You better lose yourself in the music, the moment, you own it, you better never let it go. You only got one shot, do not miss your chance to bat, this opportunity comes once in a lifetime.Kerry O’Keeffe channelling his inner Eminem – ABC Grandstand 2003
Day Two of the New Years Test of 2003 will be forever remembered for its last ball, which saw Steve Waugh bring up a famous century. Not lucky enough to be one of the 41,931 in attendance at the SCG, one of the most enduring memories I have of this day is Kerry O’Keeffe’s commentary on ABC Grandstand. Sensing the significance of Waugh’s innings early in the day, O’Keeffe turned to the lyrics of Eminem to express the opportunity in front of the Aussie skipper.
Despite his team having retained the Ashes and leading the series 4-0, Waugh would have been forgiven for thinking the weight of the world was on his shoulders. In leading the Australians onto the SCG for this match, he drew level with Allan Border on a record 156 Test Matches but there was no guarantee he would be selected for a 157th. Just 12 months after losing his position in the ODI team, his grip on a position in the Test team appeared extremely tenuous. Australia’s Chairman of Selectors Trevor Hohns was cagey when asked about whether Waugh would be on the plane to the West Indies later in the year. “Our position remains unchanged,” he told enquiring reporters pre-match. “The ball’s in Stephen’s court. We will be reviewing the situation after the Sydney Test.”
While his twin brothers’ retirement was acknowledged with a pre-match lap of honour, the Waugh left standing would not countenance his own cricketing mortality. In the face of intense media speculation and questioning, he remained defiant. When asked if one century in his last 16 Tests warranted his position in the team, his answer was as icy as he had once been bowling at the death in One Day Internationals. “I’ve made two in my last 17, three in my last 20,” he answered curtly. “Whichever way you want to manipulate the stats.”
The only hint of concession was when he admitted that the constant speculation had an impact on him. “For just one minute put yourself in my position and see how it feels,” he said. “The opinions and the amount of coverage I”m getting…….you, too would find it uncomfortable.” The fighter in him wan’t far away though, asked what his career’s defining moment was his response was equal parts defiant and prophetic. “The defining moment? Maybe this match.”
With Australia missing the services of both Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne for the first time in 101 Tests, it was no surprise that England skipper Nasser Hussain elected to bat upon winning the toss. That and having made what Wisden described as ‘one of the costliest decisions in history’ when asking Australia to bat first at the Gabba in the opening Test of the series and conceding 492 runs. On this day it would be the Australians ruing missed opportunities with Damien Martyn and Stuart MacGill spilling chances that let England off the hook after early inroads.
For a big first day crowd keen to cheer on their home-town hero, the stubborn resistance from the visitors did afford them a rare chance to see Waugh bring himself into the attack. Having made Robert Key play and miss a number of times in the over, his sixth delivery moved subtly off the pitch and wrapped the Englisman on the pads. When the resultant appeal was affirmed by the umpire, the full house at the SCG roared in appreciation of Waugh’s 91st Test Wicket. Those in attendance similarly late in the afternoon the following day would be treated to an even more incredible moment in the Aussie Skipper’s career.
It was fitting that his storied innings would begin with the Australian innings in disarray, given a Test career of rescuing his team from similar situations. With Matthew Hayden, Ricky Ponting and Justin Langer all back in the dressing room, Waugh strode to the crease to join Damien Martyn in the middle with the score just 56 in reply to England’s 362. Never more comfortable in the middle that when in the midst of a street fight, this was a tailor made scenario. Waugh was never going to be quietly marched to the gallows, he was going to fight for his life and relish every minute of it.
Settling into his task he combined with Martyn for a 90 run stand before the Western Australian’s scratchy innings was brought to an end by Steve Harmison. Martin Love came and went without bothering the scorers to bring Adam Gilchrist to the crease. Another player who had made his name by thriving in the time of crisis, Waugh couldn’t have asked for a better partner to stand beside him in the fight of his cricketing life.
As he had time and time again throughout his previous 17 years of Test Cricket, Waugh belligerently dealt with the best his opponent could throw at him. When the bowlers erred straight he worked them off his pads to the boundary square, when they were too wide his cut shot was used with ruthless efficiency through point. With an off-drive he brought up his fifty, an opportunity for the fans to rejoice but one Waugh only briefly acknowledged. Enlivened by the scrap and the task at hand, his hunger for the fight was anywhere near sated.
Nor was his accumulation of milestones, requiring just 69 runs to join Sunil Gavaskar and Allan Border in Test Cricket’s 10,000 run club, Waugh was quickly within touching distance. Then with a devastating cut shot, there was again cause for the crowd to rise for their man in acknowledgement of his ascension to this small group of cricketing greats. Their thoughts as they did so, like those watching at home or listening to Kerry O’Keeffe’s Eminem homage to Waugh on the radio, must have quickly turned to the fact he was now within sight of a fairytale century. With this realisation, an already electric atmosphere intensified as the SCG and the nation as a whole willed the under-fire skipper to three figures.
By the final over of the day the crowd was at fever pitch with Waugh on 95 and facing the less than threatening off-spin of Richard Dawson. Having been unable to score off the first three balls, a three off the fourth seemed to have consigned the conclusion of the afternoon to anti-climax. The cosmic fairytale scriptwriter was having none of that though and when Gilchrist managed to work the fifth ball for a single, it meant Waugh was on 98 and on-strike for the final ball of the day.
Hussain did his best to play villain, ensuring the moment was drawn out for full nerve wrangling effect, consulting with his bowler for an interminable amount of time to confirm field placements for the final delivery. Finally happy with the field and the strategy, Hussain moved into position and Waugh took guard while the nation held their breath.
Dawson darted in a delivery fast and flat outside off-stump and, to the great delight of almost everybody watching, Waugh played at the ball and punched it through the cover region to the boundary. Almost as one the SCG crowd rose to their feet as the significance of the moment dawned on the man at the centre of the action. As the ball made its way to the boundary he leaped into the air in exaltation like an immense burden had been lifted from him.
In reaching triple figures, he registered his 29th Test Century a significant milestone in that it brought him level with the incomparable Sir Donald Bradman. In the space of a memorable afternoon he was able to simultaneously answer his critics, write his name alongside cricketing royalty, and resurrect his team’s innings.
Rather than the farewell innings many had feared, it was a signature moment in the twilight of a glittering Test Match career. Like he had been throughout his time under the baggy green, he was at his most dangerous when backed into the corner. While he was ultimately unable to will his team over the line in the match, his century did afford him the opportunity to determine the terms upon which he would leave the game.
Despite being 155 Tests, 28 Centuries, and 10,931 runs into his Test Match career, Waugh still had a defining moment ahead of him. On a glorious afternoon at the SCG, he refused to let his opportunity slip and created a moment that will be long live in cricket folklore.