May 2, 2013

Watching Warnie

Looking on as the world's greatest legspinner strutted his stuff was quite the education for a lesser-accomplished member of the breed

Almost unnoticed among the customary mountain of emails a couple of weeks ago was one quietly announcing the winner of the Cricket Society's Book of the Year, a long-standing literary award now co-organised by MCC. The latest victor was Gideon Haigh, the incisive Australian writer familiar to readers of ESPNcricinfo, for his book On Warne, more of an analysis of the great legspinner than a biography.

As luck would have it I'd just finished reading it, and agreed with the learned panel's decision. A review of the latest Wisden, on David Blackburn's Spectator blog, included the line: "Gideon Haigh's appreciation of Ricky Ponting contains sentences that leave you silent and content, as if admiring a view." And On Warne is the same - it's full of acute observations that had me paraphrasing Oscar Wilde: "I wish I'd written that."

You could pluck an example from every other page, so here are just a couple: "bowling Shivnarine Chanderpaul in Sydney in November 1996, the ball bouncing out of the rough like a zombie rising from the grave", or of that brief but businesslike approach to bowl, "He did not switch on - Warne was always 'on'. No, he switched the rest of the game off."

And Haigh is just about the only current cricket writer who could get away with: "Warne actually used to put me in mind of Edward Ashburnham in Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier: charmingly shallow, good-natured, weak-willed, and 'positively revolted at the thought that she [his wife] should know the sort of thing that he did'." I wish I'd written that (or even known about it).

It's a thought-provoking book, unlike your average cricket life-in-print with its "I went up to Trent Bridge and was lucky enough to score a century." With Haigh you get incisive analysis, like this on late-era Warne, after shoulder and finger surgery meant the big-ripping legbreaks were more of an effort than they were before: "Warne took his reputation as the bowler who had spun the ball as far as probably anyone in history, and turned it on its head, making himself into perhaps history's most skilful bowler of deliveries that either went straight on or turned just a little."

Almost inevitably I found myself trying to recapture my own Warne memories. Not really the televised ones, although some of them are priceless: does everyone remember where they were for the Gatting ball? I was watching the TV in the Wisden office and, being a decidedly sub-Warne legspinner myself, was interested to see the first ball from this new member of the union. First reaction: slight disappointment, as it seemed to be slipping down leg - yes, I've had a few of those! And then. Ah. Don't think I've ever done that - if I turn one that far my team-mates usually mutter about it having hit a stone. And it's clipped the top of off stump - so this was what all the fuss was about.

But actual on-the-ground memories? Well, I was in Sydney for the New Year match in 1994 when Warne took 12 South African wickets but still lost. And again four years later when he bamboozled 11 more South Africans, and this time won - that haul included his 300th in Tests, when he threaded one through Jacques Kallis to the accompaniment of thunder and lightning as a storm approached.

Still, there's something about being right behind a legspinner's arm that allows you to start to unravel the mysteries. With binoculars propped up, you can see the shoulder dipping, the wrist coming over differently, and maybe even the ball spinning this way or that. Sadly, as I discovered, that doesn't mean you'll actually be able do it yourself - it helps if you're the greatest bowler of them all to start with.

So, watching Warne: I've got two strong memories of this sort of close scrutiny. The first was back in 2000, when I was despatched down the M4 to report on Hampshire's visit to Taunton. I've got one vivid flashback of that day - and it's not the left-handed Piran Holloway's workmanlike century for Somerset (sorry Piran, I had to look it up). No, the recollections are all of Warne, who had a long afternoon spell for which I had the perfect vantage point.

In September 2007, I made a pilgrimage to the Rose Bowl. As I was walking in, I realised the man behind me - and his son, who was about eight - had come for the same reason: 'You're going to see Warnie,' said dad. 'This is his last home game'

Here's what Sunday Telegraph readers were regaled with the following day:

"Hampshire's bowling looked gentle - with one exception. Warne was low-key before lunch, but was still the most dangerous bowler on show and finished with four wickets. The Taunton press box, with its over-the-right-shoulder view, is an ideal spot to watch him trot out his variations. One ripped legbreak darted back in and nearly stranded Holloway, while others looped up invitingly outside off, before snaking back in and turning out to be not quite as driveable as they looked."

There were many more Warne sightings, but it was a while before I had quite such a good view again. In 2005 I was fortunate to be Wisden's man at the match for the Ashes Test at Edgbaston. When I found my allotted seat in the press box, opposite the pavilion, I was quietly pleased to discover it was right behind the bowler's arm (I once had a seat somewhere where the window pillar neatly obscured both sets of stumps, and another in the old box at The Oval from which no grass was actually visible). What I didn't realise, of course, was that I was about to witness one of the greatest of all Test matches.

It was undoubtedly the most continuously absorbing Test I've ever been at - every other one has had the odd quiet period, when it was safe to go for a chat or a wander around the ground. At this one you didn't even want to nip to the loo in case you missed anything.

And one major reason for that was Warne: he bowled nearly 50 overs in that match, all from my end. Each ball was an examination: Andrew Strauss was bowled in each innings, in the second by one that zipped across him, past a pad thrust towards cover, to crash into the stumps. It was Warne's second ball of the innings - and his 100th wicket in Tests in England.

Warne troubled every batsman in that game, finished with ten wickets and, if that wasn't enough, helped scare England rigid on the last day by scoring 42 as Australia inched to within three runs of victory. But his bowling was an education in itself.

A couple of years later, in September 2007, I made a pilgrimage to the Rose Bowl. As I was walking in, I realised the man behind me - and his son, who was about eight - had come for the same reason: "You're going to see Warnie," said dad. "This is his last home game." The great man took a couple of late wickets, although Hampshire eventually lost. It was actually his last home match (there was one soggy final first-class appearance, a draw up in Yorkshire). I hope the little boy remembers it.

We didn't really know then, of course, that there was a PS to come, in the glitzy form of high-profile T20 appearances for Rajasthan Royals and Melbourne Stars. Cherish him while you can - even in fun-size four-over chunks.

Steven Lynch is the editor of the Wisden Guide to International Cricket 2013