Knowing when to quit, when to leave the stage for the final time, is the hardest thing in sport. The more you try to prolong things, to prevent Father Time’s inevitable victory, the more you can be sure that the game will make a fool of you. No one is immune: just ask David Seaman. At the very moment the corner dipped over his pony-tail you can bet your life that Seaman wished he had taken Ronaldinho’s hint in high summer.
In their 37th years the same question is now facing both Steve and Mark Waugh, the twin pillars of Australia’s dominance for a decade or more. Apparently, Mark is the more vulnerable of the two. Will he gamble on the selectors’ patience, hoping their traditional ruthlessness is tempered by a career spanning 127 Tests, more than 8,000 runs, six centuries against the old enemy and the fact that he can catch flies at second slip' Or will he recognise that time is catching up — his repeated failures in the current series against Pakistan and the dropped catches — and go before he is pushed'
My feeling is that the selectors will persevere for now with Mark. If there was a thrusting young buck pushing him then the situation might be different, but his touted replacement is Darren Lehmann, himself 32 years old. Lehmann has played only five Tests and averages 12.25 against England. England’s bowlers will not have forgotten how Lehman looked as nervous as a kitten in Melbourne and Sydney four years ago, his normally assured footwork frozen, and his expansive stroke-play cramped by the pressure of the occasion.
Either way it is a win-win situation for England. If Mark is retained they will not mind bowling at a player whose gifts may well be on the wane, and the management can express some surprise at the lack of ruthlessness of the Australian selectors and start to undermine public confidence in them as well as Waugh. Steve’s situation, though, is more clear-cut: the Australian captaincy is not a thing to be relinquished lightly, and Steve is not known for ducking a fight.
He can take heart from the public backing of Australia’s coach John Buchanan, who on Friday spoke warmly of his achievements and record against England and his vast experience. Steve is and has been a leader of note for his team; in a way he has encouraged Australia to change the face of Test cricket with their increasingly aggressive batting, and players like Justin Langer and Matthew Hayden put their recent successes in part down to the faith that Waugh has shown in them.
In a way, however, although support from your teammates is nice, it is irrelevant for the outsider does not know if that is what they really think. A close and united team will never leave a mate hanging out to dry. The last time a similar crisis occurred with the Australian captaincy was in 1997 when Mark Taylor suffered a horror trot with the bat. Similar noises emanated from the Australian camp then, but I know that one or two of the younger players felt that Taylor’s time was up.
Unsurprisingly, Richard Pybus, the Englishman coaching Pakistan, takes a different view from Buchanan. He feels the presence of both Waughs in the middle order is now a weakness rather than a strength, that the Australian selectors will soon have to contemplate some tough decisions and that the end of an era is imminent. He may well be right, although after he had seen his own team capitulate for 59 and 53 in the second Test, you may have thought he had more pressing matters closer to home.
Steve will probably fight on, hoping to find inspiration in his wonderful record against England (he has nine of his Test hundreds against them). Waugh sees himself in the Allan Border mould, a hard man who leads from the front. It is a style of leadership that demands runs to be successful. It is only a year ago that both Waughs were pulverising England at The Oval. Realistically, physical attributes in an athlete do not decline so quickly: I have no doubt that there is little difference in their hand-eye co-ordination, fitness and reflexes from 12 months ago.
The mental side of things, however, is a wholly different matter. Each time Steve gets blasted away first ball, doubts will surface and he will start to question his own reflexes. Each time Mark drops a catch he will demonstrate that, like Seaman, safe hands do not always remain so; it will eat away at his confidence which, with each batting failure, will become ever more fragile.
Ultimately I expect both Waughs to play in Brisbane on November 7. If they do, England must concentrate not on them but on a way to consistently break the opening partnership between Langer and Hayden. If they manage that then they will expose both Waughs to the new ball and fresh bowlers. Australia’s hard outer shell may suddenly reveal a soft underbelly: the chinks in the armour are definitely there for the first time in a decade or more. Do England have the self-belief to exploit them'