The tiny hunched frame and gnarled hands of Mother Teresa are etched in former Australian cricket captain Steve Waugh’s memory. Eager to see the realities of life in nations such as India and Pakistan in his playing days, he met Mother Teresa at her Kolkata mission in 1996.
That encounter and her aura of calm sparked an idea that maybe he could emulate her charity work in some small way, Waugh, 48, said in an interview in Sydney. In March 1998, after losing a five-day test match with a day to spare, Waugh visited Udayan, a rehabilitation clinic for children with leprosy or whose parents suffer the disease.
“It was something I saw which I couldn’t just dismiss and pretend I didn’t see,” Waugh said. “I just had my first daughter and I found out the girls from a young age in leper colonies would basically have to sell themselves on the street to make money for their parents.” It was then that he decided to raise funds for a girls’ wing of the clinic.
Sixteen years on, Udayan shelters 100 girls. Waugh’s foundation now also raises money for children with rare diseases and has helped support more than 200 families in Australia. His decision to eschew the standard transition from player to network television commentator and instead embrace philanthropic challenges mirrors his famed steely determination at the crease.
“The kids in India really didn’t have a voice, no one was in their corner,” said Waugh, whose duels with rivals like 201-centimeter (6 feet-7 inches) West Indian fast bowler Curtly Ambrose were a feature of test cricket for 18 years. “Rare diseases and leprosy are really confronting. But I think I like these charities because they are against the odds and doing it tough and a lot of people shy away from them. That’s what attracted me.”
Waugh traces his journey into philanthropy from his time in cricket, a sport played in many developing countries. He recalled on his first tour of India being confronted by a woman holding a dead baby asking for money. Waugh said he came to love exploring the “back alleyways” of nations he toured.
Waugh’s charity efforts have been echoed by former teammates Glenn McGrath, who raises money to fund nurses caring for sufferers of breast cancer after his wife Jane died of the condition in 2008, and Ricky Ponting, whose foundation supports young Australians and their families battling cancer.
Australia was seventh on the 2013 World Giving Index, with two thirds of its people donating money in an average month and a third involved in volunteer work, according to the U.K.-based Charities Aid Foundation. Over five years, Australia trails only the U.S. on the index.
Waugh’s foundation in Australia focuses on rare diseases, and describes their victims as the orphans of the health system: without diagnosis, treatment or research and, as a result, without hope. There are 7,000-8,000 known rare diseases and between 6 percent and 10 percent of the population is likely to have one. Some 30 percent of rare disease sufferers die before age 5, according to Waugh’s website.
“I learn a lot from the kids and their parents,” Waugh said. “The way they go about life and their attitude. They do it a lot tougher than us.”
The foundation holds a major event every two years for corporate groups to raise funds, and marks the final day of February as World Rare Disease Day. Waugh said he has deliberately “flown under the radar a bit” with the foundation to ensure his operation is working smoothly. “It’s pretty low key. But I guess it’s my style.”
Cricket is the dominant summer sport in India, Pakistan, West Indies, England, South Africa, Bangladesh, Australia, New Zealand, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe, representing about a quarter of the world’s more than 7 billion people. India, the world’s second-most populous nation, is the dominant financial player in the sport, with its fans swamping Waugh when he is recognized.
Even so, Waugh said he tends to raise money for his Indian charity work from outside the country.
“I think a lot of Indians don’t trust charities because in the past it’s been an area where money’s been laundered and inappropriate things have happened, so there’s not a lot of trust in a lot of charities in India,” he said.
Support for charities in Australia is “pretty healthy,” Waugh said, while noting the public is becoming more discerning. “People aren’t giving to two or three charities now, they’re just going to give to one. They’re doing more homework on where their money’s going now, not just handing over a check and saying do whatever you want. They want to see results.”
Waugh, who last year self published a book “The Meaning of Luck” recounting his views on leadership and character, said a good leader sometimes needs to listen more than talk.
“You can’t expect other people to follow you if you’re not prepared to do the hard yards,” he said. “You’ve got to be respected. It’s nice if you’re liked. But I’d rather be respected than liked if I had a choice.”
Waugh’s championing of the underdog reflects his tenacity on the field, a resolve that frequently led to match winning or saving innings. His belief in “character over cover drives” is also reflected in the players he most admires.
“If someone says their favorite cricketer is Brian Lara, I go ‘well I like Simon Katich,’” said Waugh. Katich played 56 tests for Australia from 2001 through 2010 and was known for his dogged batting style. Lara, who made the highest score in the game’s history, played 131 tests from 1990 through 2006 and was renowned as one of the game’s most stylish strokemakers.
“I like people with fire, and who don’t necessarily show, but just do their job without talking about it,” Waugh said. “I think that’s what led to these kids who I’m working with in India, they really didn’t have a voice, no one was in their corner, you sort of want to represent or help those people.”