Greg Bearup, in The Weekend Australian Magazine, October 9, 2020, where the title is “Different Strokes. Life after Cricket”
The office of the Steve Waugh Foundation is up the stairs and down the back of a block of shops on the outskirts of Cronulla’s CBD in Sydney’s south. The office, like the bloke, is devoid of frou-frou. It exists to get the job done and each year it distributes more than a million dollars to help kids with rare diseases. And then in walks Steve Waugh with his famous pout and his thousand-yard stare – the man who led one of the most dominant teams in the long history of Test cricket. Remember those gratifying years when humiliation of the Poms was an annual ritual, like raking up and burning leaves each autumn? “We’re not here to win friends, mate,” he once said, summing up the attitude of the team under his reign.
Steve Waugh was a towering figure in world cricket for almost two decades and then he largely disappeared from the game when he retired in 2004. He never joined the conga-line-of-captains – Richie Benaud, Bill Lawry, the Chappell brothers, Allan Border, Mark Taylor, Adam Gilchrist, Ricky Ponting, Michael Clarke – who segued into the commentary box. He was never tempted to coach or select. “I guess I just wanted to create some new memories in my life,” Waugh says of his decision to forge his own path away from cricket, “rather than just reliving the past.”
He hasn’t been idle. At one point he starts flicking through a book on the table that highlights the work of his foundation. These are some of those new memories he’s been creating: hard-fought battles, glorious innings, utterly heartbreaking and devastating defeats, and, of course, some rubbish decisions from the umpire. “That’s Renee,” he says, pointing to a small person with an oxygen tube in her nose. “We catch up every few weeks. She has geleophysic dysplasia, a rare form of dwarfism. She’s our ambassador and has been with us since the start… This guy here is Liam. He’s an amazing kid. He was never supposed to speak and last year he interviewed me in front of his whole school, in front of 900 kids! This little one here is Alyssa – my wife and I cuddled up with Alyssa the night before she passed away…”
Waugh’s life may have taken a very different route; he may have ended up in the cotton wool of the commentary box if not for an early morning rickshaw ride through the streets of Calcutta (now Kolkata) in 1996. He once revealed in an interview that the person he’d most like to meet was Mother Theresa. News Corp cricket writer Robert Craddock tucked this information away and when the team and its entourage arrived in Calcutta for the 1996 World Cup game, Craddock made some calls. “We entered a room that reminded me of an old school classroom, with wooden shutters running horizontally,” Waugh wrote in his biography Out of My Comfort Zone. “The floor space was almost totally taken up by tightly bunched sisters, all clad in pure white cloth with dashes of blue.” And then the tiny Mother Teresa appeared – he almost tripped over her – and they were introduced for a few moments of chit-chat. “Her face was wrinkled and weathered, yet soft and welcoming and she radiated a tremendous inner strength and sense of compassion.” Mother Teresa handed Steve Waugh her business card: “The fruit of silence is prayer,” it said. “The fruit of prayer is faith, the fruit of faith is love, the fruit of love is service.”
Waugh is not a religious man but in that brief time in Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying he was inspired by this woman who had devoted her life to others. “From that moment on I thought if I ever get the opportunity I should do something to emulate her work,” he says. Two years later, when he next played in Calcutta, a note was slipped under the door of his hotel room asking him to visit a school on the outskirts of the city, a home for children whose parents suffered from leprosy. The fruit of love for Steve Waugh would become service. India would spark his awakening.
The ‘Big Tree’ ground off the Yamuna Expressway near Vrindavan, Utta Pradesh. Picture: Steve Waugh from the book Spirit of Cricket: India
“Steve was always different from the other cricketers,” says Trent Parke. “He was interested in everything outside of cricket. He wanted to learn about the culture and the people. He had a passion for photography. He was interested in the world.” Parke had been a gifted junior cricketer, a spin bowler selected by the Australian Cricket Academy with ambitions to play for his country. His main rival, however, was a budding Shane Warne and so he ditched cricket to pursue his other obsession, photography.
In 1996, Parke was a young and intense photographer on tour with the Australian cricket team. On days off from cricket Steve Waugh would often tag along behind Parke as the pair meandered through the streets of India with their cameras, absorbing and documenting the mayhem. “He had a curiosity,” says Parke. “He’d be constantly saying, ‘Why are you doing this’ and ‘What makes that a better picture than this?’” Parke, who was with Waugh the day he met Mother Teresa, would go on to become one of our most celebrated photographers, the first Australian invited into the prestigious Magnum photo agency. And Waugh, well, he’d score 10,000 Test runs.
Last year, Parke got a phone call out of the blue from the former captain. Waugh had an idea. He wanted to go back and photograph cricket in India in all its guises for a book, The Spirit of Cricket – India. And he wanted Parke to accompany him, to be his photo coach. It’s a bit like doing a sketch tour of Europe and having Ben Quilty peering over your shoulder, offering tips. “I had no interest whatsoever,” says Parke. “None… but then Steve can be very persuasive.” And so, in January this year, Parke found himself on one of the weirdest assignments of his life.
Waugh first went to India in 1986 under the captaincy of Allan Border. He played in the famous tied Test in Madras, where the late Dean Jones defied the stifling heat and a dodgy stomach to grind out an epic double century. Since then Waugh’s been back “probably 60 times for sport, business and philanthropy”. He realised pretty quickly that his working-class upbringing in Sydney had been incredibly privileged. The team arrived in Bombay (Mumbai) and ever since that first bus ride from the airport to the hotel – with the smells, the beggars tapping at the windows, the buffalo in the streets, “the massive bombardment of the senses” – he’s been captivated by India.
The feeling is mutual. Steve Waugh is a revered figure on the subcontinent. “There is no Australian who is better known in India and better respected and loved in India,” says Darshak Mehta, an influential Indian-Australian businessman who is chair of the Chappell Foundation. “In India there is this fascination with this man – he was captain of Australia, a great batsman – who was willing to mingle in the streets. He was not afraid to meet the sufferers of leprosy… he is deeply in love with the country and that is reciprocated.”
Waugh tells me that for years he’s wanted to go back and do a proper photographic tour. “I wanted to capture through the lens what cricket means in India,” he says, “because it is a religion over there. I wanted to capture not just the players but the people around the game and how Indians are so fanatical about the game.” And he wanted to produce a beautiful book with stunning photographs, so he took along Trent Parke. “I wanted to surprise people with the quality of my photographs.”
He approached the project with the same determination he would a Test series – this was no lads-on-the-piss tour. It was intense. Early this year the pair travelled to nine cities in 17 days, taking photographs from first light until dark, in the slums, on the beaches. They had an audience with Sachin Tendulkar. They documented women cricketers, disabled cricketers and the monks of the Himalayas, tearing in like Thommo on an uneven pitch. “We were getting four or five hours’ sleep and then we’d be up on a flight or a bus to the next place,” Parke says. Waugh, he adds, was always remarkably calm, possessing a wry sense of humour. There were times when they’d be swamped by hundreds of fans. “I was struck by how incredibly cool he is in those situations.” Another time they were being driven at breakneck speed through Indian traffic on a freeway. “I remember holding onto the Jesus handle being terrified,” says Parke. “Steve was sitting in the front seat calmly chatting away to the driver and making jokes.” Whenever he’d swerve between lanes to overtake, Waugh would say: “Look out, he’s off for another quick single.”
All the while, Waugh was picking Parke’s brain. “Photography is about emotion and anticipation,” the photographer explained to the cricket legend. “It is about putting yourself in a place before a photo happens.” Like setting a field, forecasting where a batsman will sky a ball. “It was actually quite amazing watching him,” Parke says of his pupil. “I’d been banging on about light the entire time and how you can turn something ordinary into something magical just by the way you use light… it is actually something that is very difficult to teach.” About 10 days into the trip Waugh said to him: “I get it. Light, I get it. I finally understand what you are talking about.” And when Parke saw the frames he’d taken he said, “You’ve got it, mate. You’re on track.”
“It was a learning tour for me,” says Waugh. “I’d watch Trent, watch how he would set up a scene and then just be patient, waiting for something to come into the photo.” He bombarded him with questions. Did he have the right settings? Was he in the right spot? How’s this composition? Parke says the most important trait Waugh had, apart from enthusiasm and good timing, was a feeling for his subjects. “He really does have genuine empathy,” he says. He’d take his photos and then, inevitably, there’d be selfies with fans, signatures and a game of cricket. “He always made sure he gave something back… he was really genuine in this aspect.”
The result is a coffee table book with a couple of hundred photos in it – probably too many, but there are some wonderful images. “I think that is the interesting thing about Steve,” says Parke. “That he didn’t go into commentary or coaching, that he’s still out exploring the world and he has a burning desire to be the best at other things, like photography, and that he has a hunger to produce a great body of work.”
In Kolkata, they visited a school called Udayan. On the wall of a girls’ dormitory at the school is a stone plaque that reads “The Foundation Stone of Nivedita Bhavan (Udayan Girls Wing) was laid by Steve Waugh, Australian Cricket Captain and Patron, Udayan, on July 21st 1998.” The bland inscription underplays the immense difference this has made to the lives of hundreds of girls.
The Spirit of Cricket — India
And it all came about by chance. Or fate. Or destiny. Early in 1998, the Australian team had been annihilated by India at Calcutta’s Eden Gardens, beaten by an innings, which meant the five-day test was reduced to four. Waugh had a spare day in the city. The note had been slipped under his door inviting him to visit a school on the outskirts of the city. It was a note like many others he’d received in India, asking for help. He could have ignored it. He could have relaxed by the pool nursing a beer, along with his team mates. He decided to get out and explore.
The kids at the school came from a nearby lepers’ colony and were the children of people suffering from leprosy. Most of their parents were beggars – the only work available to them. The kids lived on campus and Waugh saw they were getting a good education and were well nourished. “The children were playful, mild-mannered and appreciative of their environment,” he says. But he noticed it was only for boys. He asked if he could visit the community where their families lived. It was on the drive there that he asked why there were no girls at the school. He was told the boys would be the breadwinners and so it was more important they be educated. Many of the girls, he was told, would be sold into prostitution at a young age.
And then he arrived at the colony. “We turned sharp left into a black hole of depression, a place that looked like the marrow of life had been sucked out of it… this was the most basic means of living I had ever seen, with minimal hygiene and no real hope of escape.” He met a young woman – a mother of three – distorted by leprosy. He asked her what she looked forward to in life. “Nothing,” she said. Waugh walked around the squalid camp looking into the eyes of the young girls, knowing the dreadful future that awaited them. His own daughter was 18 months old. “That was a lightbulb moment,” he says. “I couldn’t just pretend I didn’t hear what I’d heard. I had to do something for the girls.”
The money he raised built a dormitory that houses 100 girls. In the two decades since, many hundreds of girls have been given an education that has allowed many of them to study teaching or nursing and to lift themselves out of the degrading poverty that was their destiny. “I made a commitment to raise money for them, to not forget about them,” he says. “And to visit when I could.” Twenty-two years later, he’s still sending cash to India. He visits every chance he gets.
In the space of two years Waugh went from being captain of Australia to full-time carer for his wife and, effectively, a single parent
Throughout his years playing cricket Steve Waugh always kept a diary to remind himself of what it was like to fulfil his childhood dream of playing for Australia. And then in 2006, just two years after he retired, he sat down in a hospital ward and again began jotting notes, this time recording the bleakest period of his life. “It was my way of coping,” he tells me, “and so that she would have a memory of it.” His childhood sweetheart, Lynette, the mother of their three children – then aged 10, six and four – lay unconscious in the hospital bed having suffered a massive stroke that caused a bleed on her brain the size of a peach. She was 40. For a couple of days her life hung by a thread. “The pain of watching is crippling at times,” he wrote in his diary, “but I know she can feel me beside her and I must feed her strength not pity.”
Lynette tells me that in the weeks after her stroke she had no real comprehension of what had happened but knew things were serious when she looked into the bathroom and saw her husband sobbing at the sink. She hadn’t seen him cry in the 20 years they’d been together, “apart from when the babies were born”. Her full recovery would take seven years. She had to learn how to talk, how to read, how to use a telephone, how to cook… her entire life was thrown upside down. She’d always been an independent woman who’d run the house and raised the kids while Steve was away for eight months of the year playing cricket. And then she was entirely reliant on him to look after her and the children. Now, whenever she’s asked what her husband has been doing since he retired from cricket, “My first response is ‘looking after me’.” There were some bleak days, she says, but there was never any doubt that her husband would be there for her. “He’s 100 per cent dependable.”
Steve Waugh having a coaching session with child prodigy Shayan Jamal. Picture: Trent Parke/MAGNUM PHOTOS
In the space of two years Waugh went from being captain of Australia to full-time carer for his wife and, effectively, a single parent. “I’d always been in control of things,” he says. “I was good at cricket and good at sport, not that it all came easy, but it was natural. Then all of a sudden I’ve got this life-confronting situation with my wife and three young kids to look after and it was all totally out of my control.” Everyone, he says, was looking at him to take charge, to be the captain, and that’s exactly what he did. “You’ve just got to do what you’ve got to do to make things right,” he says. “There’s no point whingeing and complaining about it.” Was there ever a time, I ask, when you thought I don’t know if I can do this? “No,” he replies in that brusque manner of his. “Never. Someone had to stand up because everyone was struggling with what had happened and I had to put on a brave face and be in control.”
And so, apart from looking after Lynette, Rosie, Austin and Lilli, what else has Steve Waugh been doing since he hung up his tattered baggy green? Well, he’s done a lot of writing – he’s penned 14 books (some were tour diaries, published before he retired), all written in longhand in notebooks before being transcribed and edited. His biography sold 230,000 copies, while his last book, The Meaning of Luck, which was self-published, sold 98,000 copies. All up he’s sold more than a million books. “I made more money out of publishing than I did out of cricket,” he says. He’s represented companies with corporate interests in India, he’s on the speaking circuit and he’s involved in “a lot of entrepreneurial stuff in business”.
“I see cricket as almost like a previous life,” he says. “It was 15 years ago. I’d done that – and I wanted to move on to different challenges.” One of those new challenges was setting up the Steve Waugh Foundation in Australia with the aim of helping children with extremely rare diseases. It came into being after he and Lynette did some charity work at Westmead Children’s Hospital and they came across kids with conditions they’d never heard of. They realised many of them were slipping through the cracks of the health system and, because their diseases were so rare, there were no support groups or associations to turn to. “It’s a bit like the leprosy kids in India,” he says. “The kids we support are the orphans of the health system. Without hope and without support.” The charity occupies about “20 hours a week” of his time, more for his wife.
Why, I ask. What drives you to spend half your working life helping others? “I dunno,” he says. “I guess it’s just in the DNA… I guess someone had to step up to the plate.” There must be more to it than that, I insist. It is tough at times, he admits, because many of the kids with rare diseases will die young as most of the diseases are incurable. “But I love seeing these kids who’ve been doing it tough break out and achieve their full potential and do things they never thought they were capable of… some kids walk, some kids talk… our aim is to allow them to be as good as they can possibly be. You are changing kids’ lives and giving them hope and for me there’s a huge sense of satisfaction. It’s pretty powerful.” Sport, he says, gave him lifelong memories; charity gives him life-changing moments.
Lynette says their aim was for the foundation to become like a big family. “We wanted to remain in contact with every family and take a holistic approach,” she says. They’ll continue the work for as long as they can. “I don’t know if Steve told you but last year I had a second stroke,” she says. She was recently in hospital again after she “just collapsed” and they are still trying to work out why. “So, I’m a one-year-at-a-time person.”
Steve says they keep going because they’ve made a commitment to people like Karen Titterton and her son Liam, who has a rare disease that affects his motor skills and his speech. Liam is now 17 and the foundation has supported him ever since he was a pre-schooler. “When he was three,” says Karen, “intellectually he was fine, but he couldn’t get the message out.” He needed a communication device that would allow him to speak, but it cost $16,000, and the government wouldn’t fund it. “They said communication wasn’t important.” A social worker pointed them towards Waugh’s foundation. “We put the paperwork in and they approved it in 48 hours.” Since then the foundation has helped them out with around $100,000 worth of equipment including standup wheelchairs and communication devices. “Basically, they’ve allowed my son to walk and talk,” Karen says. It’s given him independence.
“Steve and Liam hit it off 12 or 13 years ago, when he first came over to have a look at his communication device,” says Karen. He and Lynette stayed at the house for three hours and Steve and Liam played a bingo-like game called Zingo. Liam kept beating Steve. “I said to Lynette, ‘Is Steve letting him win?’” Lynette said her husband never lets anyone win, not even his own kids. Liam made a sign on his forehead in the shape of an L. “I thought, shit, my son is calling Steve Waugh a loser.”
Steve, she says, has been kind and generous to her son. “Liam’s got Steve’s phone number and he texts him all the time about things that are happening in his life. He always responds, even when he is out of the country. They have a lovely relationship.” He is, she says, “just so genuine, he really cares about Liam and all the other kids that he helps.” And so she gets “really pissed off” when Waugh’s former team mate, Shane Warne, comes out in the media and describes Waugh as selfish. “I get really, really angry. We see what he is like and how generous he is.”
Every few years, Shane Warne will have a dig at his former captain. The animosity dates back to 1999 when the champion spinner, returning from shoulder surgery and in poor form, was dropped by Waugh for the last Test match in the West Indies. Warne never forgave him. His criticisms are backed by another former captain, Ian Chappell, who has labelled Waugh the “most selfish Australian cricketer” he has ever seen. Warne and Chappell argue that Waugh played to increase his average rather than playing for the good of the team. They say he failed to protect his tail-end batsmen, and that he was prone to run out his partners to save himself. This may seem trivial but as Waugh says in his biography, for a cricketer to be labelled selfish “is tantamount to being accused of treason”.
Earlier this year the Cricinfo website posted the curious statistic that Waugh had been involved in a record 104 run-outs – 27 times in Tests and 77 in one-day internationals. Of those 104 instances he was run out 31 times while his partner was dismissed 73 times. Warne, delighted with this ammunition, tweeted: “Steve was easily the most selfish cricketer that I ever played with.” Cricket writer Geoff Lemon analysed these dismissals and found that Waugh was involved in a lot of run-outs because he’d played a lot of innings. Lemon found that many of the run-outs had come in the “death overs” of one-day matches and that Waugh was at fault “in well under half” of them. He also concluded that “trusting his lower-order colleagues got Waugh and the team better results more often”. Waugh had some mighty partnerships with tailenders – 147 with Merv Hughes at Headingley, 130 with Geoff Lawson at Lords, 88 with Stuart MacGill at the MCG, 133 with Jason Gillespie at Eden Gardens and even some great innings with Warne. “I don’t get it,” Waugh says to me. “Warnie and I were great mates when we were playing… I think it says more about him than it does about me.”
Waugh’s hero Mother Teresa had her critics too, including the writer Christopher Hitchens, who claimed the nun was more interested in spreading her fundamentalist Catholic beliefs than she was in helping the poor. But as Hitchens’ friend, author Alexander Cockburn, noted: “Between the two of them, my sympathies were with Mother Teresa. If you were sitting in rags in a gutter in Calcutta, who would be more likely to give you a bowl of soup?”
The Spirit of Cricket – India is available at stevewaugh.com.au. An exhibition of his photographs will be held at Playbox, 21 Oxford St, Paddington, Sydney, Oct 31-Jan 11.
GREG BEARUP …. Greg Bearup is a feature writer at The Weekend Australian Magazine and was previously The Australian’s South Asia Correspondent. He has been a journalist for more than thirty years having worked at The Armidale.
NOTE: the article was ilustrated with some striking photogaphs but technical embargoes prevent me from reprouding them in this site — with one exception [god knows how come!!]