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An Ode to Our Warnie: No.2 Shane Warne

‘Shane Warne, Shane Warne, you are a big flirt.’

He was in a trough at the time. Fresh off the back of the so-called ‘Final Frontier’ series defeat in India, during which he’d taken ten disappointing wickets at a disappointing 50.50 average, Warne was standing at third man about thirty metres from where I was sitting. It was 2001, the first one-dayer, late in India’s innings, and Warne’s ten overs were over and he’d been pasted for 58. The M. Chinnaswamy Stadium was alive in a way no cricket stadium in Australia is ever alive. The crowd pulsed with every nudged single, screamed home every boundary. In my part of the stadium the noise was particularly high-pitched, because I’d talked my way into Bangalore’s ‘Ladies Stand’. The idea behind gender segregation was to free Indian women from male expectations, to encourage them to express themselves while not sitting beside husbands, fathers, brothers. And women had flocked in their thousands, singing and chanting, egging each other on to flirt ever more outrageously with the innocent Australian reporter trying to tell the story of their stand. Only one other man was within earshot: the greatest leg-spinner in cricket history.

‘Come on ladies, all together! Shane Warne, Shane Warne, you are a big flirt.’

The ladies delivered loudly and with impeccable coordination. The Chinnaswamy’s noise levels dropped, as if even the men in the stadium were temporarily drawn to what was happening behind third man. Warne adjusted his hat and walked in with the bowler.

‘Shane Warne, Shane Warne, you are a BIG FLIRT.’

Again he refused to divert his gaze. He must have been feeling flat. Photos had been published of him in a training-session spat with the coach John Buchanan in Chennai. Some pundits reckoned that after his bowling in the first two Tests he shouldn’t have been picked in the third. And now he, and Australia, were getting smashed in the pyjama stuff.

But these women were persistent. At the instigation of a policeman’s wife named Larshmi they broke into a Hindi love song, ‘The Heart is Very Indian’. With jealous husbands, fathers and brothers booing from the neighbouring stand, they merged it seamlessly into one last rendition of ‘Shane Warne, Shane Warne, You Are a Big Flirt’.

They’d done enough. Warne turned around, flashed a smile that one day would be so much whiter, and blew the women of Bangalore three flamboyant air kisses. The entire stand bounced to its feet, cheering. ‘Shane Warne has blown us flying kisses!’ beamed a girl, Prathiba, pretending to catch one. ‘Here in India we like him very much. He is so lovely, your Shane Warne.’

***

He is our Warnie. His presence at the top of his mark, spinning a ball from hand to hand, zinc cream across his nose and blond hair blowing in the wind, was as reassuring to Australian fans as it must have been demoralising to batsmen. If the pitch wasn’t turning, survival was difficult; on a turner, it was near impossible. The combination of spin, flight, control, endurance, disguise and physical intimidation was like nothing ever seen. Even after his non-wicket-taking balls Warne would make an ‘O’ shape with his mouth, as if in total disbelief that the batsman had kept it out. ‘Bowling Shaaane.’ Back to his mark. Do it again. A brisk, straight approach; the economical stride and pivot, the rip and grunt; a ball fizzing in its circumvolutions at a volume almost audible to the public watching at home. ‘Bowling Shane.’ Again, and again, and again. Drip, drip, drip. Forty thousand seven hundred and four times in Test cricket—and surely a lower percentage of bad balls than any leg-spinner to have played the game.

Warne also knew a thing or two about timing. As surely as Don Bradman’s climb to superstardom in 1930 was a panacea to a country in the grips of Depression, the coming of Warne threw open the shutters on a game grown musty with sameness. It wasn’t that the era of West Indian domination hadn’t been good to watch. Malcolm Marshall’s opening spell of the Perth Test of 1984–85 was as terrifying as a perfectly sculpted Hollywood splatter flick. Awestruck thirteen-year-olds wondered not whether the Australians would survive until stumps, but whether our boys might get out of there alive. Unfortunately those days were just about gone, and such cricket-as-bloodsport heights were not obtainable by rank-and-file four-pronged seam attacks. Samey bowling line-ups dawdled through samey days. Cricket needed something. Almost nobody predicted that the something would be a chain-smoking, canned-spaghetti-eating, blond-tipped leg-spinner from Black Rock.

Shane Warne and his mother Brigitte in December 1991. Photo: Newspix

Legends abound that Warne ‘came to leg-spin late’; that he was ‘a hard-hitting middle-order batsman who bowled handy medium pacers’; that he was ‘first and foremost a footballer’ who wasn’t particularly ambitious about his cricket. None of this is particularly true. Although Warne did aspire to be a full-forward or centre half-forward for St Kilda Football Club, he and his leg-breaks were simultaneously starring in junior cricket. One day in Year 9, after bowling for a combined Nepean XI against the exclusive boys’ school Mentone Grammar, Warne was immediately offered a sporting scholarship to Mentone—because he was a leg-spinner. ‘I knew schoolboys couldn’t play leg-spin,’ says the school’s 1st XI coach at the time, John Mason. ‘I told the master that if we could find a good leg-spinner, we could win premierships.’

Mason watched at close quarters no less a schoolboy cricketer than Barry Richards back in his native South Africa. His first extended view of Warne was on a pre-season trip to Tasmania. Warne took three top-order wickets in his opening spell and Mason dashed off the ground, gushing to the schoolmaster: ‘All wrong’uns! He got all three with wrong’uns!’

Spearheaded by Warne, Mentone won the premiership that year and nearly backed it up when he was in Year 11. For his final summer at school he was named captain. He dominated games, including one memorable match against Marcellin when he took 6 for 21 and 4 for 52 to bowl Mentone to an outright victory, a formidable achievement in two-day, 65-overs-an-innings cricket. Pre-match, Mason and Warne had discussed the toss’s importance to their prospects of winning outright. When the coin came down Mason was disappointed to see it fall the wrong way. Enter Warnie. ‘Immediately,’ Mason remembers, ‘Shane pointed out that the coin had landed on an angle in the grass. And, while apologising to the umpires and the opposition captain, he returned the coin to the umpires for a re-toss.’

Here’s another furphy about Shane Warne’s schooldays—‘one of the myths about Shane,’ says Mason, ‘is that he was a complete rebel. He wasn’t. He was house captain and he was also captain of cricket. We wouldn’t have made him captain if he was an out-and-out rebel. I was always sorry he didn’t make captain of Australia, because he was a natural leader. The effect he has on people—he had the ability to inspire others and give them a sense of their own ability.’

At school Warne was called ‘Twistie’. Team-mate Paul Baird remembers the nickname being coined on a Nepean under-16s tour to Shepparton, when Warne scratched his soon-to-be-much-blonder hair with one hand whilst holding a cheese Twistie in the other. ‘We realised,’ says Baird, ‘that his hair was a dead-set colour match to the Twistie. “Strawberry blond” he called it.’ Baird also recalls his personal struggles against Warne in the local Sandringham nets. ‘I was getting very cross at Shane one afternoon because the balls he was bowling were turning and bouncing so much that they simply couldn’t be hit in any constructive way. “You’re ruining it,” I said to him. “Can you please bowl your mediums so I can actually get some practice?”’

Baird singles out one game as Warne’s ‘arrival’: against Yarra Valley Grammar in 1986. ‘Shane was in Year 11, and on a bowler-friendly wicket he made a counterattacking 86 to rescue us from four for not many to a defendable schoolboy total of 120-odd. Then, after Yarra Valley shot away to 0 for 80, I threw him the ball and he bowled unchanged to take 6 for 20-odd and we won by ten runs. We went on to be undefeated that year.’

His coach and accounting teacher in Year 12 was another South African, Barrie Irons. In accounting class Warne impressed with the tidiness of his figure-work. ‘It wasn’t always right,’ says Irons, ‘but it was always very neat. Shane took great pride in what he was doing.’ As a cricketer he was ‘a colossus … Unlike a lot of spinners he was an athlete. He turned the ball, and he was such a competitor in everything—bowling, batting, and especially with his field positions. He went into every match confident we could win it outright, and he radiated this confidence to his team-mates. He would have made a very good Australian captain. He just needed to not have a telephone.’

***

Warne meandered his way to the cricket academy in Adelaide via a failed footballing stint at St Kilda, a season of club cricket in England, and a mother lode of cheese sandwiches and beer. Coach Jack Potter was struck instantly by Warne’s self-assurance and sense of mischief. ‘He walked into my office as if it was his office—walked in, big smile, sat down. He gave the impression that the world revolved around him a bit. Then again, he was such a nice, friendly sort of kid that you couldn’t growl at him.’

Even so, Potter did occasionally have to turn disciplinarian. ‘Early on,’ says Potter, ‘I caught Shane smoking, and I said, “Shane, this is a publicly funded elite sports institution. If I catch you smoking again, you’re out.” Warne’s response was to offer a cheeky smile and say, “Then you won’t catch me.” And I never did.’

In a sports magazine segment that Potter still has on videotape, a teenage Warne with a lead guitarist’s blond mullet chats easily with the camera: an early portent to the media fluency, to the knack of dispensing charm, that continues to pour out of him and to serve him well. ‘I got to know him,’ Potter says fondly, ‘and I got to like him.’ And he adds:

Once, we were going up to Darwin and Shane was sitting next to me on the plane. I told him that one way to get the attention of a girl is to go up to her and say, “And yourself?” Everywhere we went in Darwin, he would walk up to people and try it out—“And yourself?” He had this warmth, this sense of humour … He was liked by the other academy kids too. Maybe a couple were a bit jealous because he’d arrived late and because of the attention he attracted, but he was generally a popular kid.

And when it came to turning a cricket ball, he was a good student. He could already control his leg-break and spin it ‘a mile’ when Potter sent him away to practise his ‘other one’. ‘After a week or two of bowling a tennis ball down the dorm corridor,’ says Potter, ‘Shane came up to me and said, “Come to the indoor nets, I’ve got something to show you.” He then unleashed these near-perfect top-spinners.’

Damien Fleming, a future Test team-mate, went on a youth tour of the Caribbean with Warne in 1990. ‘He spun his leg-break but he didn’t quite have his flipper,’ Fleming recalls. ‘And yet, it’s funny—he was already this big personality. It was almost like he was a star and he wanted the attention but his game wasn’t quite up to it yet.’

Sixteen months later he earned a Test call-up and a mauling from the bat of Ravi Shastri. A year after that he was routing West Indies at the MCG and stupefying their captain Richie Richardson with his flipper. And on the 4th of June, 1993, Warne ambled in to bowl his first ball in a Test match in England.

***

It is possible to get lost in the hype around the Gatting Ball. As I searched YouTube for a refresher, I wondered whether it had pitched on or about the popping crease, breaking nearly square behind Mike Gatting’s legs. Then I found it—and it is actually more beautiful for the fact that it didn’t do any of that. It’s a conventional leg-spinner, drifting away and then tearing back across the batsman to clip the top of off stump, Warne’s stock-in-trade for fourteen seasons, although delivered with the effortless pivot and snap that typified the years before his shoulder started to degrade.

What stamped it as perfect theatre was Gatting’s reaction—‘it was as though someone had just nicked his lunch,’ joked Graham Gooch of his rotund batting partner. Gatting was entitled to feel cheated. The ball started wide of leg and wobbled further away: what physicists term the Magnus effect, and what cricketers call ‘giving it a rip’. To a delivery pitched that wide, any decent player of spin, which Gatting was, would be looking to tuck bat behind pad and kick the ball away. But the turn was too severe, too fast. The forgotten aspect of the Ball of the Century, and the true augury of the champion career to come, is that Warne bowled a carbon copy in his second over. This time Robin Smith did well to get an edge. Two wickets in eight turbocharged balls. ‘He came off those Ashes,’ Fleming remembers, ‘and it was fair dinkum like Merv Hughes or Dennis Lillee bowling leg-spin. It was as if he’d always wanted this attention; and now, with the spotlight on him, he thrived.’

For us fans, watching Warne became the greatest show on turf. Between 1994 and 1998 seven of us would drive from Melbourne to Adelaide every Australia Day, because one Warne Test match a summer wasn’t enough. Harves, Mattster, Pete, Jeff, Wadey, Phil and I would stay at West Beach Caravan Park, and the reliability of Adelaide’s Australia Day heatwave meant we never ever pitched a tent. In 1995 I saw every ball of the Test, only to miss the deadly Warne flipper that bamboozled Phil Tufnell and finished England’s second innings—because a snack bar-bound woman had stood up in front of us to enquire of her husband whether he wanted a Snickers Bar. The moment is now canonised in Adelaide Trip history as ‘the Snickers Bar incident’. For the record, the husband refused the Snickers Bar. Warne, I suspect, would have said ‘yes’.

It was so much fun watching him. In an era when batsmen were raised believing a flipper to be a talkative, crime-solving dolphin, Warne carved them to pieces. On one occasion his anointed bunny, Daryll Cullinan, was fielding out deep in front of the Adelaide Hill. A group of fans began droning … ‘Daaaryll, Daaaryll’ … matching the exact intonation of Bart and Lisa heckling Darryl Strawberry in a famous episode of The Simpsons. Cullinan turned around, told the crowd to ‘get fucked’, and returned his attention to the game. A broken man, he went on to average 44.21 in his Test career, 12.75 against Australia.

Confronting the spectre of Warne was half the battle. ‘There were times,’ says Fleming, ‘when I used to watch England, New Zealand and South African batters just blocking half-volleys. You’d think, he’s always going to get five-for; they should at least make him go for a hundred.’

But collaring Warne—a feat Indian batsmen managed, on occasion—was easier said than done. Towards the end, when a shoulder injury didn’t leave him with much of a flipper, he had four differently shaped leg-breaks. And in a Channel Nine masterclass with Mark Nicholas in 2006 he explained his famous control. After offering some fascinating technical insights (relax your grip, ‘think high’, ‘spin up’, follow through), Warne said he didn’t aim for a particular spot on the pitch; rather, he thought about the shapes he wanted to induce in the batsman. ‘I think about what shot I want the batsman to play …  Do I want him to go back and defend? Do I want him to come forward and drive? Do I want him to sweep? … That allows me to bowl exactly where I want, rather than focusing in on a spot. I’ve got my plan, and then I just have to execute it to get the batsman out.’

Australia’s ten (at the time of writing) post-Warne spinners must laugh at the casual way he throws out those five little words: ‘Just have to execute it.’

***

To quote Gideon (paraphrasing Norma Desmond) Haigh: ‘Warnie is still big; it’s the cricket that got small.’

A musical (long-running), a TV tonight show (short-lived), commentary spots, promotional burgers, talking figurines, poker tournaments, hair growth miracles, the Rajasthan Royals, Simone, Liz, not Simone, not Liz … It’s 2011, nearly five years since he last played a Test match, and Warnie is bigger than ever. Given the off-field soap opera of his life, yielding scandals in such diverse fields as cavorting with bookmakers, performance-enhancing drugs, cheating on endorsement contracts, cheating on a spouse—as well as his pioneering, genre-defining work in what is nowadays known as ‘sexting’—you might be forgiven for thinking Australia might not have forgiven.

But there is something about Warne that draws him back to us. It’s not just his inarguable sporting greatness; Adam Gilchrist, Glenn McGrath, Ricky Ponting and Steve Waugh all had that, yet none have been grabbed as part of the nation’s cultural property the way Warne has. My view is that there is an openness about Warne, a desire to be liked, a warmth, a willingness to give of himself, that means he genuinely is liked. Loved even. Jack Potter and Warne’s schooldays coaches talk of him surprising them with his efforts to secure them match tickets. He has his charitable foundation, and he was one of the first to sign up for this year’s Christchurch earthquake benefit match in Wellington. In a profile for the Monthly, entitled ‘Beach Boy’, Haigh recalled reading a book while waiting for Warne to finish shooting a TV advertisement:

When Warne arrived he asked what I was perusing. I explained it was an account of the hurricane that destroyed Galveston in 1900 and its role in the development of accurate weather forecasting. Warne nodded. ‘I read this book once,’ he said. ‘It was about UFOs.’ At the time, I winced slightly; on reflection, I found the remark endearing. Most sportsmen wouldn’t have bothered asking what I was reading, let alone trying to form a reply. Warne seeks a connection with people. It has often been commented that he needs you to like him. He also, I think, wants to like you.

When Eddie Perfect wrote Shane Warne: The Musical, Warnie—despite the certainty that his failings, even his marriage, would be lampooned—turned up. He turned up on opening night and timed his front-page Herald Sun endorsement (‘extremely entertaining and with some excellent songs that have been well thought out and delivered in a fun way’) to maximise ticket sales.

On Twitter, @warne888 gives more of himself than the average celebrity, offering up tweets such as: ‘Never give up on anything or anyone! Forgive someone that has upset you and you can get what you want—if you really want it—sorry Mick.’ He has, as I write this, 466,007 followers. Of resident Australians, only former prime minister @KevinRuddPM has more. Some might be there for the peeks into Warne’s scandal-drenched life. At the height of the Liz Hurley media circus a cheeky Warne tweeted, ‘PS for the record—my so called big delivery to my house was not a mattress it was a coffee table, sorry to disappoint!’, then followed up with, ‘Where is the sexiest place to take Elizabeth for lunch? Suggestions please? Chapel St? Crown? And no—not for spaghetti on toast!!!’

But what attracts me is his zest for detail. He tells us how much he hates unstacking the dishwasher. He marvels at the rate at which his kids go through pool towels. He posts pictures of Nayan Doshi, a Rajasthan Royals team-mate, with thirty-one pieces of chewing gum stuffed in his mouth on the team bus. My favourite series of Warne tweets occurred on a Saturday, 5th of March, 2011:

‘Slept good & looking forward to making pancakes for the kids breakfast. Then swimming and making jelly with them later—a good day ahead.’

‘Thanks for suggestions, winner looks like butter/honey and sugar. Made medium size thick ones—is it showing off flipping them in pan?’

‘As I said, blue ribbon ice cream is best but not always available … so creamy … Yum … Might have pancake with ice cream after kids—shhhh.’

‘Just tried to flip a pancake—oops … Let’s try that again. Kids saying dad stop trying to flip. More determined now. Flipper time!!!!!’

‘Last attempt at flipping one—going for a lot more wrist action—behave!!!! Keep you posted …’

‘Nooooooooo!!!!!!!!’

‘One small step for pancake in fry pan—one giant leap for SW … Yes yes yes!!! Never give up—keep trying is my lesson of the day. Content.’

By coincidence, I was also making pancakes for my kids’ breakfast that Melbourne morning. Warne’s crosstown heroics even encouraged me to attempt a flipper or two—the penalty being a splash of scalding butter on my right wrist; the reward being awestruck admiration from my two pre-schoolers and a feeling of kinship with Australia’s greatest leg-spinner. He has that knack, does our Warnie.