In 1998 I was at my uncle’s home for dinner and talk invariably turned to Australia’s upcoming tour to Pakistan. After weighing Pakistan’s chances for well over an hour my uncle announced judgement. As a barrister from Lincoln’s Inn, he certainly had the gravitas for bold proclamations.
“The only way Pakistan will win is if Shane Warne breaks his ankle,” he intoned. “Gentleman let us pray that he breaks an ankle or a leg.”
It was a portentous statement, and prayers were answered though it was a shoulder injury and not ankle. Warne didn’t play but the rest of bowlers ran through Pakistan to give Australia their first Test series win in Pakistan since 1959.
My uncle was a stoic man and hearing his rather emotional and slightly irrational words made me wonder. Was Warne really that scary? Of course, my uncle had seen Warne torment England Ashes after Ashes first-hand and knew his game.
I knew about the “Ball of the Century” and had seen him bowl in the 1996 World Cup, but Australia didn’t play two matches and Warne was upstaged by Jayasuriya and the marauding Sri Lankans.
Using numbers to define Warne is like using sound wave theory to define Mozart’s symphonies
Soon after Warne suffered a shoulder injury and Stuart McGill became the first-choice spinner for Australia. “Warne who? McGill the new spin king”! screamed a newspaper headline.
But Warne made everyone eat their words and from then on many of my favorite cricket moments revolved around him. The Australia-West Indies of 1999 had him facing Lara in his imperious pomp. He had lost his googly by then but everything else was utter perfection.
There was massive spin which defied the laws of physics. There was magical drift that came laden with a sorcerer’s spell. The flipper, stung, spit and bit when it landed, throwing up dirt and pieces of the pitch in its furious revolutions. The ball would whirr and purr as it moved and then teased and tortured the batsmen till the inevitable happened. Bowled, leg before, stumped or caught, often at Warne’s choice.
Through the early 2000s Warne scythed through sides. Two series stand out, both Ashes which is poetically correct since he announced himself in one.
The 2005 Ashes was touted as Shane Warne versus Kevin Peterson, and it did not disappoint. Match after match, Warne struck crucial blows. Deprived of Glenn McGrath and facing the best English side since the 1970s, Australia held on almost till the end only because of Warne’s 40 wickets at less than 20 apiece. A dropped catch off Peterson lost the series but Warne had held the old nemesis in the palm of his hand all summer.
His swansong came in 2006 in his homeland as Australia went on to taken sweet revenge and decimated England 5-0. Warne was rumbling and cutting like he had but much to Ricky Ponting’s and rest of the world’s disappointment, he announced his retirement at the end of the 2006 Ashes.
The numbers and accolades astound. One of Wisden’s top 5 cricketers of the 20th Century, only bowler to be included. 708 Test wickets, second highest ever. A decade and a half of pure dominance. But using numbers to define Warne is like using sound wave theory to define Mozart’s symphonies. Simply put, Warne put the coolth into spin bowling. A peroxide blonde bowler who would nonchalantly amble to the pitch and lob Molotov cocktails at the hapless batsmen.
In an era of great spinners Warne stood apart, a Colossus but also utterly human. Warne was as sharp with his words as he was with the ball. Ian Bell was derisively labeled the “Sherminator”, after a humiliated character from the high school comedy “American Pie” which Bell slightly resembled.
When Warne bowled a peach against England he loudly said, “That’s unplayable, like the Spice Girls,” a devastating fusillade which did him justice and creamed England’s proudest achievement of the time. A scandal deprived him and Australia of him becoming test captain. Ponting was a worthy captain, but Warne was the best captain any country didn’t have and would have taken Australia even higher than the lofty standards set by Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting.
Off the field Warne was a flawed genius that made him relatable and more endearing than the stoic Kumble. When his statue was unveiled in his presence at London’s Madame Tussauds he bristled in front of the crowd because the wax work made him look overweight. So touchy was Warne about his weight that a medicine that would shed a few pounds was caught at customs enroute to the 2003 World Cup and he had to miss what would have been his second world cup win. He never stopped worked hard to look good and as a ladies’ man he never looked happier than he did with Elizabeth Hurley on his arm.
In recent years he made the commentary box his own, delivering jaffas on the microphone. In an era where commentators walk on eggshells and bore with banalities, Warne was incisive, insightful, and utterly delightful. His last commentary was heard at the 2021 Ashes where he took every opportunity to rib the English commentators who had to take his and Australia’s pounding on the chin. In between the zings I heard him talk eloquently about Usman Khawaja’s journey as the batsman made a career defining century. Warne wished him luck for the Pakistan tour and how much he enjoyed playing cricket there in 1994 and 1996 and looked forward to the Australia - Pakistan series.
Given all this it was truly devasting to hear about Shane Warne’s untimely demise. The Greatest Spinner of All Time, legendary sportsman, as big off the field as on it, he was utterly unique. Warne was Mohammad Ali and Michael Jordan, he was John McEnroe and Usain Bolt, Babe Ruth and Maradona, someone who not only elevated his sport but came to define his craft. The word “genius” is too often thrown around like cheap confetti. Let there be no doubt, yesterday we lost a rare genius.
The world is poorer now but while we mourn his passing, let us also celebrate and rejoice that he allowed us the privilege of having him here for a while. Go on Warnie! Rip a few jaffas in heaven!
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