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Feature

Everyone wanted to be 'The King'

His sheer presence, his aura, his swagger had fans walking tall and believing they too were invincible

Alex Malcolm
Alex Malcolm
05-Mar-2022
Shane Warne was a favourite among young fans of cricket

He was their James Bond. Young men wanted to be him. The playboy lifestyle, both the good and bad.  •  Getty Images

The King. Some nicknames are random. But this one was earned as much as it was bestowed.
For any Australian born after 1980, Shane Warne is known as 'The King'. He was not just the king of spin, but the king of the cricketing jungle.
Warne himself, a child of the 1960s, idolised Dennis Lillee. Those of Warne's vintage hold Lillee as Australia's ultimate bowling alpha male, but they were also drawn to Warne and loved him just as much. To most of that generation, he was nicknamed 'Warnie'. He bowled with Lillee's bravado and charisma, but with a staggering skill level in the dying craft of legspin.
But for the younger generation who grew up with Warne as 'The King', they worshipped him unconditionally and not just for his feats on the field. No matter what he did away from cricket, and there were innumerable opportunities to cast judgment and or cast him aside, it only served to endear him even more to this adoring generation.
He was their James Bond. Young men wanted to be him. The playboy lifestyle, both the good and bad.
Just like the batters he bowled to, he captured a generation by luring them in. Very few kids would ever sit down to watch a bowler bowl. But they sat on the edge of their seats when Warne came on. There was a majesty, a mystery, a mastery to what he was doing and yet it looked like it was possible to emulate.
He wasn't a supreme athlete by any stretch, so he was completely relatable. The bleach blonde hair. The not-so-svelte figure. He just walked to the crease, as any kid could do, and twirled his fingers, and voila! A flipper to dismiss the great Richie Richardson. An astonishing legbreak that has been seen and it still isn't believed to dismiss Mike Gatting. A hat-trick on Boxing Day at his beloved MCG.
Every kid who had an interest in cricket suddenly wanted to bowl legspin. They wanted to walk in and rip it from outside leg to hit the top of off. Every team had a legspinner. Even those who bowled pace tried their hand at legspin at training on a nightly basis.
He made the toughest art in cricket the coolest.
And what was special to Australian kids was he was one of them. A kid from the bayside suburbs in Melbourne who wanted to be a rockstar, became one bowling legspin.
The moment he entered another stratosphere was when he signed with Nike in the mid-1990s. Every kid in Australia wanted the Shane Warne Nike cricket shoes, his trademark "Swoosh" stud earring and to wear the No. 23. That put Warne on a different plane to other cricketers. He was now with one of the most iconic brands in the world, sitting alongside Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods as their marquee man in a commonwealth sport.
Cricketers had commercialised the game before, but Warne went to a different level. Kids watched him by day and played his video game Shane Warne Cricket '99 by night.
As the off-field scandals grew so did the on-field legend and the love for him grew with it.
With his shoulder hanging by a thread after a year of struggles, he conjured up the most magical of spells to drag Australia out of the mire in the 1999 World Cup semi-final against South Africa before delivering again in the final.
Fans rode the exhilaration, ecstasy, agony, and sheer mirth of his Test match 99 at the WACA against New Zealand in 2001. He was box office.
Even the drug saga, that kept him out of the game for a year and could have cost Australia a World Cup title defence in 2003 was brushed off by his adoring fans. Ah, the king! A slimming diuretic from mum? Oh well. Can't wait 'til he's back.
He wasn't a supreme athlete by any stretch, so he was completely relatable. The bleach blonde hair. The not-so-svelte figure. He just walked to the crease, as any kid could do, and twirled his fingers, and voila!
The renaissance post-ban might have been the best period of watching Warne. There is a running joke among Australian fans who grew up in the 1990s and 2000s that the Steve Waugh-Ricky Ponting era of dominance was like a warm blanket providing a feeling of safety and comfort.
The reality was he was providing a feeling of invincibility. His sheer presence, his aura, his swagger had those fans walking tall and believing they too were invincible. If Warne had the ball, they couldn't lose. Even when they played poorly in 2005 against England, Warne still gave the sense he could win from anywhere. Trent Bridge was a taster when he nearly single-handedly defended 129. Amazing Adelaide, 15 months later was the main course, where he inspired an astonishing victory through bluff, bravado, unmatchable skill, and unwavering belief.
To sit at the MCG on Boxing Day 2006 when he took his 700th Test wicket and hear an entire stadium chant his name as he conjured another five-wicket haul was to experience The King's jubilee. And like the rock star that he was, he retired one Test later, at the height of the show, at the peak of his powers, just to leave the fans wanting more.
It feels like that to a generation right now. Like he's exited stage left way before his time. Post-retirement he was living life like a king. Australians do suffer badly from tall poppy syndrome, but when it came to Warnie no one begrudged him and they wanted to continue the ride with him, living vicariously in many ways.
He was The King. To many Australians Shane Warne will forever be, The King.

Alex Malcolm is an Associate Editor at ESPNcricinfo