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