April 15, 2011

Bright stays the Warne

Last year it looked like he was fading, but you wouldn't think it if you watched his first delivery against Delhi this week

Seven overs into the Rajasthan Royals' match against the Delhi Daredevils, Shane Warne took the ball. I had seen him a couple of days earlier; he looked different. Maybe a cosmetic surgeon had been involved, maybe it was just a flush of youth returning briefly. He looked trimmer, he looked excited, and he had bowled beautifully, making younger players look like novices occasionally.

Now I was waiting for him to bowl the first ball - like, as a child, I had waited in the stands to watch Sunil Gavaskar come out to bat. First balls can be tricky things if you are playing after a while, because the cricket ball, a weapon that has bowed to your bidding all your life, suddenly becomes a rebel, questions your right to make it land where you want it to. Not this time.

The first ball, from over the wicket, drifted towards leg stump and turned viciously. Like it had many thousands of times in Warne's prime.

Young Unmukt Chand, a fine prospect I was told, but who thought blocking a ball was criminal, played the cut, was cramped for space, and Rahul Dravid pulled off a fine catch at slip. Like Mark Taylor used to in the days when c Taylor b Warne was a feature on most Australian scorecards. It didn't end there. Ball after ball followed the familiar wicket trajectory. Batsmen played, missed, edged, wondered what this thing was that came at them but wasn't where they thought it would be. Soon Naman Ojha, another young gun, was caught at point. The first three balls read WoW. That's what it was. He's the best Australian spinner playing cricket, by a margin as large as the distance between Jaipur to Melbourne.

Often we hope champions never return after they retire. There is an aura that grows every day after they are gone. Sins are washed away, bad balls were never bowled. A comeback can ravage those memories, make a giant look frail. An image can be shattered. It is the saddest thing in sport when a champion tries to summon skills that left him a long time ago. And I must confess to having those thoughts when I heard Warne would play on in IPL 2011.

He had looked rusty in IPL 2009 in South Africa, but only briefly. The action was soon back - for that is what it really is; if you get the action right, the ball goes where it should. But in IPL 2010, it was clear he was demanding too much from himself. A young batsman would slog him and the reply wouldn't have the same venom. I feared the king of the pack might be hunted down this year. You cannot, you should not, see the leader made a meal of.

Maybe somewhere Warne knew this. And in between rounds of poker - good for a sharp mind, maybe, but not much good if you want to be in the right shape - and long flights to satisfy the cravings of the heart, he trained. That is obvious. You can hide many weaknesses but a protruding belly is particularly difficult to conceal. Warne in IPL 2011 looks trim, and maybe that has allowed the action to be the way he wants it to be. And clearly he has bowled a lot. Not even Warne can make that first ball land on the spot and fizz it without having bowled many in the nets before.

And so back to Jaipur and game two for the Royals. He came on to bowl in one of the slog overs to young David Warner and threw the ball wide of off stump, challenging the batsman to hit against the turn. The over only produced five runs. After that he captained the side from deep midwicket. Slow, ageing players don't field there but Warne backed himself to.

It has only been two matches so far and I don't know what the IPL holds for Shane Warne in the rest of the games. But I do know that, as a cricket lover, he has me on the edge of my seat every time he bowls. He is 42 now. Not every game will be as good, but he's giving it a decent shot and making the experience of watching cricket as thrilling as it was when he was doing batsmen in for Australia.

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer. His Twitter feed is here