December 21, 2006

Mind over matter

No cricketer is irreplaceable, but Shane Warne comes mighty close
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Shane Warne is the bowler Australia will miss most © Getty Images

Australia's judgment day is just round the corner. What Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath have done so successfully throughout their career - perform as a duet - they are going to repeat on retiring.

The blond bamboozler and the miserly metronome will only mesmerise and torment batsmen for two more Tests. Australia will still be a good team when they leave after the SCG Test but nowhere near as good as when they plied their enormous bowling skills in tandem. Despite McGrath's undoubted ability, Warne is the bowler Australia will miss the most. No cricketer is irreplaceable but Warne comes mighty close.

The working of Warne's mind will be a fascinating study for all budding legspinners and psychology students. He once said he was having trouble working out when the West Indies batsman Carl Hooper was going to "give him the charge", so he tried a simple ruse. "The next time I ran into bowl," Warne said, "I watched his face and brought my arm over with no intention of letting the ball go. His face told me all I needed to know and I never had the problem again." Simple but effective.

The mind, however, is only half of Warne's magic as a bowler. It's one thing to know how to trouble batsmen, but it's another altogether to have the ability and control to be able to keep producing demanding deliveries. It's hard to believe now but Warne had a rather rocky start to his international career.

He began in 1991-92 with a 1 for 150 against India at the SCG and things didn't improve in Adelaide where he failed to take a wicket in the next Test. Then on to Sri Lanka where he had a 0 for 107 in the first innings in Colombo. Things were looking pretty bleak until Allan Border threw him the ball with the match slipping away and Warne responded with 3 for 11 in five overs to help clinch a surprise victory. Until the recent miracle at Adelaide Oval, Warne ranked that as the best victory in his glittering career.

It's one thing to know how to trouble batsmen but it's another altogether to have the ability and control to be able to keep producing demanding deliveries

For all the good things Border did for Australian cricket that decision in Colombo may well have been his greatest deed - having confidence in Warne when the bowler had little himself. Certainly Border and the Australian captains who have followed - Mark Taylor, Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting - have all benefited greatly from Warne's presence. Along with McGrath, he has been a captain's best friend - a bowler who wants the ball when the game is on the line.

Despite operations to his spinning finger and creaky right shoulder and a 12-month suspension, Warne has been extremely resilient. Since he returned from the suspension Warne has a better record [than his overall numbers] in all categories except economy rate and he was nearly 35 when he made his comeback. This is an indication that what he may have lost physically he has more than compensated for mentally.

Not that there was ever a time when his mind wasn't a strong part of Warne's game. In late 1999 he was bowling round the wicket to Sourav Ganguly and he watched a few deliveries pass by harmlessly. "Hey mate," called out Warne, "this crowd didn't pay their money to watch you let balls go. They're here to see this fella [Sachin Tendulkar at the non-striker's end] play shots." A couple of overs later Ganguly was stumped off Warne's bowling trying to hit Warne out of the ground.

Warne has always been a smart bowler and it's not surprising that he has picked the perfect moment to call a halt to his wicket-taking extravaganza. There'll be a lot of batsmen thankful for that decision and the fact that he's taking McGrath with him.