Quite simply he made legspin bowling sexy again. Admittedly, some of his legend revolves around his other exploits, but first and foremost Shane Warne became the superstar he did because of the manner in which he spun the cricket ball and the way he rose to the big occasions almost every time - be it in Ashes series or in World Cups. In an era when spin bowling was dwindling, Warne, more than any other bowler, revived the art.
The way he started his international career, though, not many would have anticipated such a glittering future. On his Test debut, against India in Sydney in 1992, Warne returned figures of 1 for 150, his only victim being double-centurion Ravi Shastri, who himself returned figures of 4 for 45 in Australia's second innings. Warne finished that series with an average of 228, and in his next Test, in Sri Lanka, he had figures of none for 107 in the first innings.
In the second innings Warne, with Test match stats of 1 for 335 till that point, showed the world the first glimpses of his special talent. Sri Lanka, requiring just 181 for victory in the fourth innings, were 150 for 7 when Warne came in and wrapped up the tail for the addition of only 14 more runs. The win gave Australia the series, and Warne was on his way. Later that year, in his first Boxing Day Test at his home ground, Melbourne, West Indies got their first taste of Warne magic, when his 7 for 52 fetched him the first of 17 Man-of-the-Match awards. (Incidentally, his last such award was at the same venue, exactly 14 years later.)
Warne didn't do a whole lot more in that series, but from 1993 onwards he was a factor in pretty much every series he played for the next five years. That ball to Mike Gatting in the 1993 Ashes started his legend, and it grew with almost every over he bowled. Apart from the sheer number of wickets he took, the other key of his bowling during this period was the stranglehold he maintained over opposition batsmen. Legspin is supposed to be difficult to control, but Warne gave nothing away: in five series between 1993 and 1995, his economy rate was less than two runs per over; in three of those series he averaged less than 20 as well.
He averaged nearly five wickets per Test for about five years beginning 1993, but then came a slump between 1998 and 2001, as a combination of a shoulder injury and plenty of matches against India led to a drastic fall in returns. Nine of the 14 Tests he played against India in his entire career came during this period, and in each of those three series he averaged more than 40. Overall, India was the one team he could never conquer - he averaged 47.18 against them, and under 30 against all other teams.
He got his mojo back in 2001 against England - who else? - and did very well in his last five and a half years, averaging almost six wickets per Test and winning nine Man-of-the-Match awards. In fact, Warne's 2005 remains the best year any bowler has had in terms of wickets taken: he nailed 96 victims in 15 matches at an average of 22.02. No other bowler has taken more than 90 in a calendar year.
As mentioned earlier, Warne loved the big stage, and it hardly got bigger than when Australia were playing England for the Ashes. In 36 Tests against the old enemy, Warne took 195 wickets at an outstanding average of 23.25. He played in seven series against them (excluding the home one in 1998-99, when he played one Test), and averaged less than 21 in three of them. The only instance it touched 30 was in his last series, at home in 2006-07, when he took 23 wickets at 30.34. His 195 wickets is comfortably the highest by any bowler in Ashes contests, well clear of Dennis Lillee's 167.
In the 2005 Ashes in England, Warne took 40 wickets, which is one of only eight instances of a bowler taking 40 or more wickets in a series. Not surprisingly, six of the eight batsmen he dismissed most often were from England.
Apart from the period between 1998 and 2001, when Warne struggled a bit, he was amazingly consistent through the rest of his career. In the 38 series he played of three or more Tests, he averaged less than 30 in 27 of them. His best in terms of series average was against Pakistan at home in 1995-96, when he took 19 wickets in three Tests despite not bowling at all in a match. His average for the series was 10.42. In fact, Pakistan's batsmen were the most clueless against him - though they would've played more spin bowling than batsmen from South Africa and England. In the series against Pakistan in 2002-03, Warne averaged 12.66, taking 27 wickets in three matches. Overall he took 90 wickets from 15 Tests against Pakistan at an average of 20.17. Only Kapil Dev took more wickets against Pakistan than him, but Kapil needed many more matches, and his average was much higher.
Unlike most other spinners, who usually come into play as attacking options in the third and fourth innings of Tests, Warne's bag of tricks was so vast that he was a force even in the first innings, when pitches are generally at their least conducive to turn. In the first innings of a match, Warne took 156 wickets at an average of less than 28. He averaged only about 2.5 wickets per innings, but that was because the Australian fast bowlers were generally so effective at getting wickets on a fresh pitch. Muttiah Muralitharan took more first-innings wickets but averaged almost the same, while Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh have conceded far more runs per wicket.
Warne took six five-fors in the first innings, the best of which was 7 for 56 in Sydney against South Africa in a match Australia ended up losing by five runs.
In the third and fourth innings of Tests, Warne turned lethal, conceding less than 23 runs per wicket. Nineteen of his 37 five-fors came in these innings, including his best figures in Test cricket: against England at the Gabba in 1994, where his 8 for 71 in the fourth innings consigned the visitors to a 184-run defeat.
Thanks to Australia's powerful line-ups during the period in which Warne played, most of his great efforts were in match-winning causes: he is the only bowler to take more than 500 wickets in wins, and is likely to remain the only one for quite a bit longer.
Warne didn't play as many ODIs as many others of his era - he finished with only 194, compared to 352 for Ricky Ponting, 325 for Steve Waugh and 287 for Adam Gilchrist. In fact, Warne is only tenth on the list of Australians who've played most ODIs, but in the 194 games he played he was more than a handful for batsmen. Even in a format that places a premium on economy, Warne was fantastic with his ability to take wickets - he grabbed 293 of them, and at a more-than-acceptable economy rate of 4.25 runs per over.
His accuracy and his ability to hunt down wickets was especially crucial for Australia in the big games. He played only two World Cups - missing out on the 2003 edition in unfortunate circumstances - but made a huge impact in both, winning Man-of-the-Match awards in two semi-finals and a final.
His semi-final performances were especially memorable: on both occasions Australia were defending below-par scores, and both times Warne's four-fors made the difference. In 1996, Australia had scored only 207 and West Indies seemed to be coasting towards victory when Glenn McGrath started the slide, and Warne completed it by wrapping up the tail. He finished with 4 for 36 as Australia squeezed out a five-run win.
Three years later he was arguably even more immense. With Australia defending only 213, Warne dismissed four of South Africa's best batsmen - Gary Kirsten, Herschelle Gibbs, Hansie Cronje and Jacques Kallis - as Australia ended up tying the game and making it to the final on the basis of a higher finish in the Super Sixes. Warne took 4 for 29 off 10 overs in a match in which both McGrath (1 for 51 off 10) and Damien Fleming (1 for 40 off 8.4) weren't at their best. In the final, Warne took four more as Pakistan were bundled out for a meagre 132 in the most one-sided of all title contests. Overall, his average in World Cup games was 19.50, at an excellent economy rate of 3.83, numbers that are remarkably similar to those of Muralitharan.
Warne ticked most boxes in his 15-year international career, but the one mark that eluded him was a Test century. He was always a handy batsman, but the nearest he came to a hundred was against New Zealand in Perth in 2001, when he fell to Daniel Vettori for 99. That, perhaps, only adds to his legend.