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(CRICINFO) It’s the 5th of January, 1992. A chubby young Victorian stands in the middle of the SCG and flicks the ball from one hand to the other, his fingers ripping as much turn as they can from the leather. A splodge of white zinc-cream covers his nose, a mullet of blond hair adorns his head. He looks like the kind of bloke who enjoys a beer, a cigarette and a pizza. That’s because he is the kind of bloke who enjoys a beer, a cigarette and a pizza. He looks as much an elite athlete as John Daly. But remember, John Daly won the PGA Championship six months before.
At deep cover stands another Victorian, this one fit and lean and vastly experienced. The young bowler is on Test debut; his older team-mate is playing his last Test series in Australia, though he doesn’t know it yet. It’s not going well for the Aussies: India are 397 for 4. Sachin Tendulkar is at one end, on his way to another unbeaten hundred, and en route to 15,000 Test runs. Ravi Shastri has a double-century. Tracer bullets are peppering the boundary boards.
The young leggie comes in and tosses up a delivery that drifts in, drops and spins away from Shastri, who tries to loft the ball down the ground but miscues, and skies it to deep cover. The Victorian veteran runs in and takes the catch; the spin rookie is relieved to have his first Test wicket. Thirty years later, they are gone, Dean Jones and Shane Warne both having died overseas in their fifties, suddenly, unexpectedly and far, far too prematurely.
But while the cricket world is consumed with an overwhelming sadness at Warne’s early death, it is intensely thankful for his contribution to the game. That moment – Shastri, c Jones b Warne 206 – was the beginning of something extraordinary. Something unique. It was the first of 708 Test wickets, a tally that has since only been surpassed by Muthiah Muralidaran, and which might never be bettered by anyone else.
Warne was the first to reach 700 Test wickets, a milestone that once seemed unfathomable. But judging Warne on statistics alone is like assessing Shakespeare based on how many plays he wrote. It misses the point. Warne was one of the few people who truly changed their chosen art. When he arrived, legspin was a dying skill. He single-handedly revolutionised it, made it popular, and weaponised it.
In the hands of Warne, legspin was a danger the likes of which cricket hadn’t seen before. When he stood at the top of his mark, adjusting the field, ripping the ball from one hand to another, intimidating the batter through the power of his aura, anything could happen. He could bowl the world’s best batters around their legs, or squeeze out a flipper to trap them in front, or deceive them with drift and drop.
When he bowled, you watched. You didn’t have the cricket on in the background while doing the vacuuming or catching up on your paperwork. Warne bowled every delivery with intent, so you watched with intent. Spin bowlers are the illusionists of cricket. Their art is sleight of hand. But no matter how closely you watched Warne, you could never work out how he did what he did. You just sat back and enjoyed the ride.
Just as important as his immense skill was his charisma. His apparently unwavering confidence. He believed he could take a wicket with every ball and he projected that belief so strongly that viewers and opponents believed it too. Just ask Daryll Cullinan. He was convinced he could win a game from any position, even if nobody else really thought it was possible. Exhibit A: Adelaide, 2006, when England started the fifth day one down and 97 runs in front, only for Warne to bowl Australia to an unthinkable victory.
That Adelaide win fits neatly in a catalogue of Warne’s finest moments, but it’s a big catalogue. Of course, everyone remembers the “ball of the century”, when, with his first delivery in a Test match in England, Warne turned a ball further than the width of Mike Gatting to clip the top of leg stump. Never has a cricketer planted his flag more immediately and more vividly than Warne did with the Gatting ball.
There was the hat-trick, taken against England at the MCG in 1994. There was his 700th Test wicket, also at his home ground, 12 years later. There was his dominance in the 1999 World Cup, the first of Australia’s three consecutive tournament victories. There were his heroics in a losing cause in the 2005 Ashes in England, when his 40 dismissals topped the wicket tally with daylight second and Andrew Flintoff next on 24.
The sum of the parts of Warne’s career is almost infinite, and yet the whole is greater still. Every spin bowler who has come along since Warne has been, in some way, is his shadow. But Warne always fought in their corner. When he commentated, he argued passionately for the spinners to be brought on. To be used as a weapon. Even if they were a smaller calibre than Warne – and, really, everyone was – he believed in their ability to cause damage.
As a thinker on the game, Warne was as sharp as they come. He led Australia in 11 ODIs but in Test cricket, he was the greatest captain Australia never had. While commentating, time and again he would predict what was about to happen and suggest a tactic, always reading the play correctly. Always one or more steps ahead. He even did it while miked up and bowling in the BBL.
When it came to the health of the sport, he was a forward thinker, open to new ideas, and a champion of the T20 concept. Two years ago, he observed how important it was for cricket to come up with a plan to survive the challenges of climate change. Faced with facts, he was not one to bury his head in the sand and think of the good old days.
Of course, he was far from perfect. Very, very far. Controversy seemed to follow Warne everywhere. His reputation was tarnished by the controversy that arose in 1998, when he and Mark Waugh were revealed to have given pitch and weather information to an Indian bookmaker. Then there was the year-long ban he served after failing a drug test ahead of the 2003 World Cup, which he claimed was due to a fluid tablet his mother had given him.
And there were the sex scandals, the tabloid headlines, the constant fascination with his private life. Why? Because he wasn’t just a cricket star, he was a superstar. We tend to think that pop culture means music and film and television, but sport is a massive part of pop culture as well. And Warne was, by any definition, a pop-culture icon. At its peak, the fascination with his life rivalled interest in the royal family.
Warne had a musical written about him. He was engaged to Liz Hurley. He briefly hosted a TV chat show in Australia. He played a Shane Warne impersonator on the comedy series Kath & Kim, one of the biggest Australian TV shows of the 2000s. He had a cameo on Neighbours. Mick Jagger, Elton John and Ed Sheeran have posted on social media about their devastation at his death.
Meanwhile, fans have left tributes at the statue of Warne at the MCG. Someone left a can of beer, a packet of cigarettes, and a meat pie. That sums up Australia’s relationship with Warne. Yes, he was flawed. Yes, he mixed with megastars. But he was always still the chubby kid from Melbourne’s outer suburbs, born to Keith and Brigitte Warne in 1969. Australians watched him soar, but they also saw him as down to earth.
Mike Hussey, in his book Mr Cricket, recalled that as he prepared to walk out for his first Test innings in 2005, he was called over in the Gabba dressing rooms by Shane Warne. Standing in the bathroom in his underpants, relieving himself, while a cigarette hung out of his mouth, Warne gave Hussey some advice: “Be yourself.” If ever the medium was the message, that was it.
Warne was the unconventional, unknighted larrikin who joined Sir Donald Bradman, Sir Jack Hobbs, Sir Garfield Sobers and Sir Vivian Richards as one of Wisden‘s five Cricketers of the Century. Note that he is the one of the five who was primarily a bowler. Cricket is, so often, a batter’s game. Not when Warne was involved. He wasn’t a once-in-a-generation cricketer. He was a once in all generations cricketer.
It’s hard to imagine the cricket world without Warne in it. But then, it was hard to imagine music without John Lennon, or the royal family without Princess Diana, or basketball without Kobe Bryant. True icons leave holes of iconic proportions. But still, the world turns. Australian cricket goes on in Rawalpindi. Cricket existed before Warne and it exists after him. But few people have left such an indelible mark on the game.
Warne was a cricketing genius. You can’t do him justice with mere words. It’s like using interpretive dance to sum up Albert Einstein’s contributions to science. All you can do is sit back and marvel that such a person existed. And be thankful to have witnessed a genius at work.