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Why don’t more Indian cricketers get involved in charity work, wonders Steve Waugh, who keeps returning to India for his charity commitments
In March 1998, Shamlu Dudeja, 68, honorary director of the Calcutta Foundation, was watching the telecast of an India-Australia Test match at Kolkata when she caught Australian cricketer Steve Waugh get run out on 80. Dudeja was struck by the fact that the Australian, though clearly disappointed, did not hurl abuses or spit on the ground or question the umpire’s decision in any way. Coincidentally, she remembers, “That morning, I had read a newspaper interview in which Waugh said he was interested in doing charity.”
A couple of days later, on an impulse, she wrote Waugh a letter, and asked her driver to drop it off at the reception desk of the Taj Bengal hotel. It was the fourth day of the Test and Australia was heading for defeat and Dudeja wrote, “By the time this letter reaches you, the match will be over. But don’t despair! There is probably the hand of God in this. So, tomorrow you will have the day off. Instead of going to the Tollygunge Club to have a drink and play a round of golf, why don’t you come and see one of my projects?”
The next morning at 9.15 am, Dudeja received a call. It was from Waugh. Within 15 minutes they were on the way to Udayan, a centre for the rehabilitation of children of leprosy victims, on the outskirts of Calcutta. At the time, the centre had a wing for boys that could house 300 and needed funds to build a girls’ wing. The boys immediately recognised Waugh and started shouting, “Steve, Steve!” An impromptu cricket match was organised and one of the youngsters became an overnight hero when he clean bowled Waugh. Later, a moved Waugh pledged to dedicate himself to the cause, because, he said, it felt like the right thing to do. “And that is how Steve’s association with Indian charities began,” says Dudeja.
Eight years later, Steve Waugh, now 41, and retired from cricket, is still busy helping other people. This time, it is at Patan, a village near Lonavla, where Habitat for Humanity is building 100 homes for the underprivileged. He is one of 2000 volunteers from around the world. Even though it is an extremely hot morning, Waugh, wearing a yellow bandana, goes about his work with unwavering concentration.
As he sips on a Diet Cola, I ask him how he landed up at Patan. A few months ago, he says, George Macdonald, the CEO of Habitat Australia, who he met at a charity event, told Waugh about the Patan project. “I said it sounded like a good idea, and I’d like to get involved,” he recounts.
Macdonald tells me he contacted Waugh because “of his interest in working for charities and for his popularity in India.”
Yes, Waugh is popular and is increasingly spending a lot of time in India. He has set up The Steve Waugh Foundation in India, has business partnerships, appears in advertisements, gives talks and writes for Indian newspapers. So what is it about India that draws him? “India is so vibrant and never boring. It confronts all your senses and makes you feel alive. Besides, the people are so friendly,” he explains
But not all Indians have a social sense, especially our cricketers. “I am a little surprised by it,” he says. “More Indian cricketers should become involved in charity work. Because if they get involved, they can have a massive impact on a charity.”
Wilting under pressure
Which is true. But for the past six months, they are also failing to leave an impact on the cricket pitch. I ask him the inevitable fan’s question: why do Indians wilt under pressure in matches? He says a friend of his described it this way: Australian kids are usually put at the back of the bus, because they tend to make a lot of noise and can be unruly. The Indian children, on the other hand, always sit at the front and are well-behaved. “If someone takes a go at the Australians, they’ll fight back,” he says. “Indians are gentle and humble. They don’t like a confrontation—except on the roads.”
Former wicketkeeper Nayan Mongia, who has played against Australia many times, says, “I don’t agree with that statement. I think we Indians are aggressive enough. But, of course, compared to Australians, who are very, very aggressive, we do come across as mild.”
Waugh, who Mongia calls, ‘gutsy’, is one of Test cricket’s most successful captains.
And he is also one of a small group of players who has made a smooth transition to the post-playing era. He says he does not miss the excitement that competition provides. “I can get my adrenaline flowing by setting up a charity or by playing with my kids in the backyard or watching them play football or do ballet,” he says.
But, in the end, he concedes, there is nothing “that can replace the feeling of playing in front of 1,00,000 people in a Test match at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata.” Still, he points out, “You have to move on. You can’t live in the past.”
By this point in our interview, I’ve finished my list of prepared questions and am asking impromptu ones. Suddenly I go blank: a question hovering on the tip of my tongue is unable to make the journey to the outside of my mouth. A few seconds pass in silence.
“That’s pressure, mate,” says Waugh and grins. “Now you know what happens to India when they have to score six runs in the last over of a World Cup final.”