November 14, 2013

Warne still a master of spin

His mischievous ability to leave a trail of breadcrumbs for the media to follow has served him well since he retired from playing

Still got game, talk-wise at least © Getty Images

Just how transferable is the skill set of an international cricketer when they make the transition from their playing career to life in the commentary box? Sure, they have knowledge and experience of playing the game at the highest level, but the real art of commentary is the ability to connect with an audience, and it's debatable whether the media training offered to a cricketer during their playing days will fully prepare them for the demands of being at the other end of a microphone. There's a world of difference between flat-batting questions during a press conference and the ability to pad out a three- hour rain break with insights that stop the audience from channel-hopping, and anecdotes that entertain but don't get you dragged off air for breaching broadcasting regulations.

Even if you can manage that, there are plenty of ex-pros looking to work in the media. So if you want to be invited back, it helps to make an impression; to show a little personality. Perhaps that's why Shane Warne has made such a seamless transition into the commentary box. He was, after all, a cricketer whose playing career included an element of performance beyond just "executing his skills".

His bowling certainly did. The deliberate pause before each delivery, the relaxed determination of his run-up, the aggressive fielding settings, the stare, the occasional comment made to a batsman, expressed with just enough body language that it could be picked up by the crowd - Warne married talent to his force of personality. Unless the opposition were in complete control, when Warne was bowling he was the centre of attention, and for all his considerable skill, part of his success was down to making batsmen feel that they were playing his game rather than their own.

Off the field too, he tried to shape events to his own agenda. It felt like no Ashes series was complete without the build-up featuring talk of a new Warne mystery ball, complete with a name that made it sound like a Batman villain. An all-spinning, all-dancing delivery to which no one would have an answer.

In contrast to Warne's actual bowling, there was no subtlety to this particular mind game, no guile. It was an obvious, and oft-repeated, bluff. The media knew it, supporters knew it, and opposition batsmen knew it too. It was a gambit that wasn't going to change the way England prepared to play him. But it did succeed in his real intention: to shift the narrative of an Ashes build-up onto a known English weakness - their ability to play legspin. It was a narrative shift that, coincidentally, placed Warne firmly at the centre of attention once again.

That mischievous ability to leave a tempting trail of breadcrumbs for the media to follow has continued to serve him well since he retired from playing. As, whilst his insightful commentary has meant that for broadcasters he remains a box-office draw, it has also provided him with a platform to remain a thorn in England's side.

For much of this year Warne has been a constant commentary-box critic of the way England play. They are, to paraphrase him, a rather dull team, lacking in aggression. It's a criticism that even Alastair Cook has had to admit has some basis in truth. And it's a criticism that has been repeated so often as to have almost become accepted wisdom, resulting in an Ashes build-up where more attention has been focused on England's tactical approach than the fact that Australia have lost seven of their last nine Test matches.

In terms of setting the media agenda, Warne has clearly still got it.

In contrast, Michael Clarke's recent attempt to predict England's side for the first Test has been met with some derision in the English press, and it's difficult to see what he was hoping to achieve. It all seems a case of too little, too late, if he wanted to play mind games with England's management. The side Clarke named is the one, injury permitting, that was already widely expected to play. England's selection will be unaffected, as will media coverage of the series.

Clarke may argue that he was just making a tongue-in-cheek joke, but it's hard to believe he wasn't partly motivated by the thought of getting under England's skin in the run up to the first Test. If so, he still has a lot to learn from Warne, whose willingness to play a longer game shows that even in retirement, he is still the master of spin.

Dave Hawksworth has never sat in a press box or charged a match programme to expenses