Cricket

As a man, Shane Warne was no stranger to controversy and scandal. As a cricketer, he was the stuff of legend. Now his untimely death has left millions of Australians in mourning for a deeply flawed and deeply gifted stranger they felt they knew. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Shane Warne, thanks for the memories

Shane Warne celebrates his record 700th Test wicket on Boxing Day 2006.
Shane Warne celebrates his record 700th Test wicket on Boxing Day 2006.
Credit: Jamie McDonald / Getty Images

It was almost extinct. Especially in Australia. That’s what I keep thinking about. Leg-spin was dying out, and in the late ’80s or early ’90s – when the fearsome quicks Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson were retired and canonised – the thought that Australia’s greatest ever bowler would be a spinner would have seemed absurd. Before Shane Warne became history’s most gorgeously effective practitioner, he was leg-spin’s great revivalist.

For my eighth birthday, I received a technical cricket guide from my parents that I was recently reunited with. It was first published in 1983, almost a decade before Warne’s Test debut, and after his death on March 4 I pulled it out to see what it said about leg-spin. It’s a slim book and contains perhaps only 400 words on leg-spin – “the most difficult delivery in cricket”, it warned.

But the author is at pains to encourage the young leggie. In the one tiny page dedicated to it, the author warns the budding leg-spinner three times not to be discouraged when, inevitably, they’re belted around the field. As hard as leg-spin might be, it says, there are commensurate rewards for the committed.

Early in his first-class career, Warne himself was belted around the field. His start for the Victorian Sheffield Shield team was not auspicious. Remarkably, he had only played four matches for his state before his unlikely Test selection, and you might assume from this that his immediate and conspicuous brilliance had obliged his national debut at the age of 22. It didn’t. His selection better reflected the dearth of Aussie spinners, and on debut for his country his figures were 1-150.

But Warne quickly, if erratically, established himself. A barren innings against Sri Lanka was followed, in the second, by three quick wickets. In the Boxing Day Test against the West Indies in ’92, Warne followed his first-innings figures of 1-65 with the jaw-dropping figures of 7-52. He was man of the match.

And so followed the legend-making tour of England in 1993. Before the Ashes began, captain Allan Border told Warne to withhold his repertoire in the warm-up matches against county teams. Bowl modestly: don’t declare your variety; don’t show your hand. And Warne was belted around the park.

I thought of this when reading Greg Chappell’s obituary for Warne this week. In retirement, Warne became a serious poker player, and Chappell once asked him about his strategy. “He delighted in telling me how, when he was in a new group, he would bounce around a bit in the first few rounds to give the impression that he was new to the game.”

After feigning his limitations in the tour matches, the first Test arrived. The “Gatting Ball” – better known as “The Ball of the Century” – is astonishing. Just as astonishing is the fact it was Warne’s first delivery in an Ashes series. Surely you’ve seen it. If not, please go to YouTube. Suddenly, Warne was the most famous bowler in the world. He ended the series as its highest wicket-taker, and established leg-spin as the most fascinatingly deceptive art of the game.

 

I played cricket obsessively – in clubs, on driveways, down carpeted hallways with paper balls and miniature bats. Whenever, wherever. Early on, my bowling technique was relatively advanced because most of the other kids were transitioning from T-ball. My heroes were quicks: Curtly Ambrose, Craig McDermott, and I delighted in being faster and better than the others. But as the kids around me got older and bigger, and I stayed short and skinny, my “fast” bowling became markedly slow and unthreatening. I turned to leg-spin. There was no question of off-spin. By now, Warnie had not only revived the craft, but electrified it.

For the stock delivery, it was easy enough to modestly impart some spin, but much harder to land it where it should. In the nets, I’d draw a chalk mark on the ideal spot, but even without a batsman or an audience to distract me, it was hard to nail even two balls out of six. There are fine margins in leg-spin – pitch it short and you’ll be smacked out of the park.

But I persevered – like how many others? – because of Warne. Off-spin, while easier to be functionally mediocre, bored me. It lacked the variety, the challenge, the capacity for trickery. And so alongside the standard leg-break, I developed a half-decent but inaccurate top-spinner, and a cheap counterfeit wrong ’un – a terribly disguised off-spinner. It fooled no one. And as for the flipper, well, that seemed impossible.

Warne’s bowling combined extraordinary turn (and beautiful, drifting flight) with uncanny accuracy. We had never seen anything like this. Before Warne, the assumption about leg-spin was that its difficulty – and the relatively awkward high point of release compared with off-spin – inherently guaranteed a level of inaccuracy. Leg-spin was a charming anachronism, costly and fickle.

Warne destroyed the assumption. And the sharpness of his turn – pre-shoulder operations, at least – was helped by that body of his. The broad shoulders, big chest, and massive, fleshy hands – like baseball mitts with sausages – combined to create prodigious torque. Justin Langer would later say that, if you were fielding close to the wicket, you could almost hear the ball fizz.

But alongside the sharpness of turn and the unerring accuracy, there was also Warne’s stamina. He always wanted the ball. Warne was an inveterate competitor, and all those Winnie Blues and family-sized pizzas were compensated for by his relentless competitiveness. He could bowl all day.

But there’s something else: Warne’s aura. His self-possession almost glowed. You could see it on the television. His joy, his swagger, his narcissistic gallantry. It radiated. And not merely in the audacious deliveries, or the banter, or the mischievous pauses at the top of his mark. Even in very subtle and prosaic actions – such as casually tossing the ball to himself as he trundled back to his mark; or reclaiming his hat from the umpire after an over – he couldn’t help but broadcast his faith in himself. It was all part of the intimidating Warne Show.

Later, as a commentator, Warne berated players for their poor “body language”. He was unforgivingly attuned to the bored, depressed or dejected player, and he could rarely ignore slumped shoulders or a melancholic frown. By declaring your dejection, Warne said, you were gifting the batsman an advantage. Disguise it. Own it. Fake it until you make it.

It was part of Warne’s feel for the game, and but for his indulgence and boorish indiscretion, he might have been captain. “I would say [Warne] had a better cricketing brain than me,” Muttiah Muralitharan, the only man to have taken more Test wickets than Warne, once said. “I basically depended on my ability to spin the ball, accuracy, and an ability to bowl marathon spells without tiring. That’s how I took my wickets. But Warne used to plan a batsman’s dismissal. He would set his own field and then bowl accordingly to get the batsman out.”

Muralitharan was not alone in respecting Warne’s strategic mind. The Australian leggie had an astute eye for players’ mental and technical weaknesses, and an aggressively creative mind when it came to field placements.

If only Warne could have consistently shared that insight with viewers when he was commentating. It’s not that he didn’t – Warne could communicate brilliantly about field placings and batters’ weaknesses – but that his insight was also indulgently mixed with blokey reminiscence, inane non sequiturs and capricious grudges (Mitchell Starc being a famous and recurring subject of Warne’s strange wrath).

For all of his brilliance and theatrical self-possession, our greatest bowler was also vain, thin-skinned and desperate for affirmation. At times he reminded me of Miloš Forman’s Mozart in Amadeus, the farting clown possessed of a sublime gift, and at others of Bill Clinton – powered by an enormous appetite for adulation, women and rich food.

Warne was the gifted boy who was eternally indulged, and one suspects his defensiveness has something to do with the sustained adoration. Failure and criticism disproportionately threw him. In the commentary box, he was not above bitterly defending his own besieged charity – then revealed to be profligate, maladministered and resistant to transparency – or stoking old grievances on social media. In his enthusiasm and vitality, more than one obituary referred, flatteringly, to Warne as Peter Pan, but there remained a childish discomfort with criticism.

For all that, the outpourings since his untimely death from those who knew him well – teammates and opposition batsmen alike – tell of a deeply popular and charismatic man.

Like millions who didn’t know him personally, I felt the shock, the disbelief, the sense I was dreaming when I heard the news. There were two shocks, really: one the shock at his sudden death; the other the shock at the strange depth and discombobulation of my reaction. For once, the clichés were upheld: it was somehow too bizarre to believe – and you realised how strangely tethered to us Warnie was. Thanks for the memories.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 12, 2022 as "Without Warnie".

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Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s associate editor.

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