February 28, 2014

Warne v Cullinan revisited

Mind games were as much a part of Warne's armoury as the flipper in the mid-1990s, and his battle with one South African batsman captured the imagination

Daryll Cullinan could muster only 153 runs in seven Tests against Australia © Getty Images

If he hasn't had his day entirely, it's fair to say that the bully is not on the hot list these days. If you live your life beyond the confines of corporate boardrooms, you'd agree that professional sport is probably now his only socially acceptable outlet.

Still, sometimes you have to reconcile yourself to the fact that it is fascinating to watch someone being poked and prodded by an opponent. The appeal probably boils down to the pure human drama. In his own unique way, Shane Warne was a bully. Mind games were as much a part of his armoury as the flipper was in the mid-1990s, or the pause as he tweaked the ball from one hand to the other atop his mark.

Sometimes it was downright ugly, but there was something about the way Warne waged personal war on South African batsman Daryll Cullinan that captured the imagination, especially if, like me, you were a teenager at the time. It felt thrilling and awful and funny and fascinating; sometimes all of those things within the space of an hour. "There are no mates on a cricket field," Warne once said. Cullinan knew it all too well.

Fifteen years have now passed since their last skirmish and it has become easy to disregard the fact that Cullinan was otherwise an excellent Test batsman, averaging 44.21 from his 70 Tests. A "mercurial but unreliable champion batsman" is what Malcolm Knox called him. To Australian fans, though, he's probably defined entirely by the seven Tests he played against Warne, encounters that reaped only 153 runs at the paltry average of 12.75. Warne took his wicket on four of the 12 occasions he was dismissed but it felt like 40.

Warne was never short of a word for Cullinan and once explained, "Usually when I give him a serve he just looks down at the ground." Gideon Haigh said that Warne "did not so much seem to get batsmen out as defeat them entirely". He worried batsmen, intimidated them verbally, and made them look physically inferior, hopelessly lunging at the ball as they often did. The game had to adapt to him. Not many players can say that.

For Cullinan, life might have been different had South Africa's 1993-94 series gone more smoothly for him. Arriving with a lofty reputation forged in his homeland, Cullinan raised the hackles of the Aussies by sledging their batsmen in the first Test even as he grassed four catches. David Boon noted, "His mistakes were, of course, like the proverbial red rag to a bull." In Cullinan's first innings against the Australians, Craig McDermott removed him for a golden duck. Boon and his team-mates were merciless. "From then on, as Warnie cast his spell around him, Cullinan would be greeted with, 'Is the shower already running, Daryll?' More than most, Cullinan suffered from Shane's flipper. 'It's going to be the third ball, Daryll,' we'd tell him. 'Make sure you come forward. Oh, you're out!'" The barbs never let up.

Warne often spoke of his "authority" over Cullinan, a vicious cycle the batsman never shook

In Sydney, Warne claimed him with a flipper, on his way to 12 wickets for the game, but Warne later recalled his dismissal of the "charismatic" Pat Symcox with greater affection. Not fit to strap Cullinan's pads as a batsman, Symcox was nevertheless a fierce competitor who delighted in verbal jousting, thus earning Warne's respect. Symcox saw Warne come around the wicket and so took a leg-stump guard ("You won't get me around there, China," he said). The very next ball Warne curled one around the South African's legs to clean-bowl him.

Warne often spoke of his "authority" over Cullinan, a vicious cycle the batsman never shook. "I can only imagine he developed a bit of a phobia," was the Australian's take. The battle often seemed personal, spiteful even. In a post-match press conference after the Wanderers Test of 1997 he said, "I didn't care how many I got, so long as I got Cullinan."

The sportswriter Mark Kram described the way that, even years after their famous fights, "Muhammad Ali still swam inside of Joe Frazier like a determined bacillus" as a result of Ali's relentless taunting. The rivalry dogged Ali too. "Frazier was still keeping an obsessional hold on Ali," said Kram, "sometimes with a freefall into the void between regret and revenge; at other times his contempt just lay there hissing."

Cullinan found far greater peace in retirement and would later admit, "Quite simply, Warne was too good for me. In hindsight, the focus on me was a compliment. I, however, only caught on towards the end that I did not do the simplest of things well - and that is watch the ball out the hand. But by then it was too late."

The 1997-98 Australian summer cemented the rivalry into legend. After Cullinan had sought help from a sports psychologist to conquer his mental demons, Warne was cruel. "I couldn't believe it," he said. "I knew that Daryll was a bit fragile at times, but never imagined he would go to a shrink to learn how to read a googly." According to Malcolm Knox, Cullinan was shy, brusque and "not particularly popular in his own team, either."

Run out for 5 in the first innings in Melbourne, Cullinan was, according to some accounts, greeted in the second by Warne enquiring as to the colour of the therapist's couch. According to Gary Kirsten, Warne said to Cullinan, "I've been waiting ten months to bowl at you again, Daryll." His team-mate has it that Cullinan replied, "You look as if you've spent all that time eating." Warne had another version again. "I let him take guard before saying, 'Daryll, I've waited so long for this moment and I'm going to send you straight back to that leather couch.'" Eight balls later he was gone for a duck and axed for the remainder of the series.

On the eve of the 1998 Sydney Test in which he would play no part, Cullinan's team-mates Dave Richardson and Symcox approached Australian captain Mark Taylor and Warne, trying to persuade them to have a chat to the deflated batsman. Warne later recalled, "We all play to win, but we are not monsters and never rub it in any more than we have to." Still, there would be no clearing of the air.

The olive branch didn't come until a year later and at the unlikeliest of moments. Their first "proper chat" came after the 1999 World Cup semi-final, itself already a tragic enough chapter in South Africa's rivalry with the Australians. As the pair exchanged shirts Cullinan said, "I expect this will take pride of place in the bunnies section." Earlier in the tournament a listless Warne had bolstered his confidence with the knowledge that he'd be bowling to his man. "Daryll Cullinan gave me the confidence again," he'd later recall.

Perhaps the cruellest victory for Warne and the one with the most crushing finality is that his name means so many different things to so many people, while for many of us, Cullinan's is a merely a byword for his bully. Two cricketers, bound together for eternity.

Russell Jackson is a cricket lover who blogs about sports in the present and nostalgic tense for the Guardian and the Wasted Afternoons. He tweets here

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