Mark Waugh’s batting was akin to brush-strokes of beautiful calligraphy by a master painter from the renaissance period © Getty Images
Mark Waugh’s batting was akin to brush-strokes of beautiful calligraphy by a master painter from the renaissance period © Getty Images

On August 6, 1993, Mark Waugh’s unruffled elegance wowed the Edgbaston crowd and floored England’s bowlers into submission. Bharath Ramaraj looks back at the younger Waugh’s scintillating knock.

When the name of Mark Edward Waugh flashes in a cricket romantic’s mind, one visualises the breathtaking artistry of an expressionist painter, effortlessly caressing the ball by bisecting the fielders with a royal flourish.

Two decades ago, in the fifth Test at Birmingham against England in the Ashes series, the expressionist painter painted the entire Edgbaston ground with his majesty and captured the hearts of the crowd with a regal century.

The divine grace and pristine elegance from the volcanically talented, Waugh junior was akin to brush-strokes of beautiful calligraphy by a master painter from the renaissance period. Even when Waugh played one of the most forceful shots in the world of cricket, the square cut, he did it with a touch of silky grace. England’s bowling was at best modest, but in terms of pure shot-making ability, Waugh touched fabulous, compelling and stratospheric peaks.

Background

Waugh had a dream Test debut against England at Adelaide in 1990-91 when he made a sparkling century. On that day, he must have felt like flying on the wings of a fabled fantasy dream. He went one step further when he showcased a dash of bravado and adventurism rarely seen before against the pillaging West Indians in their own backyard in 1990-91 cricket season by topping the batting charts with an impressive average of 61.16.

However, just when it seemed like Waugh would touch rarefied zones as a batsman, a few chinks were exposed in his armour. The Indian team that arrived on the shores of Australia in 1991-1992, didn’t have anyone who bowled with express pace or extracted disconcerting bounce. But in Kapil Dev and Manoj Prabakhar, they had couple of wily old foxes who with just a tilt of their wrists, moved the ball both ways at will.

Waugh had a dreadful series against the visiting Indian team and he came to know that he was dropped from the side during the middle of a Test match against India at Adelaide. In the following Test series against Sri Lanka, it seemed like his wings were clipped and flailing hopelessly in a wallow of mediocrity when the likes of Champaka Ramanayake, Chandika Hathurusingha and Pramodya Wickramasinghe gave him nightmares with a ball in hand.

Just when everyone started jokingly calling him by the nickname of ‘Audi’ for those four successive ducks he made in Sri Lanka, he bared his guts to one-and-all by standing up to the might of Windies pacers on a treacherous track at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) in 1992-93. His critics though, were still not convinced about Waugh’s Test match temperament.

In the 1993 Ashes series, by scoring mountains of runs, Waugh finally found those vexing answers to his problems against swing bowling and silenced his critics. His century at Edgbaston turned out to be a watershed moment in his career.

Australia find themselves in muddy waters

On expected lines, Australia had already won the Ashes series in 1993 by steamrolling old rivals, England in the first three Tests. In spite of England showing some spunk and spirit in the drawn game at Trent Bridge, it was crystal clear that Australia by far was the better team of the two.

However, at Edgbaston, it didn’t go exactly according to plan for the men from Down Under. After bundling out England for a rather modest score of 276, Australia found themselves in dire-straits at 80 for four.

When the battle-hardened Australian captain, Allan Border, was sent packing by the off-spinner, Peter Such with the one that drifted a touch away from the left-handed batsman from over the wicket, the English were in a jubilant mood and celebrated like there was no tomorrow. But that joy was short lived, as Waugh twins took Australia from the brink of what seemed like a disastrous position to calmer waters with their mind-blowing century partnership.

Outrageous brilliance against spin

In the 1990s when on song, Waugh was one of the best in the business against spin bowling. He could dance down the wicket with twinkle-toed footwork to essay brilliant shots all over the park and send the crowd into a delirium. When needed, he could also use the depth of the crease to rock onto the back-foot and make a spinner look very ordinary by playing shots square of the wicket on either side.

At Edgbaston, while facing the veteran off-spinner, John Emburey and Such, he wonderfully used the depth of the crease to put both spinners to sword. It was Emburey who initially dropped one short for Waugh to play a square cut of ethereal beauty through the off-side.

Unfortunately for England, Emburey and to a lesser extent, Such continued to bowl it slightly short and just like a great ballet dancer who mesmerises and intoxicates a packed audience, Waugh showcased exemplary footwork to play some vintage and classical square cuts.

The best of all those ethereally beautiful cut shots was perhaps reserved for Such and that too after he reached the three figure mark. As soon as Waugh saw Such had again bowled one touch short, his eagle-like eyes lit up, but the ball tended to bounce a bit more than expected on an off-stump line. With softest of hands, Mark Waugh though, expertly guided it very fine and the ball rocketed through the vacant third-man region for yet another boundary.

Waugh followed up that superbly timed shot of Such, by almost leaving all his three stumps to play another glorious cut shot of Emburey. When he essayed that stroke, the level of disdain bordered on arrogance. For a moment, it seemed like Waugh was giving a coaching clinic to kids aspiring to become professional cricketers on how to play the square cut.

Mark Waugh even brought out the slog sweep once to counter Such’s negative line from around the track. It was a shot that Waugh rarely played, but at Edgbaston whatever shot he tried, it seemed to be turning into gold.

Actually in that innings, the younger Waugh seemed to play the right shot for every delivery he faced from a spinner. The hypnotic beauty of his knock was simply majestic to watch.   Every shot he played was stamped with oozing class. Waugh combined aesthetic grace with superhuman skills and the runs kept flowing like a river from his magical bat.

Waugh was an epitome of perfection at the crease. He picked the ball up very early, his feet, his bat and his body instinctively aligned, he seemed to be waiting, in excellent position, with superb  balance, for the ball to arrive and for him to pierce it into gaps with his unsullied and graceful game.

Yes, it has to be said that in terms of sheer class, Mark Waugh’s expert handling of England’s spinners was nowhere near his vividly remembered century for New South Wales against Victoria in the Sheffield Shield in 1993-94 cricket season. It was a knock where he had to use every little trick in a batsman’s trade including Zen master-like concentration prowess to keep the maestro, Shane Warne at bay. However, the panache and flamboyance on display at Edgbaston was just unreal and that makes his innings special too.

The dazzling and delectable, Waugh didn’t just handle spinners with aplomb, but also flicked, cut and drove England’s swing-men, Mark Illott and Martin Bicknell with utmost ease. England’s pacers tried their best to keep away from drifting onto Waugh’s pads. But whenever they did, the wristy wizard with his signature flick shot and leg-glance invariably sent the ball soaring past motionless and bemused fielders to the boundary boards.

In fact, Waugh reached the three figure mark with a gloriously played flick shot. The best moment of the day came when Bicknell drifted on Waugh’s pads and not surprisingly didn’t even look back as to where the ball had gone. It just gives an indication of Waugh’s god-gifted ability on the on-side. Interestingly though, Waugh has always said that his favourite stroke wasn’t the flick shot, but rather the square cut.

The icing on the cake came soon too. In an attempt to find some swing, when Illott over-pitched one of his deliveries, Waugh threaded what seemed like the minutest of gaps with surgical precision to play a crackerjack extra cover-drive that won him thunderous applause from a rapturous and erudite crowd.

Just like during most of his career, once Waugh reached the three figure mark, he started playing one shot too many. Finally, in an attempt to play another of those wondrous flick shots, he was caught at backward square-leg by Graham Thorpe for 137. It was an innings when he whetted your sensibilities with exquisite timing and walked back to the pavilion to a wonderful standing ovation.

Curiously, just before Waugh got out, at the non-striker’s end, his twin brother could forebode that he was likely going to get caught at backward square-leg with the younger Waugh trying a flick shot.

To make it even more of a memorable day for the Waughs, their father, Rodger Waugh had flown all the way from Australia to watch his sons bat. Senior Waugh though, was extremely nervous because whenever he watched his sons bat, they invariably got out for cheap scores. He was afraid that he would yet again jinx them. Rodger Waugh’s tangle of nerves were soon soothed when Mark Waugh essayed a remarkable century and Steve too notched up a fine half century.

Rodger Waugh on him jinxing all his four sons, “Any time I went to watch them, especially in grade cricket, they’d get out. Every bloody time!” says Rodger. “To this day it still happens in grade cricket with Danny.”

What followed

The magical 153-run partnership between Waugh twins paved the way for Australia to complete another facile win over England. Spin twins, Tim May and Warne inflicted more wounds into a side already in disarray by sharing all the ten wickets to fall in the second innings between them.

Mark Waugh’s aggregate of 199 runs in the fifth Test (137 runs in the first innings and 62 not out in the second innings) turned out to be the most by an Australian batsman at Edgbaston at that time.

Despite critics baying for Mark Waugh’s blood in the sixth and final Test at The Oval for his typical gambling instincts which saw him get out to a hook shot in the second innings, he along with his twin brother, Steve, went onto become the cornerstones of Australia’s middle-order, during the 1990s.

Unfortunately, critics habitually even now view the sublime art and craft of Mark Waugh’s breath-taking batsmanship through a very narrow prism of his average and use ‘lazy elegance’ to describe his willowy mastery.

It has to be said that even if we go by the world of statistics, in a crystal clear manner it shows, 1990s was a very tough era for batting and Waugh played most of his Test games in that era.

Here was a game changer who could turn the match on its head with a wand of a willow, ball or by plucking catches out of thin air. In short, a typical century by Waugh was like watching a James Bond movie with full of slick plot-twists and high-adrenaline action, all done with heavy dollops of elegance and celestial creativity.

Brief scores:

England 276 (Michael Atherton 72, John Emburey 55; Paul Reiffel 6 for 71, Tim May 2 for 32) and 251 ( Graham Thorpe 60; Tim May 5 for 89, Shane Warne 5 for 82) lost to Australia 408  (Mark Waugh 137, Steve Waugh 59, Ian Healy 80,; Martin Bicknell 3 for 99, Peter Such 3 for 90) and 120 for 2 (Mark Waugh 62*) by 8 wickets.

Man of the Match: Mark Waugh

(Bharath Ramaraj, an MBA in marketing, eats, drinks and sleeps cricket. He has played at school and college-level, and now channelises his passion for the game by writing about it)