Shane Warne December 20, 2010

The man who became legspin

No bowler exemplifies the art of the legbreak as much as Shane Warne does; no bowler ever will

Shane Warne will probably never play at the Melbourne Cricket Ground again, but a corner has been marked out for him. In October 2008, in the bowels of the ground, the National Sports Museum activated "Shane Warne: Cricket Found Me", in which a three-dimensional image of Warne speaks for more than 10 minutes, seemingly ex tempore, while appearing to walk around a dressing room.

The technology is remarkable; Warne himself, however, is more remarkable still. He was required to speak about his career to a camera, without prop or prompts, in one uninterrupted take. As you observe, he did so effortlessly, without ever breaking eye contact - or, perhaps more accurately, lens contact. Elsewhere in the museum, a simulacrum of the Australian Rules footballer James Hird, an intelligent and well-spoken young man, goes through the same routine in a similar display: his attention falters, his eyes dart away, his body language is tentative. You watch Warne again. You hate to admit it but it's true: he seems to be talking to you. Now that is charisma.

Warne was an extraordinary bowler. It can't really be said often enough. He will personify legbreak bowling for as long as the skill exists. If and when an outstanding new purveyor achieves note, the question will be: how does he compare with Warne? As fascinating to watch as were Anil Kumble and Mushtaq Ahmed, Warne's was the style to study and emulate - so simple, so unadorned, so apparently artless. So epic were his feats, too, that it is hard to recall legbreak bowling before him. In the 1980s, of course, there were the mysteries and intrigues of Abdul Qadir. But Qadir's wickets down under cost 61 runs each. Had Cormac McCarthy written a novel of Australian cricket at the time, in fact, it would have been called No Country for Young Legspinners. That was certainly the attitude, when Warne first played Sheffield Shield, of his captain Simon O'Donnell and coach Les Stillman. Seldom has received wisdom been more promptly and utterly routed.

Warne cut a swathe through batsmen in the early 1990s who had seen nothing remotely similar for generations - which was amazing. Then he cut another swathe and another - which was miraculous. After his Test debut in England, with its fabled "Gatting ball", Warne's bowling average was 28. It diminished to 22.55, grew to 26.7, and finally settled at 25.4. Until then legspin had been a speculative investment, cricket's venture capital; Warne made it into bowling bricks and mortar. Everything told you it should be otherwise. Batsman would get used to him. Coaches would work him out. Curators would prepare flat pitches. All these were before the physical dangers Warne posed to himself, for legspin involves colossal efforts at pivotal points in the human anatomy. And, to an extent, all the aforementioned possibilities eventuated. In each case, though, Warne rose to the challenge of counteracting them. He kept getting batsmen bowled. He get kept getting them lbw. He kept getting them WTF. He had almost no right to, but he did.

Yet even then, this doesn't quite do him justice, for Warne was no more to be considered simply a bowler than Marilyn Monroe was to be deemed merely as an actress. He was a presence, on the field, in the game, in the media, in the mind. To each delivery, there was a whole preamble, sometimes theatrical, sometimes languorous, always captivating. As he dawdled before his trademark saunter, he would curl the ball from hand to hand, an action both predatory and dainty, feeling his own powers of torque communicated through the ball, keeping the batsman in his crouch that little longer than perhaps was comfortable - time for thought, time for doubt. That pause: it was almost imperceptible, yet time would seem to stand still. It called to mind Paul Keating's parliamentary retort when quizzed by his rival John Hewson as to why he did not call an early election: "The answer is, mate, I wanna do you slowly."

He kept getting batsmen bowled. He get kept getting them lbw. He kept getting them WTF. He had almost no right to, but he did

In the last few years of his career, these performances of Warne's bordered on burlesque. The Ashes of 2005 and 2006-07 were series divided: there was the cricket featuring Warne, then the rest. There was brilliance, there was bluff; he was the beamish boy one moment, the blowhard the next. He was seldom outbowled, hardly outfoxed, never out-talked. His manner with dissenting umpires was straight from the WG Grace playbook: "They've come to watch me bowl, not you umpire."

Nor was it always a pageant of success. A day that sticks in the mind is the fourth in Perth in December 2006. Warne toiled for almost two sessions from the Prindiville Stand End, on a perfect batting wicket, in temperatures well over 40 degrees, taking 1 for 100. Yet every ball was full of willingness and will power. Every time he paused at the top of his run, you felt like the batsman was simply there for his delectation. Every time he whirled into his action, you expected a triumphant appeal to follow. At the time, it transpired, he was contemplating the retirement he announced before the next Test. You'd never have guessed: he seemed to be setting himself to bowl forever. Late that day, Glenn McGrath, spared work for the afternoon, struck crucially with the second new ball, and afterwards commented that the wickets were as much Warne's as his: how often, by the pressure he exerted, by the yakka he soaked up, that was true.

On fame in cricket, meanwhile, Warne rewrote the book. In this, to be sure, he had some help. On television in India, Sachin Tendulkar has exerted perhaps the single greatest influence; on tabloid culture in England, Ian Botham left indelible inky fingerprints. Yet Warne blazed a trail of fame everywhere cricket took him, and everywhere he took cricket. He oozed action. He radiated star quality. An expectation surrounded him, including his own of himself, as it has done few other players, and as it was once summarised by another Australian cricketer: "Every time Warne bowls he expects to take wickets. Every time he bats he expects to make runs. Every time he sees a woman he expects to get laid."

His weakness, particularly in the last of these, was an incapacity for saying no - to others, to himself. But you could sort of understand this apparently infinite suggestibility: after all, most of the time "yes" worked so damn well. And in the end Warne pulled it off: even after all his tribulations he has ended up being a good advertisement for fame. Certainly he always seemed to enjoy it - sometimes to a fault. "He loves to be loved," said his captain Steve Waugh, and the media has never outgrown its infatuation with him. For all his sometimes tetchy relations with them, too, Warne has returned the media's embrace. No past master has fitted as seamlessly into commentary as Warne - insightful, irreverent, irrepressible, even in his recent perma-tanned petrifaction.

Warne also remained, above all, absolutely true to his gift. Fame had opposite effects on Tendulkar and Botham. Tendulkar preserved his excellence by sequestering himself from a clamouring public; Botham swallowed celebrity whole and spat out self-parody. Warne swaggered down the middle of the road, living large but always bowling big, revelling in the attention while never losing the love of his craft. Even now, at 41, in the IPL, he looks completely engaged in every game, playing because he wants to, not because he has to. There are those who say he obtains wickets because he is Shane Warne; to this, Warne would undoubtedly reply: "Thanks for the compliment."

Warne has inspired books, busts, bottles of wine, hagiographies, hatchet jobs, mountains of memorabilia, even a musical. But in some respects, the MCG's installation of him is his most faithful reflection. Many, many more people saw Warne as image than reality; he is a man of comparatively few close friends and millions upon millions of acquaintances. Yet somehow, despite all the layers of mediation, all the received opinion, all the manufactured outrage, the naturalness came through, and we felt we knew him.

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Billy on December 23, 2010, 12:35 GMT

    MiddleStump, of course this selection panel are not the only experts in world cricket. However, don't you think it is extraordinary that a random panel of experts with different views and biases from different countries and backgrounds all picked the same spinner unanimously? And for everyone's benefit, Sobers said about Warne "I think he is a great bowler, but I'm not sure how well he compares with spinners overall. I think people get carried away with this man's ability as he hardly ever bowled a good googly.To me, Shane Warne is a great turner of the ball. I like his aggressive attitude, I love the way he attacks batsmen and I give him 100% for that as not enough spinners bowl with that approach, but in my estimation Subhash Gupte was a better legspinner." That statement doesn't necessarily prove he wouldn't go for Warne in a World XI. Sobers on Murali: "I think Muralitharan is more difficult because he develops something that no other off-spinner has ever developed." Not conclusive

  • V on December 23, 2010, 9:14 GMT

    BillyCC, are these dudes on the selection panel the only genuine experts in the world? There are many such experts outside the panel. Sobers, the greatest all rounder, has a different take on Warne. Warne was great but strictly outside India. If you choose to ignore all matches played in a particular part of the world and anoint somebody as the greatest, there is nothing more to say. Biggus, I watched Chandra from 66 onwards until his retirement. I am well aware of the 77-78 tour down under. That was just about a year before his retirement, so you may have felt Bedi was better. In any case, as I hypothesized earlier, had Warne been playing in India in the 70s, he would have really struggled to make the Second XI based on his performances on those pitches. As for not leaking runs, I think you have forgotten how Tendulkar went after him in India or even Sharjah in 98. And don't forget Chandra and the rest would have a better economy rate if they had the same quality of outfield support.

  • Mark on December 23, 2010, 7:25 GMT


    Raw stats favor murali.

    Stats adjusted based on your criteria (normalize based on number of deliveries against each country, ie., what if murali bowled exactly the same number of deliveries against each country as Warne, so less zimbabwe+bangladesh, more England, WI, etc) favor Murali even more.

    Then when you consider the quality of wickets, Murali's win margin becomes rather massive. You see, a higher percentage of Murali's wickets were top and middle order batsmen while a higher percentage of Warne's were tailenders. Yet both Warne and Murali took almost exactly the same number of deliveries to take a wicket.

  • Harsh on December 23, 2010, 5:28 GMT

    He is my childhood hero. I used to mimic his bowling style all the time. I used to get lot of turn with tennis ball with his style as well. I used to have his cricket card in high-school. And I think he was trump card. :P Thank you for all those memories.

  • Kush on December 23, 2010, 3:51 GMT

    Great article. He was and is truly an original, reinventing leg spin bowling. But no mention of Stuart MacGill? I think for a while atleast there was a ongoing debate of Warne OR MacGill in the australian team setup and if MacGill had showed up a little earlier the team setup might have been different. He usually outperformed Warne playing together. Maybe two spinners playing regularly - I was always hoping for a regular bowling lineup of McGrath, Gillespie, Warne and MacGill but the powers that be thought otherwise.

  • Billy on December 22, 2010, 21:30 GMT

    MiddleStump, I take your point that it's advisable to take the World XI selections with a ton of salt. However, I think for the line ball selections, that's ok. When the decision is unanimous, then it's most likely that the people who disagree are missing something. The experts are experts for a reason, and their opinions carry more weight than ours, particularly because they are involved in the game at the highest level. They see or sense something that ordinary fans like me or you could never see. So unless they all conspired to pick Warne together or all had the same bias (which is unlikely), then we should defer to their better judgment. My World XI selection had Murali ahead of Warne (I chose two teams and the one based on merit had Murali), and I was shocked to see that Murali didn't even rate a mention in the first choice XI (unless someone from the panel picked two spinners in the same team).

  • Richard on December 22, 2010, 11:54 GMT

    @MiddleStump-We'll have to agree to disagree on the Chandra point my good man. I am well aware of his figures but I base my assessment of him not from the media but from watching him here in 1977/78 and other times, and I thought he was marvellous, but I thought Bedi was better. As for Warne he has 600 wickets at something like 25 and it's hard to argue with those numbers, besides that, I rate him the best I've seen. What sets him apart in my opinion was that he hardly ever bowled a really bad ball. Chandra, Qadir, MacGill-these guys could all be relied on to bowl a real shocker every over or two, and whilst they may have been theoretically as dangerous as him this fact limited their ability to exert sustained pressure at times. Warne's extraordinary accuracy meant that as often as not he could dictate playing conditions without being expensive, and maintaining pressure brings wickets as we all know. Whereas most leggies leak runs like a sieve Warne was a captain's delight.

  • Kannan on December 22, 2010, 7:51 GMT

    It should also be pointed out in the MURALI-WARNE debate that Warne was not able to take any 10 wicket hauls in Tests against India, New Zealand, West Indies, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh - all of whom against he played. Murali on the other hand, took 10 wkt hauls in a match against all nations he played against. Warne was a stand-out bowler only against England and the fact he is the GREATEST got propagated along with the Ashes hype in a cricket world that is still run by opinions formed out of Aus-English media core. Consequently, the OPINION of the cricinfo panel of self proclaimed historians and ex-cricketers (nominated as experts) mean nothing, particularly to a generation who have practically watched every over bowled by both Murali and Warne, in all formats of the game, while understanding the value of stats behind evaluating and comparing performance. Subjectivity like "flamboyancy and charisma" don't count when evaluating MERIT.Clearly Murali's ball does the talking on the field!

  • Kannan on December 22, 2010, 6:32 GMT

    I lost respect for the cricinfo selection panel when they chose Warne over Murali and here's why. Consider this. In TESTS : Murali had 800wkts and 22-10s hauls and 67-5s. Warne had 708wkts and 10-10s and 37-5s. In ODIs : Murali has 517 wkts and 10-5s. Warne had 293 wkts and just 1-5s! The consolidated figures for Tests and ODIs: MURALI: 1330wkts, avg=22.87, eco=2.91, sr=47, 77-5s, 22-10s. WARNE: 1009wkts, avg=25.51, eco=2.98, sr=51.2, 38-5s, 10-10s. MURALI also holds the record for the maximum Man-of-Series awards by any CRICKETER to date in TESTS=11. To say that Murali's record is bloated by his performance against Zim and Bangladesh is derogatory and outright petty. Besides, the controversies surrounding Murali are all Aus driven who cannot just bear the fact that the best EVER bowler and batsman are NOT Australian.

  • PALLAB on December 22, 2010, 6:27 GMT

    1st Post @HarshalB, don't be surprised as I have mentioned before that Gideon is basically an Anglo-Australian historian and we should say welcome to his primarily Ashes legends- Liilee, Warne, ahem D. Bradman and the like. "Batsmen who had seen nothing remotely similar for generations"-ridiculous statement. He would have never heard about the 2 Gupte brothers and their mastery over legspin-or deliberately ignoring them. A historian should critique and not pen eulogies like a fan would about an acknowledged player. Abdul Qadir was the absolute legs spinner with a vicious googly to boot (of course as usual, Indians mastered him). Whereas Warne has been called over-rated by Arjuna Ranatunga , Salim Malik, Aravinda de Silva- all masterful players of spin. The combative and canny Ranatunga deliberately attacked Warne in that high-stakes 1996 World Cup final (knowing full well about a vast television viewing audience) to walk the talk. Alleged math-fixer Malik was only done in by supreme

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