Steve Waugh, pictured here in 1986, writes in his autobiography that on the morning of his first Test, he was a bundle of nerves © Getty Images
Steve Waugh, pictured here in 1986, writes in his autobiography that on the morning of his first Test, he was a bundle of nerves © Getty Images

On December 26, 1985, Steve Waugh, one of Australia’s finest captains, made his Test debut on Boxing Day at the MCG against India. Although he didn’t start on the right note, he played a record number of Tests and was known as one of the game’s toughest competitors.

The Boxing Day Test holds a significant place in the Australian sports calendar. To feature in this yearly fixture at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) holds great value to a few Australian cricketers, and in some instances, it’s a dream that has remained unfulfilled. However, that wasn’t the case with Steve Waugh, who made his debut on Boxing Day against a formidable Indian side 27 years ago. Although he failed to make an impression during that game, Waugh went on to become not only one of Australia’s most successful captains, but he featured in a record number of Tests in a career that spanned almost 19 years, and is behind only Sachin Tendulkar and Ricky Ponting in the list.

Waugh was a force to reckon with in the domestic arena prior to getting picked. He kept scoring centuries in the Sheffield Shield on a consistent basis, and there came a point when he was certain of making the cut if he managed a decent outing in a game against Victoria for New South Wales (NSW) just a few days before the Christmas of 1985. At the end of the third day of that game, Waugh overheard a journalist talk to the NSW manager about the high possibility of the ‘young fella’ getting picked for the Boxing Day Test against India.

Surely enough, Waugh was in the Australian squad for that game, but he expected to be the twelfth man since it didn’t appear as though he’d be preferred over the eleven who played the first Test. However, Greg Ritchie managed to injure his toe just before the big event, and that opened the door for Waugh to make his debut. The next morning after Christmas, Waugh became the 335th player to don the national colours for Australia. Little did he expect back then to play a further 167 Tests and score 30 hundreds at an average of over 51.

Waugh writes in his autobiography, Out of My Comfort Zone,  that on the morning of his first Test, he was, understandably, a bundle of nerves. He imagined all possible outcomes with each passing minute before the commencement of the match. He states that if he had a choice, he’d have preferred to field first since that’d allow him to ease into the situation. However, it wasn’t to be, and the Australians, who were asked to bat first, were soon reeling at 90 for four when Waugh came in to bat.

He describes his first walk to the crease as follows – “I scratched a nervous mark in the soil and saw the sticky, thick mud cling to my half-spikes as I glanced around to get my bearings. I tried to avoid eye contact with the eager Indian fielders who had gathered around me like seagulls after a greasy chip. They seemed relaxed and expectant in their semi-crouched positions, while the ‘smiling knife’, Ravi Shastri, steadied himself at the bowler’s end. My legs were weak, my breathing was shallow and my mindset was survival.”

Waugh kept the first few balls off and was desperate to get at least a run next to his name. A push into the covers off Kapil Dev brought up his first runs in Test cricket. He added twelve more to the total, inclusive of two boundaries, and was now comfortable enough to middle the ball. But inexperience set in, and a juicy half volley, which he believed he could easily put away through the covers, took the outside edge before landing safely into the hands of Kapil Dev standing at second slip. Alas, it wasn’t an ideal start to his Test career.

However, he was handier with the ball after the frontline seamers failed to cause any damage. Thanks to the element of surprise, he accounted for Ravi Shastri and Syed Kirmani, both of who had got starts and were starting to feel confident at the crease. His second innings with the bat was all the more disastrous, as he could muster just five in a total of 308. With the match heading towards a tame draw, India batted just 25 overs, and Waugh wasn’t used as a bowler in the fourth innings.

His next Test at Sydney wasn’t a memorable one either. “It was depressing to sit down after my first two Tests and realise how large the gap between promise and fulfilment seemed. I wasn’t sure if I could ‘cut the mustard’ and didn’t really know where to turn. I imagined I’d let the selectors, the fans and my family down because so much was expected of me; ‘the next Don Bradman’ certainly hadn’t delivered,” Waugh recalls.

Fortunately for him, and Australian cricket, the tide had soon reversed. Waugh finished his international career with 168 Tests and 325 One-Day Internationals (ODIs) under his belt, and over 18000 international 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)