May 18, 2011

The bold and bountiful

What words would you use to describe Shane Warne's legacy to cricket?

"I mean, what are they gonna say about him, when he's gone, huh? What are they gonna say? Are they gonna say 'He was a kind man'? 'He was a wise man'? 'He had plans'; 'He had wisdom'? Bullshit, man!"

Legacy. Call it the l-word. Every egotist wants to leave one, and quite a few others besides. Then again, as Dennis Hopper's unforgettable lines from Apocalypse Now imply, precious few have ever had a) any concept of how to go about it or, b) any awareness that, no matter how hard you try, you cannot dictate how you are remembered.

Take Attila the Hun. The unfortunate chap doubtless fancied he was going to be canonised for terminating the Roman Empire but instead became a byword for sadistic ruthlessness. And what of WG Grace? What springs to mind when his name is invoked now - the runs and wickets and trailblazing superstardom or a shameless shamateur who felt he had a divine right to cheat?

Tony Blair was always banging on about how he wanted to shape his legacy, the inevitable consequence of which has, to date, been an unequivocal thumbs-down. Having had the good sense not to tempt fate and to keep reasonably schtum, Bill Clinton, on the other hand, has left footprints that promise to be debated for decades to come, forever teetering on the tightrope separating sex addict from unsung hero, forever coloured by perceptions of his immediate predecessor and heir. Even Andrew Strauss got into the act last week, revealing his desire to leave a legacy when he quits the five-day fray. He may wish the word had never escaped his lips.

So what of Shane Warne? Two recent headlines capture the duality of his legacy. In the Hindustan Times, "World Cup leggies honour Warne's legacy" heralded an article from AFP celebrating the legbreakers and wristy-twisty fellows who spent the tournament turning batsmen into gibbering wrecks - Shahid Afridi, Imran Tahir, Devendra Bishoo, and even Canada's Balaji Rao, whose less than svelte figure could be considered something of an homage in itself.

On the converse side of the coin was "Warne's legacy leaves Australia spinning out of control" from the website, under which the agonies Andrew Hilditch and his fretful confreres have endured trying to find someone, anyone, to follow Warne's act were spelled out for the umpteenth needless time during the Ashes series. Trouble is, following that particular act is every bit as implausible and impossible a task as discovering a new frontman for the Rolling Stones or someone to script Othello 2: Desdemona's Revenge.

Like Muttiah Muralitharan and Sachin Tendulkar, Warne is an act apart. His peaks are more or less certain to survive every attempt to scale them. The same can be said of only four other cricketers, Don Bradman (batting average), Jack Hobbs (first-class runs and centuries), Jim Laker (wickets in a match) and Wilfred Rhodes (first-class wickets). Unlike the other members of cricket's modern holy trinity, let alone that unsurpassable quartet, Warne's troughs have been deep and conspicuous.

To be at Edgbaston in 1999, when he tormented South Africa's top order, was to witness the ultimate fusion of will and skill; to see him squirm in his seat at Australia's Johannesburg hotel four years later, as the world's media learned of his suspension for purportedly ingesting a diuretic supplied by his devoted mother, was to wonder why nobody had suggested he don a dunce's cap and stand in the corner. Don't get me started on those disgracefully ungallant comments about Murali.

Murali's action may still divide opinion like an axe splitting a watermelon, but that's as nothing to the unbudgeable black-and-whiteness of the pro- and anti-Warne camps. To some he's been the Messiah of spin, a rebel with a hell of a cause, the greatest Australian contribution to global culture since the Bee Gees, the personification of competitive artistry. Others, especially older Australians, see a larrikin, a beach bum, a source of embarrassment and even disgust, the very embodiment of insufferable cockiness.

It is tempting, as he faces the final curtain, to gloss over the bad and pour on the good, but judgement based on sentiment is never satisfactory. Another tack is required. So imagine being asked to write the inscription on his headstone.

Weighing his serial philandering against his charity work, you wouldn't immediately characterise Warne as a kind man. "Some kind of a man", Marlene Dietrich's gloriously ambivalent verdict on Hank Quinlan, Orson Welles' slobbering bent cop in Touch of Evil, won't quite do the trick either. Nor trusty standbys such as "gentle soul" or "noble spirit". Nor "Here lies a man", the grudgingly minimalist last words engraved on the last resting place of Sonny Liston, the boxer whose chief legacy was allowing Muhammad Ali to wrest his world title.

Like Muttiah Muralitharan and Sachin Tendulkar, Warne is an act apart. His peaks are more or less certain to survive every attempt to scale them. Unlike them, his troughs have been deep and conspicuous

Nor, instinctively, would you place the words "wise" and "man" next to each other, for all Warne's peerless mastery of the mind game. Yet look at how brilliantly he played his final scenes. Even the stage, India, was immaculately chosen. Long patronised as fodder for Tendulkar and pretty much any local who could hold a bat the right way up, he recast himself as both an inspirational captain and exactly the sort of walking, talking, couldn't-give-a-rat's-arse-what-anybody-thinks soul brother Lalit Modi had in mind as a promotional tool when he decided to entice over the planet's best to launch the IPL. Don't know about you, but that's what I call wisdom.

On reflection, however, the pun-soaked title of Roland Perry's 1999 biography does it best for me: Bold Warnie. Ian Botham, Kapil Dev and Andrew Flintoff may have sprung from the same mould, but none matched Warnie for flagrant defiance of caution, consistent mistrust of negativity and sheer quality of naked, cock-snooking boldness.

Abdul Qadir did his bit, of course, but it took Warne to give wrist-spin prospects of a global renaissance, to breathe infectious life into a comatose art seldom mastered outside the subcontinent - and yes, if we must lower the tone, to make it sexy. But for Warne, would Bishoo or Steve Smith or Scott Borthwick, Durham's up-and-coming leggie, have contemplated pursuing their modus operandi? The odds are forbiddingly long. But for Warne, would Saqlain Mushtaq have been inspired, perhaps compelled, to patent the doosra? Probably not. Without Warne, would Virender Sehwag have dared to bring his unique blend of aggression and stamina to the top of the order? Maybe, maybe not.

The abiding question is how good a Test captain that boldness could have made him. Victoria, Hampshire and Rajasthan Royals have often acclaimed his leadership, as did Ian Chappell recently while analysing the subject of Warne's foremost professional regret: "He empowered players by putting them in a position to have success. This then boosted them not only in the eyes of their team-mates but also in their own estimation. He also went out of his way to make junior players feel part of the team." Why the Rajasthan Cricket Association believes it has a case for defamation against Dean Jones for suggesting it should lick Warne's boots in gratitude should be way beyond any court's comprehension.

What cannot be doubted is that Warne the captain would have been a fillip for the longest format. No cause would have been lost, no gauntlet unthrown, no gamble untaken, no draw ever sought until all other options had been exhausted, no laugh unshared. It is the ICC and Cricket Australia who should harbour the most profound regrets.

But why dwell on the coulda-beens and shoulda-beens? Let's not be greedy. "Be natural, be yourself" read the fax Warne sent to a down-in-the-dumps Darren Gough in 1997, advice the Yorkshireman not only took to heart but ungraciously parlayed into Australian wickets. And whatever epithets you might hurl at the faxer, it is hard to imagine "hypocrite" and "fake" being among them.

According to my trusty Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary, "bold" has several meanings. How many apply to Warne? Let me count the ways. "Daring"? Tick. "Actively courageous"? Tick. "Executed with spirit"? Tick. "Striking to the sense"? Tick. "Forward or impudent"? Tick, tick. "Standing out clearly"? Has any cricketer ever stood out clearer?

Just think: now we can finally settle that deathless debate among grammarians over whether one should write "To boldly go" or "To go boldly". Much better to simplify matters and plump for a new verb altogether: "To Warne".

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton