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Warne could make the batsmen feel inferior, his craft went way beyond deceit
January 5, 2007
My first memory of Shane Warne relates, oddly enough, to his batting. It was in his first Test, Australia were battling to hold on for a draw in the dying moments of the match when Warne came out at No. 10 to face the man who'd tormented him with the bat. Ravi Shastri had already taken four wickets to follow up his 206 and the ball was turning. Australia were just a run ahead and if the last two wickets fell in the next couple of overs, there'd be just enough time for India to win.
But Warne, who had batted for more than an hour for his 20 in the first innings, defended stoutly for seven minutes before the umpires called off the match. That remained his only meaningful contribution in the series; Indian batsmen feasted on him like hungry children presented with their favourite dish. Warne's figures in the series read 228 for 1.
Throughout his otherwise magnificent career, Indian batsmen haunted Warne. It wasn't only Sachin Tendulkar, whom Warne famously admitted to having nightmares about. Amit Pagnis, a batsman of modest means from Mumbai, can claim to be the man who led the charge against Warne in 1997-98 when he danced down the wicket in the tour-opener that set the tone for the series. Then there was Navjot Sidhu, who hammered him in Chennai, Vinod Kambli, who tore into him in Sharjah, and VVS Laxman, who dismantled him so gracefully in Kolkata that even Warne was moved to applaud.
In a sense, it is unfair to judge Warne on his record against India. Richie Benaud was the last legspinner to be really successful against Indian batsmen who, for some unfathomable reason, have succumbed to the wiles of Tauseef Ahmed, Ray Bright and Nicky Boje while treating accomplished legspinners like net bowlers. Mohinder Amarnath once recounted to me with relish how he and Sunil Gavaskar used to shout out "googles" every time Abdul Qadir tried to bowl a googly. None of Jim Higgs, Mushtaq Ahmed, Danish Kaneria and Stuart MacGill, who has a better strike rate than Shane Warne, has a happy tale involving Indian batsmen.
Seen in another light, though, it does matter. Greatness usually resides without qualification. Warne's average of 47.50 against India is a signal failure: it says that he flunked his toughest test. Would Sachin Tendulkar or Brian Lara have been considered the greatest batsmen of their generation had they averaged 20 against Australia?
It can, however, be argued that Warne was recovering from a shoulder operation in 1997-98, and in 2001 he ran into Laxman, who was in such supreme form that he could jump down the wicket, wide of the legstump and drive Warne out of the rough, inside out through cover, or hit against the spin through midwicket.
It was not until his final series against India in 2004-05 that Warne made an impression on Indian batsmen. He took only four wickets in the first Test in Bangalore but they were vital ones, including Laxman twice. The first dismissal was magical: the ball drifted in the air, landed outside leg on a spot that kept Laxman rooted tentatively to the crease, and spun past the bat to take the offstump. The second time, he got Laxman first ball, a flipper that trapped him leg before.
Virender Sehwag roughed him up in the second Test in Chennai but Warne had the satisfaction of taking his first five-for against India and, while 14 wickets in three Tests wasn't a dominating performance, he had done his bit towards Australia completing unfinished business: they won their first series in India in 35 years.
Despite the mountain of wickets Warne sits atop, it's an injustice to talk about him in numbers alone. First and foremost, Warne was about the aura. He could spin the ball a mile, get it to drift, land on the spot, skid and spit, but it wasn't always about what he got the ball to do. It was, very often, about what he got the batsmen to think. Daryll Cullinan was perhaps an extreme example but for years he terrorised English and South African batsmen, who lost their wickets as much out of terror as ineptitude.
The players who succeeded against him - Tendulkar, Lara and now Kevin Pietersen - were all able to look him in the eye. You could expect to survive against Glenn McGrath by being patient but if you allowed Warne to impose himself he had you in his web. Unlike the other classical legspinners, Warne didn't rely as much on deceit - he rarely bowled the googly - but he had the ability to make the batsman feel inferior. His genius lay both in his wrist and in his mind.
Without doubt, Warne's legend was built around his Test performances. But it was equally fascinating, even instructive, watching him bowl in one-day games. He transcended the restrictions imposed on the bowlers by the format by refusing to curb his attacking style. It helped that his control was impeccable, but rarely did he switch to defence. Middle overs were never dull when Warne was bolwing and and he produced the wickets when it really mattered.
Two performances stand out and both were in crunch World Cup matches. In the 1996 semi-final, West Indies were cruising to win at 173 for 4 chasing 207, when Warne made them freeze. He took three wickets for nothing in the last ten overs as West Indies were bowled out for 202. Even more spectacular was his three-wicket burst against in the memorable semi-final against South Africa in the 1999 event. Chasing 213, South Africa had galloped off the blocks when Steve Waugh was forced to turn to Warne in 12th over. His second ball to Herschelle Gibbs, drifted away and spun across the bat to hit offstump. It so stunned Gibbs that he refused to walk. A similar ball accounted for Gary Kirsten, this time spinning in to the left-hander. And when Hansie Cronje went the next ball, South Africa had lost three wickets in eight balls.
Together with McGrath, he sustained Australia's winning streak for more than a decade but, from world cricket's point of view, he filled the game with beauty and the spectator's heart with joy. It would be unfair on Qadir to say that Warne revived the art of classical legspin bowling; Warne's legacy is not that he spawned a new generation of legspinners - you only watch genius with awe and wonder, it's futile even seeking to walk in his footsteps - but that every time he had the ball in hand he made cricket infinitely more alluring and compelling. He and Brian Lara were the most breathtaking cricketers of their generation. When you watched them, it was impossible to be partisan.
My wife will be relieved that he is gone. He has taken away a very good reason to reach for the remote at 5.30am every time there is a Test in Australia. Australia will perhaps continue to win without him, but watching them will never be the same again.
Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo and Cricinfo MagazineFeeds: Sambit Bal
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