Shane Keith Warne
In February 1998, I bunked a day of college to watch Shane Warne play at the Cricket Club of India. At the time Warne was, or so we thought, at the peak of his powers. He had just taken his 300th Test wicket - Jacques Kallis bowled for 45 when South Africa followed-on at Sydney - in an eleven wicket haul. He had 518 first class wickets to his name. His Test record read 64 Tests, 303 wickets at 23.8. For any bowler, those are world beating figures. For a leg spinner, they’re sui generis. For a leg spinner playing half his Tests in Australia, they’re impossible.
Little did I know that Warne was entering something of a mid career crisis. 5228 overs of leg spin had taken their toll on Warne’s body, and the man with the impossible figures was eventually to be confronted with a new challenge - to reinvent himself without his lethal flipper. To make matters worse, that day he ran into a Mumbai side led by Sachin Tendulkar which not only wanted to put down a marker against him, but was fueled by a particularly chauvinistic belief in India’s national mythology about bowling spin and batting against it. Spin belonged to India. The blond interloper had to be shown his place. And he was. Or at least, so it appeared.
The history of that 1998 series (and the next one in 2001) is what it is. Given DRS, it might have been different. But that day at the CCI, Warne was hammered. Batsman after batsman walked in and set about his bowling. Mumbai racked up 400 in less than 90 overs. And won. Warne never went round the wicket to the right hander in that game. He was to use that ploy in the Test series, without a great deal of success.
Warne recovered from that injury. He was to take a further 801 first class wickets at better than 27 apiece (and 299 limited overs wickets at 25 apiece) before he was done, despite losing a year to what many consider to be a technicality, and missing out on a World Cup winner’s medal. The player I got to watch that February day at CCI fooled me. In my happiness at watching the great bowler get hammered by my hometown team, my teenaged eyes failed to notice the competitor.
In that game and throughout that series Shane Warne kept trying to break the Indian batting down. He had little by way of support, but still, he bowled 167 overs in 3 Tests with the beginnings of an injury, knowing that he couldn’t bowl his flipper, at batsmen who took to him without mercy. For a bowler who, until then, had achieved the impossible in Test cricket, this must have been the nightmare to end all nightmares. Yet, never once, either in word or in deed, did Warne complain.
Some of Warne’s greatest performances came when Australia were up against it. He managed 40 wickets in the 2005 Ashes - a series Australia lost by 3 runs. Warne played in one of the - if not the - greatest Test sides of all time. It is hard not to think that this fact limited the canvas which might otherwise have been available to the great man. Imagine what might have been, had Warne played for England from 1992 to 2007. He might well have won the Ashes for England in Australia and taken a 1000 Test wickets.
There is subterfuge in spin. Spinners have to be artful, deceptive. They fox the batsman. Because of this, spin bowling lends itself to all manner of story telling. But above all, spinners have be competitors. Ball after ball after ball they must chase dismissal. The great ones make the batsman play where they want him to. Shane Warne had the batsman on a string. His iron control of length, speed, and flight, and his ability to turn the ball as much (or as little) as he wanted made him the ultimate competitor.
Much is made of the psychology of the spin bowler. Of how Warne would wait just that extra second or two longer at the top of his run to catch the batsman’s eye as he faced up before Warne set off into his delivery stride. All that counted for something only because what Warne delivered was invariably perfectly pitched. What’s more, batsmen knew that it would be perfectly pitched. It was the existence of that knowledge among the world’s batsmen which gave Warne his psychological edge.
Warne carried his capacity for artful subterfuge into the commentary box to a mixed reception (at least compared to the reception his bowling received.) But Warne, I think, understood something important about commentary. He was not there just as an expert explaining the competition on the field to the public. He was there as Shane Warne. The public expected to be entertained by Shane Warne the performer in the commentary box just as they had been enthralled by Shane Warne the master leg-spinner at the bowling crease. Warne’s capacity for hyperbole and outrage and his tendency to go down rabbit holes on commentary seemed to me to be a quest to find the performer. On the field, his masterful bowling provided a scaffold on which Shane Warne the performer could construct his act. In commentary, a comparable scaffold perhaps proved to be elusive.
He may well have invented that scaffold in the coming years. Sadly he has been denied the opportunity to do so. Fifty two is no age for anyone to go. With cricketers, one feels that they should outlive us all.
When they finally play the best of seven series - Earth v Mars, Shane Keith Warne will be a near unanimous first name on Earth’s team sheet. I’d put him as captain too. It is hard to imagine the bowler who could take his place.