May 6, 2008

A royal fairytale

Boosted by the inspired, top-notch captaincy of Shane Warne, the Rajasthan side have been the romantic success story of the IPL

The gambler: Warne has brought his card-player's instincts to Twenty20 with great success Martin Williamson

We often see gestures like it on the field, but only occasionally get to hear the tales behind them. Here is one. When Yusuf Pathan tempted Adam Gilchrist out of his crease and had him stranded in only the third over of Rajasthan Royals' match against the Deccan Chargers, no one was more animated than Shane Warne. While his team-mates were still celebrating, he turned towards the Rajasthan dugout and made a little gesture that said: "I told you so."

"We knew it was coming," said Jeremy Snape, who is part of Rajasthan's support staff as performance coach. It had been Warne's idea to throw in Pathan's offspin early against Gilchrist and he had been certain Pathan would get Gilchrist out. "It took us a long time to discuss the machinations of this strategy," Snape said. "When something like that happens, it's brilliant."

With Warne orchestrating the moves as captain-coach, such things have happened again and again with the Rajasthan Royals. Batsmen and bowlers are known to have golden streaks, but for nearly two weeks we have seen a captain in the zone. After a disastrous opening match, the most unfancied team of the competition has won five in row, and everything Warne has touched has turned to gold. The importance of luck in captaincy cannot be overstated, but to repeat a hoary phrase, fortune favours the brave. Warne has backed his instincts and gambled away.

In their second match, against Punjab, he had two legspinners - himself and the unheralded Dinesh Salunkhe, who came into the spotlight through a TV talent-hunt show and is yet to play a first-class match - bowling together after six overs, and they claimed three wickets in as many overs. Salunkhe got Mahela Jayawerdene stumped.

Chasing 217 against the Deccan Chargers, Warne promoted Yusuf Pathan to No. 3 and Pathan blasted a 21-ball half century.

Against the Royal Challengers, the customary deep fine-leg was done away with and a man was posted at the square-leg boundary instead. Rahul Dravid pulled the first ball he faced straight to him, and three more wickets fell to the short-ball trap.

In the next match, against Kolkata, Warne pulled out little-known Swapnil Asnodkar, a frail-looking opening batsman from Goa with a strike-rate of 41.23 in List A limited-overs cricket, and Asnodkar blazed away to 60 off 34 balls.

Against Chennai, Warne handed the new ball to Sohail Tanvir and told him to look for wickets: in the first over, Tanvir took two.

Outrageous luck or flashes of genius? A bit of both perhaps, but it is worth noting that the outcomes wouldn't have been possible without either.

Before he came to Jaipur, Warne, who retired from one-day cricket in 2003, had played only a couple of Twenty20 games for Hampshire, who he led for couple of seasons, but it didn't take him to long to grasp the dynamics of the shortest format. "Twenty20 is all about surprises," he said. "It's about doing something that the opposition doesn't really expect." And with every match, Warne's propensity for the unexpected has merely grown.

More inspirational has been the way Warne and he support staff have moulded a team of bravehearts out of relative lightweights. Their only major current international player is Graeme Smith. The batting is thin on paper; and the franchise gambled on appointing Warne - whose antipathy towards professional coaches is only too well known - head of the coaching team. It could have all gone hopelessly wrong, as it did for the ICL, which appointed Brian Lara, another mercurial genius, captain of their Mumbai team. Lara hardly scored a run in the first season, and didn't play in the second tournament, and his team disintegrated around his obvious lack of interest.

But Warne evidently still has a fire raging within him. Denied the captaincy by a conservative Australian cricket board, which feared a public-relations disaster if he was given the job, Warne led Hampshire with passion. In Jaipur he has plunged himself into mentoring a young team with sense of a mission. Every Rajasthan player you meet speaks about Warne's ability to inspire and visualise, his positive thinking, and his human touch. Warne hasn't so much imposed himself on the team as he has lifted it. In every match Rajasthan have found a new hero.

Salunkhe was the one in the game against Punjab. "Mahela [Jayawardene] and Yuvraj [Singh] were batting when Warne asked me to bowl," Salunkhe said. "I was afraid - Mahela is such a good player of spin. Warne marched up to me and said, 'Put your chest out, stand tall, be confident. I believe you can get him. Tell me you can do it.'

"In the world there can be only one Taj Mahal. Similarly, there can only be one Shane Warne."

Given Warne's position on professional coaches, Snape, who has a masters in sports psychology, was initially wary of taking up a role under him. Those apprehensions have since melted away and been replaced by admiration. "You can study psychology for as long as you want, but he has lived it," Snape says of Warne.

"Warnie would never use the p word, "psychology", but he lives it. He's a great motivator. He's very passionate, he thinks very clearly. One of my big points for the boys is to choose the strategy carefully with a cool head and then commit wholeheartedly to it. Warnie exemplifies that in the way he plays his cricket.

A hero per match: the likes of Yusuf Pathan have shone under Warne's captaincy © Getty Images

He's got careers outside, in journalism and poker. This is a six-week tournament that's very exciting for him. He's got a chance to leave a legacy. That comes down to the personality again. Stockbrokers in London earn millions - but they all want to feel part of something that's bigger than them. Want to feel like they've created something. We all feel like that at Rajasthan. There's no heritage, there's no black and white pictures on the wall. It's a start-up. For someone like Warnie, who's done so much in cricket, it's exciting to be able to say, 'We were part of that tournament. And these are the stars that came up from it.' And he's shared his knowledge, which is one of his great skills."

Rajasthan Royals are the most no-frills franchise in the IPL. They have no Bollywood stars in their entourage, but they do possess a well-knit support team. Apart from Snape, who contributes to planning and strategy, there is Darren Berry, the assistant coach, who, in Warne's words, brings "a structured approach to training".

Warne says that they have tried to be "the smartest, the cleverest team in the competition". Snape says they want to the clearest-thinking team. "Technically, the players aren't going to change over the six weeks, but it's the ones who are going to have the clearest decision-making under pressure who are going to do really well. That's the theme of our discussions. Of course, we'd like our plans to work, but that's when the real cricket starts - when your plan doesn't work and you've got to adapt."

Above all, Warne has been there to provide the bits of magic that only he can. The Royals' dressing room is still heady with the 16 runs he blasted off three balls from Andrew Symonds' final over against the Deccan Chargers, but it is the dismissal of Mahendra Singh Dhoni in the game against Chennai that will have made fans' eyes moist with nostalgia.

The first ball landed on leg and middle and spun past Dhoni's tentative bat. Dhoni barely managed to keep out the next one, which pitched on nearly the same spot and straightened. The third was floated just a bit more to draw the batsman forward, and held back just a bit to ensure that it landed short enough to spin and catch the edge. Even if Dhoni had missed it, he would have been stumped. It was a sublime working-over, a piece of art.

Warne's and Rajasthan's unexpected success is both uplifting and reassuring. It is a reaffirmation that old-fashioned cricket values and skills have their place in the game's newest, and to many the crassest, form.

Long may Warne continue to reign.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Vijay Kumar on May 8, 2008, 10:34 GMT

    Gambling.. if Cricket is that then Warne would have been the greatest leader. But fortunately T20 is providing that gambling instinct only now.It is good to have him in the country, the young lads can learn how to be diplomatically aggressive like him. T20 is for brainys and not for techies.. so obiviosly Warne will be great. Im not worried about cricket of Rajastan I now they have a great player, might be we should worry about the girls there ;-)

  • S on May 8, 2008, 2:01 GMT

    Sambit: You are awesome. Your article is so perfect hope Indian cricketers will read and hopefully educate in process.

    To me Warne is one of the most intelligent cricketers ever to play cricket. It is shame he never got to lead Australia but here in IPL he is showing here the value of experience and how well he can motivate players to perform over and above expectations. Most Indian cricketers (with couple of exceptions) should learn something from the master Warne than complaining and pointing fingers and above all learn to earn paycheck. People like Bhajji, Sreesanth are only capable of acting and playing verbal drama, Dravid, Ganguly, VVS Laxman are redundant, Warne at 38 still smarter than all. Warne you are the best.

  • Jojy John on May 7, 2008, 11:16 GMT

    Shane Warne is Jaipur's poster boy and admiration for him is growing unfailingly every minute of the day. He has given the people of Rajasthan a reason to cheer for and a reason to be happy in their otherwise ordinary lives. People who rooted for other so-called 'powerful' teams have switched allegiance to the Jaipur team and I have but only one complaint - I would love to see pommy Mascheranas making his debut. I know Warnie and his team are doing well and a change in the composition could possibly mean trouble but maybe dimi can be accomodated after Warnie's team are sure of a place in the semis?

  • Khurram on May 7, 2008, 5:54 GMT

    One interesting point to note here in the context of Twenty20 cricket is: 'Old fashioned' successful bowlers are successful in this format too ... but the same is not true for batsmen! .. The format is more demanding for batsmen rather than bowlers ..!!

    We can take examples of Warne, McGrath, Pollock, Lee, Murali, Afridi, Kumble, Bajji etc. who stuck to regular bowling skills and were successful ... while 'old fashioned' batsmen like Dravid, Ganguly, Kallis etc. have not been that successful ... and yes, those regular batsmen have been successful who are willing to take more risks and get innovative ... So it looks as if special techniques will be perfected for batting whereas bowling will do well for the time being ...

  • Adrian on May 7, 2008, 2:47 GMT

    Before the tournament, I did not fancy RR. But now, it is my favourite team. I reckon that Warnie has done a fantastic job, considering that not only most of his teammates were unknown, and apart from Graeme Smith and Shane Watson, were relatively inexperienced, but also they come from very different culture and background. The fact that he managed to do this "theoretically impossible mission" in less than two months (I assume that his work started at the auction) is absolutely incredible!

    PS. I reckon that RR has the most aesthetic jersey. Delhi is the second and Mumbai is the third.

  • Bug on May 7, 2008, 2:23 GMT

    I remember Warne putting on a brave front in the post match commentary after losing the first game. At that time I thought the RRs wouldn't win much because they are a bunch of low profile players led by a captain who last played a limited overs international game 5 years ago. How wrong I was! For once I am glad to be proven wrong. Good players play well. Great players make their team mates better. That's what Warne has done. I hope to see much more exciting cricket from them.

  • Gavin on May 7, 2008, 1:09 GMT

    This is the Shane Warne I love and see on tv, backs himself and backs his team mates. He is an idol and a legend in cricket and of you cannot learn anything from him you might as well pack the game in! A true legend from an English Lad in Manchester!

  • Cricket on May 6, 2008, 21:34 GMT

    When a team is winning everything thats done is noticed and when it starts loosing all the moves the captain makes are ridiculed. M S Dhoni's decision to bowl Joginder Sharma was applauded by everyone just cause India won the T20 Final nobody ever saw that he was a below average bowler and anyone could take him for runs....Agreed that Shane Warne is a good leader but don't judge everything by 4 20-20 games...his gambles have paid off and he's been getting all the honors fair enough...but the IPL is far from being over!

  • Sanjay on May 6, 2008, 20:37 GMT

    Oh Warnie, till the day I die I will never forget the mastery, the guile, the magic behind the Dhoni dismissal. You are one of a kind in a few generations, and Rajasthan will never forget you for the legacy that you will leave behind. And, to your knowledge of the game, compared to your peers, I bow to your immense superiority. There is only one Warne, Shane Warne.

  • Mihir on May 6, 2008, 19:41 GMT

    nice one sambit the most satisfying and reassuring part is that a 38-year old man has out-thought and outplayed the other 7 teams.he's out thought them right at the auctions and now he's outplaying them.what a wonderful sight to see warne in india again.i always had a feeling that only 2 cricketers always out thought their opponent...sachin tendulkar and shane warne.warne's shown he can out think an opposition team,a plus over tendulkar.hope to see sachin too back and get a bit more reassured! Till then i'll enjoy the Warne show....its been the best part of the IPL...the Rajasthan Royals wid warney! PS:the description of the dhoni dismissal's awesome man!

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