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Where does Mark Waugh sit in cricket's pantheon?

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Roar Rookie
27th September, 2021
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1529 Reads

Mark Waugh has always been a polarisng cricketer.

Among an SCG throng of 40,000, his name might elicit the full gamut of emotions. Supporters will claim that ‘Junior’ is one of the most brilliant and gifted cricketers of the past 50 years. They will talk about his wonderful timing, the elegance and ease of his strokes and the way he made batting appear a simple, leisurely pastime, even when up against fearsome opponents.

For example, enthusiasts will mention his 139 not out in Antigua against Malcolm Marshall, Curtly Ambrose, Courtney Walsh and Patrick Patterson and allege that no Australian of modern times could have played such an innings, and there is evidence to support this claim.

In the era when the West Indies were the undisputed kings of world cricket, between 1979 and 1991, only seven other Australians made a century against them in a result Test (Kim Hughes 100*, Allan Border 126, Kepler Wessels 173, Wayne Phillips 120, Graeme Wood 111, David Boon 143, Mark Taylor 144).

Most of these hundreds came at 51 per 100 balls or more pedestrian and the quickest was Wood, who scored his at 63 (per 100). In just his seventh Test, Mark Waugh delivered at the unprecedented rate of 74. This is the case made by admirers.

Mark Waugh

(Credit: Shaun Botterill/Allsport/Getty Images)

On the other side, there are many knockers who are prepared to highlight weaknesses. Opponents are quick to point out his overall batting average of 41.8 and confirm that this is well below that of recognised greats from the modern era, all of whom average close to 50.

Another shortcoming is the number of times Waugh had a poor series. On three occasions he averaged less than 15 (from a minimum three Tests): in Sri Lanka in 1992-93 and 1999-00, and once at home to India in 1991-92.

The really puzzling part however is that these opponents were among the weakest from that period. Unheralded bowlers like Manoj Prabhakar, Subroto Banerjee, Champaka Ramanayake, Chandika Hathurusingha and Dulip Liyanage were playing ducks and drakes with his wicket.

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To the critics, this was ample evidence that Waugh did not possess the powers of concentration that are the hallmark of an all-time great. Having watched a lot of his cricket, two particular dismissals embody this facet of his character: Lord’s 1993, bowled by Phil Tufnell for 99, and Melbourne in 1995, bowled by Muttiah Muralitharan for 61.

In both cases, Waugh was poised to reach a century and each time he chose to play one of the lowest percentage strokes known to the game, backing away to leg while trying to guide the ball past slip. Ian Chappell, in the commentary box for the Melbourne dismissal, summed it up precisely: “He does find some ways to get out, Mark Waugh”.

And herein lies the main point of contention, just how much weight should be attached to these poor performances against teams from the bottom half of the Test cricket hierarchy? Let us suspend this question for a moment and consider Mark Waugh’s record against the top four sides from this era.

If these lapses are only against the weaker opponents, then I might be more disposed to overlook such extravagance. During the 1990s, four teams were in an unofficial race for the top spot: Australia, West Indies, South Africa and Pakistan. Now throw in Australia’s perpetual nemesis, England, and we have our top four opponents. The following table lists the record of each Waugh twin against these titans.

Twin Matches Innings Runs-wickets 100s 50s % 50s Average Fursion ave.
Mark 90 150 6130-138 17 34 35.4 44.42 45.43
Steve 114 179 7473-149 22 33 32.9 50.15 49.47

Based on a large data set, the Waugh twins are practically neck and neck. Stephen has a four-point advantage in the fusion average while Mark holds a similar lead with respect to consistency, as measured by percentage 50s.

Steve Waugh

Steve Waugh. (Credit: Ben Radford/Allsport/Getty Images)

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And since Steve is recognised as Australia’s premier batsman of the ’90s, by extension, Mark was also outperforming the rest (i.e. David Boon, Allan Border, Greg Blewett, Michael Bevan, Mark Taylor, Michael Slater, and Dean Jones). This should put to bed the idea that Mark Waugh underperformed against the strongest opponents.

Moreover, there is another aspect of Mark Waugh’s batting that deserves particular attention because it explains why some critics hold him in very high esteem. Waugh has often been described as a classy or high-calibre batsman. Now these terms will mean different things to different people but when I say high calibre, I mean the capacity to perform at an exceptional level.

This doesn’t imply that a given high calibre batsman will perform at an extraordinary level, 24-7, say in the way Donald Bradman did. But rather, it implies that such a batsman can wilfully switch gears and deliver at the exceptional level.

Let us consider this concept in some detail by examining how some players manage to switch gears during a Test match. Those of us who watched the famous West Indian sides of the 1980s and ’90s will remember what awesome teams they had, and we can probably all agree that while their batsmen were always talented and dangerous, their real firepower came from an incredible arsenal of fast bowlers.

Nevertheless, these speedsters did not always appear to operate at maximum capacity day in, day out. Consider the period between 1979 and 1997 and all the instances where the West Indies set the opposition a victory target beyond 350. There were 11 such instances and the opposition responded with 224, 202, 170, 307, 234, 114, 213, 191, 208, 165 and 114.

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Now, contemplate the six occasions where the West Indians were defending a target in the much lower range of 100-200, this time the opposition reached 9-104, 5-146, 148, 184, 46 and 81.

Comparing the average opposition total in each case we have Group A chasing 350 plus averaging 195, and Group B chasing 100-200 averaging 130.

Why should teams score 33 per cent less when they’re chasing a smaller score, and does this point to some underlying factor? We can’t claim that the wickets were much worse in Group B since the West Indians had just made third innings totals of 212, 385, 283, 146, 269 and 140.

The inaugural Test between the West Indies and South Africa gives us an insight into the underlying cause. This game was played at Bridgetown in 1992 and for the first four days, it was the South Africans who were calling all the shots and they began the final day on 2-122, with just 79 more required. The stage was set for a stunning and historic triumph.

When Courtney Walsh bagged the South African captain early on that final morning, no one at the Kensington Oval could have been prepared for what was to follow. Walsh, and his partner in crime Curtly Ambrose, sent the powerful South Africans packing for the addition of a further 25 runs. On a placid wicket, the visitors had lost 8-26.

Sadly, for their opponents, the Windies just kept proving that these collapses were not an aberration but rather the norm – the Australians at Adelaide in 1993, the Poms at Port-of-Spain in 1994, and the Indians at Bridgetown in 1997 – all would discover the capabilities of Ambrose and Walsh when they decided to switch gears.

Curtly Ambrose

(Photo by Rebecca Naden – PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images)

According to Ian Chappell, one of these speedsters, and I suspect it was Andy Roberts, claimed: “It doesn’t matter how many runs our batsmen make because we will always bowl them out for less” and who is prepared to argue? An axiom among cricketers is that you never provoke a champion, the idea being that such inflammation would only rouse said player into their best form.

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The obvious implication is that some cricketers leave a little in reserve for special occasions, and I’m not referring here to your honest, hardworking Test cricketer like Geoff Marsh, Dean Jones, or Peter Siddle, nor the guys who are by nature intense and focused. Steve Waugh, Richard Hadlee and Don Bradman are names that come to mind.

So, what does all this have to do with Mark Waugh? Well, Waugh was the classic laid-back individual, he enjoyed a flutter on the horses, he was fond of delivering a one liner, and he appeared to live in the moment, basically. Here was a guy that did not take life too seriously.

More than this, Waugh was an exceptionally talented batsman so it makes complete sense that he might switch gears between laid-back and full focus, depending on the situation. With this in mind, it is worth exploring Mark Waugh’s record in a crisis. Let us see how he performed when the Australians were in trouble.

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We can ignore the first innings since the mood of a match cannot be established at such an early stage. In terms of the second innings of a match, one way to filter out situations where a team might be in trouble is to consider the state of the game at the halfway mark, assuming that the batsman under investigation made the par score of 40. Let me illuminate this concept with an example from Waugh’s career, the infamous fourth Test of the 1990-91 series against the West Indies.

In reply to the Windies’ 149, Australia finished with 134 and were now 15 runs behind after each team had completed an innings. Given that the Australians will bat last and this implies a disadvantage of roughly 50 runs, they are effectively behind by 65.

Finally, if Waugh made par rather than his 20 not out, the Australians end up behind by 45 runs. This would be the approximate state of the game had Mark Waugh scored 40. If we define a crisis as being behind by 50 at the halfway mark, this game does not qualify. In other words, when Waugh arrived at the crease the Australians were not trailing by 50.

One more example from the 1997-98 series in India. In reply to India’s 424, Australia finished with 400 and were now 24 runs behind after each team had completed an innings. Adding 50 for the disadvantage of batting last, they are effectively behind by 74 runs.

Finally, if Waugh made 40 rather than his 153 not out, the Australians end up behind by 187 runs (74 + 113). This would be the approximate state of the game had Mark Waugh scored 40. So, we can say that when Waugh came to the wicket, the Australians were roughly 187 behind and obviously faced with a crisis.

Mark Waugh from Australia

(Credit: Sean Garnsworthy/Getty Images)

Mark Waugh found himself in this type of predicament on five occasions and his scores were ten against England in 1993, 42 against England in ’94-95, 116 versus Pakistan in ’95-96, 20 versus South Africa in ’96-97, and 153* against India in ’97-98.

A crisis in the third innings is much easier to identify, with the Australians batting third the opposition loses 50 runs by virtue of batting last. If after this adjustment the Australians are still 50 behind (which means there are 100 behind on the scoreboard), then we define these conditions as a third innings crisis.

Here are Mark Waugh’s scores for the eight relevant occasions: 31 versus the Windies in ’90-91, 56 versus Sri Lanka in ’92-93, 21 against the Windies in ’92-93, 23 against India in ’96-97, nine versus the Windies in ’96-97, 42 versus South Africa in ’96-97, 21 against the Windies in ’98-99, and 57 against India in 2000-01.

Finally, to establish a crisis from the fourth innings, consider the final match result, give Mark Waugh a par score, and then see if the Australians are behind by 50. Here is an example from the final Test of the 1993 series.

Australia lost this match by 161 runs with Waugh making 49. Assuming he made par, the Australians would have lost by 170 and so Mark definitely faced a crisis in this fourth innings. Here are the eight occasions when Waugh faced this type of clutch situation: three versus the Windies in ’90-91, 49 versus England in 1993, 28 against South Africa in ’93-94, 24 against the Poms in ’94-95, 34 versus Pakistan in ’95-96, 116 versus South Africa in ’96-97, 18 against India in ’97-98, and zero against India in 2000-01.

These combined 21 innings (five from the second, eight from the third and eight from the fourth) represent all the instances where Mark Waugh faced a crisis. Now, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that these 21 occasions were extremely difficult for all the batsmen but let me illustrate just how problematic they were. The next table showcases the performances of Waugh and his main rivals on these 21 occasions.

Clutch situations: Mark Waugh and peers

Batsman Matches Runs-dismissals Average HS 100s (%) above peers
ME Waugh 17 873-20 43.7 153* 153*, 116, 116 98.0%
SR Waugh 14 407-14 29.1 67* 31.8%
MA Taylor 12 422-15 28.1 76 27.4%
DC Boon 8 318-12 26.5 83 20.1%
MJ Slater 10 307-13 23.6 91 7.0%
AR Border 6 162-7 23.1 48 4.8%
ML Hayden 6 183-8 22.9 67 3.7%
M Bevan 4 77-5 15.4 33 -31.0%
GS Blewett 8 90-10 9.0 25 -59.2%
All MW peers 17 2359-107 22.0

This is almost Bradman-level dominance from Waugh. His average is almost twice that of teammates and is 50 per cent above the next best. Then consider that from 107 attempts, no other Australian made it to 92, not one. Throw in a strike rate that’s a notch above most peers (52.2) and you have a performance that is truly worthy of an all-time great.

This analysis of clutch situations does not prove that Waugh was an all-time great, nor does it prove that he was a better batsman than his brother. However, what is does suggest is that Mark Waugh had the capacity to reach a level of performance that was beyond the reach of peers.

Consider the same clutch numbers for Australia’s finest batsmen of the past 50 years: Ian Chappell 24.1, Matt Hayden 25.5, Allan Border 28.6, Michael Clarke 30.3, Stephen Waugh 31.1, Steve Smith 33.1, Ricky Ponting 33.5, Greg Chappell 41.7 and Mark Waugh 43.7.

Allan Border

Allan Border is one of Australia’s greatest ever captains. (Credit: Ben Radford/Allsport via Getty Images)

Earlier, I posed the question ‘how much importance should we place on Waugh’s underperformance against the bottom four sides?’. As a would-be selector, does it matter how many he makes against New Zealand’s Simon Doull and Richard de Groen, or Sri Lanka’s Pramodya Wickramasinghe and Kumar Dharmasena?

Without being hyperbolic, I really can’t see how this could have the slightest bearing on the outcome given that he played in such a powerful Australian batting side. On the other hand, should selectors pay attention to Waugh’s numbers against the West Indies, Pakistan, South Africa, England, or the Indians in India? Should they bother worrying about his record in clutch situations? I shall leave this for the Roarers to decide.

However, I will offer some food for thought. Without Mark Waugh, the Australians probably lose the following: the ’90-91 series versus the West Indies, 0-3; the ’92-93 series versus Sri Lanka, 0-1; the ’92-93 series against the West Indies, 0-3; the ’96-97 series versus South Africa, 1-2; the ’97-98 series against South Africa, 0-2; and the ’97-98 series against India, 0-3. And they may even have lost the landmark ’94-95 series against the Windies, 1-2.

Many of the cognoscenti are seduced by the batsmen with huge numbers: the Ken Barringtons, the Clyde Walcotts and the Steve Smiths. But it is myopic and narrow-minded to think that greatness can only come in this form.

What about the batsman who can switch gears in clutch situations to outperform peers by a factor of two or three? Aren’t they great? What about a batsman who destroys the most dangerous fast bowlers ever seen: Jeff Thomson, Dennis Lillee, John Snow, Bob Willis, Richard Hadlee and Imran Khan, and does so without a helmet or chest protector? Aren’t they great?

I have never been a fan of the ‘churning out big hundreds is where it’s at’ philosophy. Sure, Wally Hammond-style productivity is one form of greatness but so is the ‘switch gears’ style of performer who can scale the heights when it really matters.

Mark ‘Junior’ Waugh belongs in the second group.

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