On Warne January 26, 2013

Warnie, warts and all

Gideon Haigh trains his masterly eye on one of the most compelling cricketers of all time

A summer that is likely the last one Shane Warne will spend propelling a cricket ball down the pitch produced precious few memories worth remembering him by. Bowling only intermittently for the Melbourne Stars after Aaron Finch dominated him in the opening match, Warne's was a somewhat unfortunate sideshow, breaking the rules as often as he stretched them to try to claim some sort of advantage for his team when his legspin could no longer provide it.

The unseemly spectacle reached its nadir in a tragicomic confrontation with Marlon Samuels in the middle of the MCG, and concluded in farce and drama at the WACA ground.

Raging uncontrollably against an opponent in a match well lost? Playing a captaincy charade in order to avoid a sanction for slow over rates, then losing the game, having not bowled a single over himself? Responding petulantly when the quite lenient sanctions were handed down in both cases? No, this is not how we wish to remember the greatest legspin bowler the game has witnessed.

How refreshing, then, to escape the sad pantomime of 2012-13 by delving into Gideon Haigh's entertaining and insightful stroll through the reasons why and how Warne was great in the first place. To read On Warne is to recall the bowler and the man who was always difficult to ignore, and still more difficult not to love in a certain recurring circumstance: from the moment he paused at the top of his mark, to the instant one of his hard-spun leggies, toppies, flippers, sliders, or occasionally wrong'uns, had pick-pocketed yet another batsman.

Until now, Haigh's last long-form depictions of Warne were to be found in One Summer, Every Summer, written as far back as 1995. It was his first stab at the Ashes tour books that have now become almost standard issue for Haigh a few months after each series rolls by. Little-read and less remembered, it remains my favourite work by the man commonly acknowledged as the finest cricket writer (or would he prefer cricketer-writer?) around.

Among the many elements I enjoyed, and still do, were Haigh's exceptionally clever but beautifully breezy descriptions of Warne, then at a peak of early fame and bowling virtuosity all but unsullied by the assorted misadventures that would follow. At the time, neither the author nor his readers knew this was also the summer Warne spent considerable time on the phone to "John the Bookie". So there is a comparative innocence to the account, spiced by interviews the author conducted with the likes of Barry Knight, Bill Lawry and Ian McLachlan.

At last count Haigh has now written no fewer than 26 books, most on cricket. I'd never had quite so much fun reading him as I had when I, still a teenager, started on One Summer, Every Summer. That is, not until On Warne bounced into my PO Box.

Conceived on the suggestion of a publisher, On Warne has brought back the earlier breeziness. It is a light, quick read, celebrating Warne's scarcely fathomable talent but also examining his origins as a bowler, a selection of his most pivotal cricket relationships, and running through the most noteworthy controversies of his career and their links to one another.

Rather than following Warne's tale chapter and verse, the book is delivered in five parts, a neat and satisfying number if talking in terms of a Test match. Each segment offers a different perspective on the bowler and the man, sometimes light-hearted, sometimes more weighty, always informative.

Haigh starts by depicting his first meeting with Warne, for an Inside Sport magazine interview in 1994. Even then, when only one of the 15 or so accounts of his life that now exist had been published, Warne was wrestling with the realities of fame. "The trouble is, people I've never met think they know all about me," he had remarked. At no stage of the book does Haigh purport to really know the man. Instead he concentrates on the cricketer, and as a writer of rare gifts, does his subject a great service by painting some of the most compelling word pictures of his craft ever put to print.

The Art of Warne chapter is thus a particular gem. Starting with the approach to the wicket, Haigh breaks down the elements of a bowling action that is practically perfect in every way, and the mental games Warne played, and invariably won, with batsmen. He rightly points out that a large part of Warne's success could be drawn from the essential simplicity of his method - that once he figured what worked for him, he spent years working to maintain it rather than expand it.

There is also a very precise summation of the phases Warne's bowling went through, from the Gatting ball extremes of side-spin enjoyed by Warne 1.0, to the physical trials of finger and shoulder that reduced the effectiveness of Warne 2.0, and the late-career triumphs of Warne 3.0, epitomised in the final day of the 2006 Adelaide Test by "residual skill harnessed to latter-day artfulness, enhanced by irrepressible confidence". Lastly, the recent T20 years are observed as Warne 4.0, and it is noted that for Rajasthan in the IPL he bowled "as perhaps he always should have on the subcontinent: straighter and within tighter lines".

Haigh goes on to survey significant team-mates, coaches, misadventures and trends in the game. Once or twice it does feel as though there was room for more. "The Men of Warne" analyses his relationships with Glenn McGrath, Stuart MacGill, Steve Waugh and John Buchanan, all pungent subjects. In the case of MacGill, Haigh makes an excellent case for why it was that Warne was the superior bowler on his own, while paradoxically his hard graft allowed MacGill to enjoy much the better figures when they worked in tandem. But other pivotal partnerships might have been explored, particularly those with his other captains, and with the incumbent, Michael Clarke.

Mark Taylor's time as captain is touched on in what is perhaps the most fascinating passage not about Warne's bowling. Haigh makes the sharp link between the on-field disciplinary problems in South Africa in early 1994, the hefty ACB fines imposed on Warne and Merv Hughes for them, and the shady interactions subsequently believed to have been had between Warne, Mark Waugh and the aforementioned bookie. Mistrust between players and board led to evasions, half-truths and worse, until a mutually beneficial silence was struck when Warne and Waugh's transgressions were uncovered by the board on the eve of the 1995 West Indies tour. In light of subsequent accusations against Warne's way about being loose with the truth, Haigh concludes that "if he learned the want of candour anywhere, it might well have been from the Australian Cricket Board".

Lack of transparency has had echoes in the BBL Code of Conduct commission hearings of this summer, at which Warne was too often the person of most interest to the commissioner before verdicts and penalties were handed down with questionable judgement. Warne was not present for the final hearing, and the last sight of the cricketer may in fact have been television pictures of him and Elizabeth Hurley departing Perth, the fiancée telling a reporter where to go with words of the sort Warne himself had reserved for Samuels. No, this is not how we wish to remember him. On Warne provides a telling reminder of why not.

On Warne
by Gideon Haigh
Penguin Australia
224 pages, A$35

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Randolph on January 29, 2013, 11:35 GMT

    As Lara said, Warne is just way better than Murali ever was.

  • Zaccharia on January 27, 2013, 22:49 GMT

    All stats aside, it's curious that when Warne and Murali comparisons arise, not many consider the opinions of opponents or ex-players. From Brian Lara to Alec Stewart, Warne was generally considered the more difficult to bat against and the harder competitor to get the upper hand over. Almost every expert and ex-player I've heard have also generally favoured Warne. Perhaps this isn't to be overlooked.

  • ian on January 27, 2013, 20:49 GMT

    I have a trouble with Warne. Was he a great bowler, (as opposed to merely an exceptional one) because he embodied the quintessence of larrikin-ism, or was he great despite that questionable asset? That he was superb practitioner of his art is beyond question, but the trouble he courted throughout his career (and the catalogue of misdemaeanours & indiscretions is worthy of a lurid paperback) suggests that if he had not been the greatest slow bowler ever to have turned his arm for a country south of the equator, then he may well have ended up a crashing bore propping up a bar in a Melbourne suburb, avoided by all with good sense & tiresomely well known to the local constabulary. Is it necessary for some sports personalities to go to the line (& occasionally step over it) in order to ensure their greatness, perpetuate the legend, as it were? Hmm! I wish him a quiet retirement & safe passage, because he wouldn't be much interested in owning these qualities for himself. Good luck , Liz!

  • mahjut on January 27, 2013, 12:07 GMT

    Once the can is open it's hard not to join the Murali/Warne comparisons which this thread is bound to descend into. So, here goes; Warne's mental toughness was almost never tested - He rarely had to be defensive with a team that scored big runs and bowlers like McGrath and Gillespie who were routinely accurate (and the one time his toughness was genuinely tested was off-field - he blamed his mom) ... Murali on the other hand had almost his whole career under extreme pressure and handled it very well. Hard to see where the scientific method helps reach this conclusion: "The skill of a wrist spinner like Warne outweighs the skill of a bent armed freak like Murali." Murali's three deliveries had more success than Warne's five ... Murali also had to be perfectly balanced at attack and defense - stats show he was! This doesn't detract from the fact that Warne was a great bowler and a HUGE part of a legendary team. but compare the two's away matches (minus ZW,BD SL & OZ)? :Murali, hands down

  • Johnathon on January 27, 2013, 1:41 GMT

    Always was 2nd to Murali in terms of actually bowling/skill/ability, but he definitely was the more entertaining of the two. He would always attack in bursts/spells that made him a crowd pleaser and while his personal life was filled with scandals and controversy which made him an even more intriguing player. But of course that's why we all love him, for the man he is, not for the man he should be

  • Leonard on January 26, 2013, 23:23 GMT

    Very simply, the greatest bowler I have seen in 50 years of watching our great game. A true artist with the most wonderfully pure action and a great competitor.

  • PALLAB on January 26, 2013, 11:26 GMT

    Have to sledge since Warnie is an incorrigible sledger himself.Not a SINGLE magic ball against Indian bat in 14 Tests both home/away.3 generationss of Indian bats Sidhu,Azhar,Shastri,Tendulkar,Kambli.Sehwag,Laxman clobbered him consistently.He only contained Dravid & Ganguly (who always looked to attack him though).Ranatunga and DeSilva deliberately attacked him in World Cup final' 96 to validate their"over-rated spinner" estimation. Malik was another one to master him.Warne though made a mess of this century's leaden-footed SL bats in the 2004 series (after ban).I say this cos Ozzie posters always say Kaliis not great cos he has not performed to his high standards against OZ.But W did master his trade on the harder decks of SA/OZ.Let's not talk about pusillanimous Eng sides of '90s against whom he bagged bushels of wickets.BTW,thought Roebuck was greatest cricket writer;soon maybe Ed Smith/even Mark Nicholas.

  • Simon on January 26, 2013, 6:49 GMT

    That ball to Gatting. After that every batsman knew what may happen with no input from themselves. Very strong intelligent character was and is Warne. When I sore him in Perth he looked ordinary but everywhere else on TV he has been mostly excellent. I think he can keep playing but doesn't need to get into juvenile situations. There is no doubt he can lift teams when captain and Australia missed out.

  • Vaibhav on January 26, 2013, 6:44 GMT

    As has been rightly mentioned, he has been the most compelling cricketer all along. You see his bowling, you see the way he inspires Rajasthan team to win IPL and then you see the kind of drama he manages to pull off on certain days. But then that is Shane Warne for you. Love him, hate him but you just can not ignore him.

    Sometimes, I wonder that Warne, the player has lost a lot as he was never considered a captain for Australian team but then his stature as one of the all time greats can never be questioned.