone after Sunil Gavaskar and Allan Border. The ones who reckoned he should have hung his boots by now were surely having second thoughts. As stumps drew closer, he was scampering towards a momentous ton. In between overs, Alec Stewart aptly quizzed Waugh with the following words: “Do you write your own script these days?”
It certainly looked that way, for in the last over of the day — to be bowled by Dawson — he needed five runs to get to a hundred. Adam Gilchrist left the final ball of the previous over and was puzzled on receiving a loud cheer. While the crowd presumed he’d done so to keep Waugh on strike, Gilchrist thought it to be the last ball of the day and was ready to walk off.
A 41,931 strong crowd waited with bated breath as Dawson hopped in to bowl to Waugh. The first three deliveries were confidently defended while the fourth was assertively driven for three runs. “As I turned for two, my vision of a four was never going to materialise, but I also knew if any batsman was capable of finding a single from the very next ball, then that man for the big occasion, Gilly [Gilchrist], would sniff it out,” Waugh writes about the three runs in his book. As hoped, Gilchrist punched the ball towards the leg to saunter for a single, and it seemed like he’d received the loudest applause for the gesture.
And then, on the final ball of the day, the ‘Cinderella’ story reached its climax. Despite Nasser Hussain’s ploy of delaying the inevitable, Waugh was unruffled. He pulled out his red rag and wiped the sweat from under his helmet. As Hussain walked back to the slip cordon, Waugh eyeballed him, but his concentration was unadulterated. Dawson ran in and bowled a quicker one outside the off-stump, but Waugh positioned his bat in a way that the ball would take the meat of his willow to run away to the boundary.
The SCG went berserk as Waugh leapt in the air and pumped his fists to celebrate the ton, barely managing to record the dramatic event. The opposition, spectators, and his family, too, were in awe, witnessing the incredible tale of this 38-year-old. “For all of them, this was about one man. Steve Waugh’s 102 was not, contrary to local hyperbole, the greatest century in Ashes folklore; next day, Gilchrist and [Michael] Vaughan produced a couple every bit as good. But few, if any, have hit hundreds with such a sense of inevitability,” aptly noted the Wisden Almanack.
That 29th ton put Waugh on par with Don Bradman in terms of most Test centuries scored. On his home turf, in full view of the second-biggest SCG crowd in history and with detractors breathing down his neck, Waugh had indeed experienced a ‘Perfect Day’ (the title of the chapter explaining this knock in his book).
Waugh fell for 102 the next morning and Australia trudged to 363 after Gilchrist’s brisk ton. His feats notwithstanding, England won the Test by 225 runs, owing to Vaughan’s heroics. Waugh’s career was extended by a year and he bowed out at the SCG after a fine performance against India.
England 362 (Mark Butcher 124, Nasser Hussain 75, Alec Stewart 71; Andy Bichel 3 for 86) and 452 for 9 decl. (Michael Vaughan 183, Nasser Hussain 72; Stuart MacGill 3 for 120, Brett Lee 3 for 132) beat Australia 363 (Steve Waugh 102, Adam Gilchrist 133; Matthew Hoggard 4 for 92, Steve Harmison 3 for 70, Andrew Caddick 3 for 121) and 226 (Andy Bichel 49, Brett Lee 46; Andrew Caddick 7 for 94) by 225 runs.
(Karthik Parimal, a Correspondent with CricketCountry, is a cricket aficionado and a worshipper of the game. He idolises Steve Waugh and can give up anything, absolutely anything, just to watch a Kumar Sangakkara cover drive. He can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/karthik_parimal)