A wizard, a star
I was in Melbourne recently when I spied an interesting advertising banner. It said: "Coming soon, Shane Warne the musical." I stopped. A musical about a cricketer. Really? But then it was Warne, a larger-than-life cricketer, who had the most colourful of journeys and a career of triumph on the field and controversy off it, inciting awe, wonder and criticism along the way. A musical? Why not? And if I were asked to pick a soundtrack, Frank Sinatra's "My Way" would be the automatic choice.
Love him or hate him, we were definitely very lucky to have him. Warne may have self-destructed at times off the field, ruining his chances of being one of Australia's greatest captains, but on the field he was an undisputed legend, a legspinner of the highest class with a wizard's cricket brain. I still find it amazing that we had Warne, Murali and Kumble all at the same time, cricket's equivalent of the Three Tenors.
As a schoolboy, I first watched Warne play at the Sinhalese Sports Club back in August 1992. During the first innings he was mashed to all corners, conceding 107 from 22 wicketless overs. But when Sri Lanka came out to chase just 181 for victory, he showed his now famous instinct for grabbing the limelight at the right time, claiming 3 for 11 from 5.1 overs. We collapsed from 127 for 2 to 164 all out, one of our most painful defeats to this day. Yet, still, at that stage, there was no obvious indication that within less than a year Warne would be well on the way to becoming the greatest legspinner to play the game.
I may be no bowler, but I know one thing: the art of legspin is very, very hard to perfect. It offers the greatest opportunity for variety to bamboozle and deceive, but problems with control, accuracy and injuries are common. Warne surmounted nearly all these challenges with astounding success. His greatest strength was his control. He could bowl legbreaks of varying turn, a straight one, top spinner, the flipper and an occasional googly. This variety is amazing but it was the control of these variations that made him so potent. It allowed him to adapt every aspect of his bowling to suit the pitches he played on. He was a master of his own turn, line and length.
I remember well how he would tease you. In one over he could make you play stump to stump, from leg to off and back again. Right-handed batsmen would be greeted by big-turning legbreaks, which would result in them covering the line of the ball with their pads. Slowly, delivery by delivery, Warne would coax the batsmen to put their front pads across their stumps, setting them up for an lbw to his straight one.
He had many other ploys up his sleeve too. He would change the angle of delivery by going round the wicket. He would vary pace and flight, even drift, at will. He developed the flipper, a delivery that that had everyone guessing for a couple of seasons while his shoulder was at its strongest.
When a pitch did not offer him much, and if a right-hander got on top of him, he would resort to bowling round the wicket into the rough - a traditionally negative tactic that he enterprisingly turned into an attacking option, embarrassing many of us along the way, as apparently harmless deliveries sneaked through the back door.
He had no one tactic against me but he usually tried to cut out my lofted drive over mid-on. He then tried to put me under pressure, drying up the runs and then trying to tempt me to play an expansive drive outside off stump.
Playing him was never easy and always highly intense. He expertly scanned and analysed your technique and game plans, probing for chinks and weaknesses to exploit. He was a master of the mental game and loved playing mindgames. In between overs and deliveries he'd let you overhear snippets of conversations with his wicketkeeper and captain during which he explained your coming demise, openly announcing his tactics with a gleeful spark in his eye. He would cleverly manoeuvre his field, opening up spaces and trying to distract you. You knew it was all an act, but it still got you thinking.
The thing was, he was so often four to five steps ahead of us. Like a brilliant chess player who looks into the future, planning several moves ahead, Warne hunted down his prey over a series of overs, setting them up.
He backed his craft up with confident, intimidating and effective appealing - which bagged him a huge number of lbws. Every aspect of his bowling was thought through.
His talent and cunning aside, another reason for his success was undoubtedly the quality of the Australian pace attack, and Australia's powerful top-order batting. The quicks routinely made early inroads, creating pressure for Warne to exploit, and the batsmen added to this with mountains of runs, giving him the luxury of dictating terms.
|Right-handed batsmen would be greeted by big-turning legbreaks, which would result in them covering the line of the ball with their pads. Slowly, delivery by delivery, Warne would coax the batsmen to put their front pads across their stumps, setting them up for an lbw to his straight one|
The most fascinating duels he has had were with Brian Lara and Sachin Tendulkar. Both great batsmen have always carried the attack to Warne. They would use their feet and were unafraid to drive, sweep and loft the ball. This kind of attacking method was always more successful against Warne; a defensive game focused only on survival just played into his hand, allowing him to slowly work you over.
Injury dogged him in the latter stages of his career, and the strain on his shoulder forced him to undergo surgery. It also gave rise to doubts as to whether he would be the same bowler when he returned, doubts he put quickly to rest with his performances in the 2005 and 2006 Ashes. It showed the amount of enthusiasm he had for the game, as well as the mental toughness that has carried him through many controversies without affecting his focus on the game.
The great tragedy, though, was that he did not get to bring his cricketing intelligence to bear on the job of captaining Australia. He showed with both Hampshire and the Rajasthan Royals just how good a leader he could have been in international cricket. During the IPL, he clearly inspired those around him, and his man-management skills were brilliant. He planned the tournament and clearly mapped out roles for his side, and on the field he led with creative flair and a sense of adventure.
Warne would have made a great Australia captain, but he has no one to blame but himself for not being given a proper chance. His cricketing intelligence was counterbalanced by his off-field volatility. He created too many problems for himself over the years - the drugs scandal at the 2003 World Cup was surely his darkest hour. He learnt the hard way and will surely have regrets as he looks back on a glittering career.
Personally, I enjoyed our battles and I grew to respect him as a person after the 2004 tsunami. I think we all saw a different side to him then with the way he helped. The gesture of coming to Sri Lanka was a fine one. It was touching to see that human commitment.
It is impossible to do justice to this blond-haired spin magician in a simple column. He lived life large on and off the field with no apology. A cricketer with an old-world flamboyance and panache, who rejuvenated and modernised the art of legspin. Not your stereotypical gentleman cricketer, he was a genius of rare brilliance which we will remember in all its glory, though I doubt we will see its like again.