The state memorial service for cricketer Shane Warne juxtaposed the personal grief of immediate family with a boisterous public celebration of a life lived large. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Loud, indulgent and fitting: Shane Warne’s MCG memorial

Elton John performs via video link during the Shane Warne memorial service.
Elton John performs via video link during the Shane Warne memorial service.
Credit: James D. Morgan / Getty Images

Down on the field, the VIP’s chairs were arranged around the MCG’s cricket pitch, which had been touchingly appointed with stumps and a red Kookaburra ball. David Boon, the former Australian batsman, now sat in roughly the same place he had stood back in 1994 when he took a brilliant diving catch to seal Shane Warne’s sole hat-trick – the first in an Ashes series for almost a century.

In the heart of Melbourne, more than 50,000 people had gathered here to observe one of our country’s more eccentric state memorial services. The MCG was Warne’s home ground, and his favourite, and the site of more than one of his many iconic moments. There was the hat-trick, of course. There was also the 7-52 bag against the West Indies in ’92. And there was the history-making 700th Test wicket 14 years later.

It was also the place where, in 1999, Warne’s charismatic influence was famously conscripted by an anxious England captain. Aggravated by booze and a soporific day-night match, the restless crowd of Bay 13 rained golf balls and beer bottles down upon the England fielders. Fearing for the players, and recognising that the police seemed powerless, the umpires considered ending the game.

It was then that the England captain, Alec Stewart, beckoned Warne from the Aussie change rooms to come and assume the role of diplomat. Warne nervously obliged. He surrendered his dinner – a Big Mac and fries – and raced down to the field, cheekily wearing a batting helmet, and gestured for the crowd to cease fire. It worked. The missiles stopped and play resumed. “He was the king of the MCG,” Stewart recalled. “A god in these parts.”

The famously rowdy Bay 13 is gone now, and Warne’s family requested no alcohol be sold at the service, but there were echoes of the old section when MC Eddie McGuire’s acknowledgement of the prime minister inspired a small pocket of boos. Naturally, there was debate about the appropriateness of this. So it goes. If there was to be a breach of decorum at a state memorial, it would have been at this strange and often irreverent one that straddled rock concert, public memorial and Irish wake.

But if there was strangeness and irreverence, as befitted the man and the venue, the service was also bookended by the sobering grief of Warne’s family. Warne’s father, Keith, spoke first, and we were reminded of the grotesque and unnatural injustice of a parent burying their child. “Friday, March 4, 2022, the darkest day in our family’s life,” he said. “It was a day that our son, Shane Keith Warne, was tragically and suddenly taken from us … Looking forward to a future without Shane is inconceivable. We do take comfort in knowing that Shane packed more in his life of 52 years, five months and 19 days than most people would in two lifetimes. Shane loved life and lived for sport.”

At the end of the service, Warne’s three children spoke in turn. After all the music, light roasting and taped celebrity tributes of the preceding two hours, the obvious grief of the three young and fatherless adults was bracing. They walked to the stage while Bryan Adams’ 1980s pop hit “Summer of ’69” played.

“That song, ‘Summer of ’69’, was the song that played on Wednesday, the second of March, two days before your passing,” Warne’s youngest daughter, Summer, said. “And the last time I saw my dad. You were coming to pick up your bag you needed for Thailand. And as I opened the door you came inside and had your car door wide open blaring that song. You started dancing and singing with true happiness all around you. With the smile that lit up the whole room. We both started dancing with not a care in the world, and couldn’t stop laughing with each other. Looking back on that memory now, it is so incredibly special.”

These eulogies – these obvious reminders of a very real grief and very real relationships – contrasted with the public’s own real, but relatively distant, shock, nostalgia and saint-making, and served as emotional ballast for a ceremony that could variously be flashy, superficial and creakingly sentimental.

The ashes of INXS and Noiseworks were revived by some old players and session musos, for “Never Tear Us Apart” and “Take Me Back”. Fronting them was veteran rocker Jon Stevens, who resembles a silver-haired Tarzan, and as he sang, powerful spotlights strafed the sky as if searching for the Luftwaffe. It was loud, preposterous and faintly masturbatory – and I reckon Warnie would’ve loved it.

There were not one but two panels, where each man took turns relaying an anecdote most had shared many times on the sportsman’s dinner circuit. It felt almost surreally clumsy, and, endearingly, former Test captain Allan Border seemed deeply uncomfortable with it. “What’s the one word you would use to describe Shane?” the panel host asked the famous old cricketers, and I had to avert my gaze from something that suddenly felt like a terrible mix of a job interview and an improvised bit from cricket broadcasters during a rain delay.

On another panel, and seeming vastly more comfortable with it than Border, was Sam Newman, characteristically vibrating with anarchic energy, and who flirted with scandalising himself and the service when he joked about the pictures Warne had shown him – “I hope someone has impounded [Warne’s] phone so that no one can see what was on it” – before retreating from the ledge and sharing some yarn about a golf game in which metric and imperial measurements were confused. There were a lot of golf anecdotes that night.

Newman offered the night’s most amusing moment when he expressed surprise – on behalf of most of the audience, I think – that one of the night’s speakers had been a representative of the United Nations.

One of Joe Biden’s speechwriters, Jeffrey Nussbaum, told me years ago that a eulogy should tell us something we didn’t know about the deceased. That wasn’t going to happen tonight: We “learnt” that Warne bowled brilliantly – and loved darts, booze, golf, fast cars and loud music. But then, the night wasn’t about intimacy or revelation. It was about celebration. It was about cementing the icon of Warne.

And so there were maudlin clichés, rehearsed yarns, and the elevation of quite ordinary things – such as texting a sad mate, or offering an autograph to a disabled boy – as proof of saintliness. Robbie Williams, Elton John, Ed Sheeran and Coldplay’s Chris Martin prerecorded songs dedicated to him. In one of countless celebrity tributes shown on the MCG’s jumbo screen, Greg Norman remembered him as “one of the best human beings I’ve ever met” even if, as he told us three times, he hadn’t met him that often.

If the string of celebrities grew wearisome for me, more tiring were the frequent (and redundant) references to Warne’s having a string of famous mates. The repetition of this admiration seemed to betray something silly and trivial in our exaltation of the man. How cool would it be to have heaps of famous mates, like Shane?

The night was meant as a celebration of Warne, which it was, and a reflection of his easy and unpretentious status as a “man of the people”. No solemn cathedrals and hymns; no citations of Yeats or Shakespeare. But beyond his family, it was mostly multimillionaires who were offering their smiling tributes to camera, and I wondered how many “ordinary” folks this man of the people had in his life towards the end.

The night ended with a glitter-suited Anthony Callea singing Andrea Bocelli’s “The Prayer”, while an orchestra supported him and the crowd waved their now sparkling smartphones. But there was more. A countdown followed in the now darkened stadium – the descending numbers blinking on the jumbo screen – before multiple spotlights trained themselves upon the freshly renamed Shane Warne Stand.

So, perhaps the night wasn’t pretentious – just often loud, indulgent, ostentatious and singular. Which, I guess, means it was perfect.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 9, 2022 as "Good lines and length".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription