Shane Warne walks away December 21, 2006

The Pied Piper departs



Pitch inspection: Warne's thoughts could not stray from the next Test even on such a significant day © Getty Images

Up until the 11th minute of the 11th hour, it was still possible to believe this was all an elaborate hoax. Shane Warne? Retire? What a preposterous notion, almost as ridiculous as a Labrador refusing to eat, or your average gent on the street deciding he was bored of breathing.

And yet, the hints were all around us. The extraordinary weight of TV cameras at the back of the members' dining room, for instance - 14, by my hasty count. And then there was the attire of the officials and the backdrop of the stage. Not a Cricket Australia logo in sight, just a sombre black curtain - symbolic, perhaps, of the mourning into which Australia is about to be plunged.

The pre-announcement chatter was loud and incessant, rising and falling rhythmically as, from time to time, the impression was given that the show was about to begin. But it was inevitable that he would be late. His final announcement bore all the hallmarks of one of his final deliveries before a lunch interval. Keep the audience waiting, guessing, tease them with a twinkle in the eye and a rip of the ball in the fingers. After all, Warne is nothing if not a showman.

But then, up stepped Philip Pope, Australia's media manager, and we knew, finally, that the game was up. "Today is about Shane's life and career," he said in a pretty uncoded message of what was to follow. Seconds later, in a blur of flashlights, ol' green eyes himself was on stage, smartly dressed in black suit and tie, ready to bow out his way.

Warne was dressed, in fact, as if he was attending his own funeral (or disciplinary hearing) but he refused to countenance any such downbeat thoughts. "Today is about celebration," he said on more than one occasion, and though it may be hard for Australians - and all fans of the game, for that matter - to accept that, history may well prove his timing to be spot-on.

In the course of his mighty career, Warne has been beaten just once in a home Test series, and on that occasion the world champions, West Indies, needed a one-run margin to escape from a mighty big hole that Warne himself had dug with his 7 for 52 at Sydney. His only Ashes defeat was a personal triumph with 40 wickets in the series. Two more games then, and the prospect of a 5-0 scoreline to drive him over the finishing line. Such a natural competitor as Warne hardly needs so many incentives to put body and soul on the line one last time.

The Ashes, as we've always suspected, are everything to Warne. He would have gone, too soon, in 2005 had Australia not been defeated back then, while he would have lingered too long, raging against the dying of the light, until 2009 if that indignity hadn't been avenged this time around. Perfect exits are a rarity for sportsmen but, with 699 wickets to his name already and surely a 700th on home turf next week, followed by the chance to sign off at Sydney where it all began 15 years ago, Warne's final double whammy promises to be an event to remember.



Dressed for a funeral?: No, "it's a day for celebration" © Getty Images

The press conference itself seemed brief when judged against the magnitude of the announcement. A polite introductory statement of his intentions, a few good-natured but inquisitive questions, barely a breath of scandal, a few laughs here and there and, to round it all off, that rarest of beasts, a round of applause from the assembled press corps - a body of men who know, better than most, just how much richer their professional lives are with Warne than without.

Then it was down on the pitch itself, where Warne posed and pontificated out in the centre strip. It was all done for the benefit of a mass of cameras lined up behind a makeshift rope, but you couldn't help notice the way Warne sized up the strip of turf that the groundsmen are preparing for five days' hence. The plotting and planning for Boxing Day starts here.

And then, little more than an hour after he had entered the public eye for this big announcement, he was gone, trooping off down the tunnel, pursued inevitably by a mass of media-men. And suddenly the "G", which is this week anticipating the greatest attendance in its 130-year history of hosting international cricket, was an empty, echoing hulk of a ground. The Pied Piper of Melbourne is about to head out of town, and here, in the midst of a media frenzy, was an impression of the uneasy peace his absence is going to leave behind.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo