It’s one of the most damaging myths in Australian cricket. A story that gets trotted out time and time again… that you should stick by a player because it took Steve Waugh 27 Tests to make a hundred.
It’s constantly used to justify the selection of a talented enigma who’s struggling at the top level – particularly (though not always) all rounders. Mitchell Marsh. Shane Watson. Shaun Marsh. Moises Henriques. Ashton Agar.
“If only we’d give him/given him time… say 27 Tests… like Steve Waugh.”
Greg Chappell went on about it just recently, wistfully commenting that “we’d never be able to do something like that now”, as if giving 28 Tests to Mitchell Marsh who currently averages 27.8 isn’t a fairly good trial.
It made me wonder, what actually happened in those 27 non-Test-century-scoring Tests of Steve Waugh?
Was he just there on work experience?
Making up the numbers as part of some affirmative action program? Being protected from the axe purely through the far-sighted genius of the selection panel?
Or was there something else going on?
Waugh came into the Test side in 1985-86, after only one summer of first class cricket.
He was hyped at the time because he was (a) young (b) from New South Wales (thus had more access to press) and (c) an all rounder, that magical unicorn which Australian selectors are obsessed with. Keith Miller! Warwick Armstrong! Trevor Laughlin! Maybe not Trevor Laughlin but you get the idea.
A case could be made for Waugh’s fast tracking. The South African rebel tours gutted Australian cricket of 16 top players, notably our pace bowlers (we took third choice pacers on the 1985 Ashes tour).
A lot of noise is made about the Chappell-Lillee-Marsh retirements, and that didn’t help, but what really kept us weak in the 1980s was poor bowling, especially once Geoff Lawson and Craig McDermott lost fitness. We didn’t become a potent Test force again until the South African rebels came back in 1989. (Picking Wayne Phillips as keeper didn’t help either.)
Australia’s selectors were desperate to boost our bowling attack but how to do that without weakening the batting? You pick all rounders, and they already had Greg Matthews, who had a purple patch in the summer of 1985-86, scoring three Test centuries. His bowling wasn’t as good as his batting though, so Waugh was brought in.
For the first few years of his career, Waugh was mostly selected – and I think this was wise – in tandem with another all rounder eg Matthews, Peter Sleep. The two would balance each other out.
In Waugh’s first Test, against the India at the MCG, Australia played only four specialist batters, plus Waugh and Matthews, and four bowlers. Waugh would’ve been 12th man but for a last minute injury to Greg Ritchie.
Waugh scored 13 and 5 and took two wickets. Australia only escaped with a draw due to rain and some incredible Alan Border batting.
For the next Test, Ritchie came back into the side but Waugh kept his spot and David Hookes was given the boot. Again, Australia were lucky to escape with a draw. Waugh made 8 and 0.
It had been an underwhelming start and Waugh’s Test career might’ve been over then and there – like, say, Robbie Kerr, who played his first and only two Tests that summer, or David Hookes, who played his last four Tests that summer, or Simon O’Donnell, who played his last Test that summer. But Waugh offered a bowling option and had performed well in the one dayers (he established himself almost immediately in that format), and so kept his place for the tour against New Zealand.
Australia’s balance was better – they played five specialist batsmen as well as Waugh and Matthews – but they lost the three-test series 1-0.
Again, Waugh could arguably have been dropped after this series … Wayne Philips was, and he’d scored more runs in the Test series than Waugh. But Waugh again did well in the one dayers, the selectors could see his potential and good attitude, so he kept his place for the 1986 tour of India.
In India, Waugh did not contribute much with the ball or bat, but to be fair he did not have many chances in a spin-heavy, rain-shortened tour.
In the first Test (the famous second tied Test) he scored 12 not out and 2 not out and took 1-44 and 0-16 with the ball.
In the second he scored 39 not out and in the third made 6. He didn’t succeed but he didn’t exactly fail either.
So Waugh was still a fringe player at the beginning of the 1986-87 Ashes. In the first Test he took 3-76 and scored 0 and 28 in a disastrous Australian defeat.
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In the fourth he made 10 and 49 (a fighting innings in a collapse). In the fifth Test he made 0 and 73, and took the wicket of Mike Gatting, vital contributions in a narrow Australian victory – the first one Waugh had enjoyed at Test level.
Waugh scored 310 runs at 44.28 that series making him Australia’s fourth highest run scorer, out batting Ritchie, Matthews and Boon (who were all dropped) – and taking ten wickets at 33.60. Eight catches too.
He was pulling his weight as a batsman in his second summer of international cricket. He hadn’t scored a century, that’s true – but he was deserving his selection in the top six as a batsman and occasional bowler.
I just want to emphasise that again.
Steve Waugh was pulling his weight as a Test batsman in his second summer of international cricket. Yes, he didn’t score a Test century until 1989 but by 1986-87 he was already one of Australia’s best batsmen.
And he was getting better. In 1987 he played county cricket in England and scored 340 first class runs at 113.33, as well as helping win the World Cup.
In the 1987-88 series against New Zealand, Waugh was Australia’s fourth highest run scorer with 147 runs at 36.75. He had a bad tour of Pakistan in 1988 with 92 runs at 18.4 over three Tests but in the 1988 English summer made 1314 first class runs at 73.
He kept his pot against the West Indies in 1988-89 and batted well, making 331 runs at 41.37, making him Australia’s second highest run scorer. He also took ten wickets at 47.2 including 5-92. In the first three live Tests, which Australia all lost, Waugh scored two 90s and took a 5-for.
Then he went to England in 1989 and scored that precious first Test century.
So absolutely Steve Waugh took 27 Tests to score over a hundred.
And absolutely he was given a fair few chances at Test level. The selectors were entitled to drop him after his first two Tests, and after the tour of New Zealand and (arguably) India but kept the faith. He started paying regular dividends as an investment after nine Tests, not twenty seven.
To be sure, nine Tests is a lot more than other people get – Waugh would have been helped here by the fact he was earning his spot as an ODI player almost immediately – and the fact he was an excellent fielder and offered a bowling option.
But he was pulling his weight within a year – something Mitchell Marsh never did.
And you know something? They might have been better off dropping Steve Waugh earlier. Mark Taylor was ignored by Test selectors despite strong domestic performances from 1985-88, the early period of Steve Waugh’s Test career, and it didn’t seem to do Taylor much harm. Mike Valetta was given eight Tests to prove himself and it didn’t seem to do him much good.
Steve Waugh didn’t really become Steve Waugh the champion until after he’d been dropped. Not once, but twice, in the summer of 1990-91. Poor returns against England saw him lose his spot to brother Mark; he was selected again in the West Indies as a bowler (every one forgets this) played two Tests and was given the boot again.
He went away, worked on his game, and forced his way back in 1992-93 through virtue of runs. Only then he did he become the Test champion we know and love (unless you’re Shane Warne).
So the next time someone goes “they gave Steve Waugh 27 Tests to score a century” can we remember he was pulling his weight after nine, and they still dropped him a bunch of times after that.
It should stop being used as an excuse for people who aren’t up to it.