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Shane Warne: the showman who could do hard graft

Watching him put aside ego and get down with the grind in poker provided a reaffirmation that he was for real

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
Michael Clarke and Shane Warne play cards at the hotel after play was abandoned due to rain, New Zealand v Australia, 2nd Test, Wellington, 1st day, March 18, 2005

The player: Warne with Michael Clarke during a rain break in Wellington in 2005  •  Hamish Blair/Getty Images

When you think of Las Vegas, you probably think of the desert heat, the neon lights, the replica landmarks and the revolting glitziness of the endless, tinkling casinos. You almost certainly don't think of the world's greatest legspinner, standing by some piss-infused bins, sucking on a "smoko" and ruing the one that got away.
If there'd been an alley cat or two in the vicinity, Shane Warne might well have kicked them into the Nevada night too. For it was the dinner break on the first evening of the 2012 World Series of Poker main event, and Warne had just snuck out through the hotel kitchens after overplaying his final hand of the session to damaging effect.
It wasn't a tournament-ending setback - that would come some days later, after the initial 6598-strong field had been whittled down to the hundreds - but in cricketing parlance, it was quite literally that loss of concentration before an interval, all that hard graft squandered in a moment of avoidable rashness.
"The flop came eight, jack, deuce, rainbow…" Warne would later tell me, in eye-glazing detail, as we shared a cab back across Vegas at the close of that day's play. Every time he lost a hand, it was due to someone else's good fortune, of course, rather than his own dumb miscalculation, but the sheer nerdery in Warne's love of poker was never less than joyous to behold.
For I genuinely believe that, in those otherwise awkward years between Warne's retirement from cricket and his discovery of a true life after sport, his love of cards gave him a purpose and belonging that he simply could not have replicated elsewhere in his extraordinarily A-listed life.
In a world where Warne could speed-dial personalities as polarised as Ed Sheeran or David Hasselhoff, and where - as Nick Hoult, his ghostwriter at the Telegraph, has memorably related - he was obliged to use code words and pseudonyms at hotel receptions to keep the paparazzi at arm's length, there was something reassuringly wholesome about sitting anonymously at a poker table, for sometimes days at a time, re-channelling that extraordinary blend of bluff, grind and raw skill that had marked Warne out as one of the greatest sporting champions of any sport and any era.
Personally speaking, however - having marvelled as a teenager at his seemingly fully formed arrival on cricket's world stage - Warne's all-consuming new passion offered an entry level insight into his remarkable psyche, as he attempted to translate his proven genius in one field to another, entirely different, mindgame.
"[Poker]'s about skill, it's about patience, it's about not getting tired in the course of a 12-hour day," Warne told me during that Vegas trip, for which - in an impressive bluff of my own - I managed to persuade the bean-counters at the Cricketer that an all-expenses-paid week of gambling was exactly what the magazine needed for its reboot.
"You need serious powers of concentration and an understanding of when to push and when to sit tight," Warne added, conferring the game with all the glamour of a day in the dirt in Rawalpindi. "You have to manage your frustration when you're being dealt crap cards, or being forced to play safe because other guys are going mad. And sometimes you have to create something that's not there…"
Ah yes. The bluff. Was there any player in cricket's history better at sowing doubt in his opponents than Warne? The knowledge of the moments in which he genuinely had the best hand and played it to perfection - and most things in that regard stemmed from the Ball of the Century at Old Trafford in 1993 - made his years of grift and bluster possible; those times in the late 1990s and early 2000s when his shoulder appeared to be held together by stringy pizza cheese, and only his multi-layered connivances were able to hoodwink a succession of opponents into tame and match-sealing surrenders.
For Warne was playing poker on the cricket field long before he turned to his cards for that post-career adrenaline shot. Unlike the quick bowlers who had ruled the roost before his arrival, there were rarely any route-one options when it came to outwitting the batters in his sights. He often needed to get his fish on the hook before he could reel them in - perhaps with a diet of ripping legbreaks, followed by the slider, as Ian Bell discovered to his cost at Lord's in 2005, or perhaps with some expertly detonated verbals, the likes of which lured both Mark Ramprakash and Nasser Hussain to their doom in the 1998-99 and 2001 series.
He seemed to find a personalised strategy for all calibres of rival. In a one-day final in Melbourne in 2000-01, Warne even greeted Brian Lara with a first-ball bouncer, a tactic that hit instant pay dirt when a riled Lara slapped a wild drive to cover in the same over. And then there was his long and storied rivalry with South Africa's Daryll Cullinan, a batter who was so fazed over the course of so many setbacks that he turned for help to a psychiatrist - some two decades before they were accepted as a recognised part of a sportsperson's preparation.
That innate willingness to graft may have been at odds with Warne's showman persona, but it was a key part of the deceptive image that he was able to present throughout an astonishing 15-year career. And when it came to poker, his new rivals may have known little of cricket, but most of them were better than average people-readers, and could see and respect the efforts that he was willing to put in to cut it on the tables.
"He's a guy I can introduce at events and say, 'Hey, Ben Affleck, here's a guy who's more famous than you!" Phil Hellmuth, one of poker's greats, told me during that trip.
"Some of these sportsmen are really good at poker because they are competitive by nature," Hellmuth added. "If you're good enough to channel that and become great in your first career, it figures that some of these guys know how to relearn that and get good at something that will make them a new career."
As things turned out, Warne fell short of the money "bubble" on that 2012 trip - "I always overplay my jacks," he admitted in a moment of post-elimination candour, while watching Hashim Amla rack up a triple-century at The Oval later that summer. And overall, he rarely got closer to a payout than in 2009, when his deep run in the tournament caused him to turn up a week late for his hugely hyped Sky Sports debut in that summer's Ashes.
But his love of the game was absolute. He kept putting himself through the glamour-free yakka of these vast deep-stack tournaments because there was nowhere he'd rather be - even if those games tended to be in vast aircraft-hangar-style conference centres, light-years removed from the penthouse glamour that poker projects on late-night TV, and where the all-pervading vibe was the fierce concentration and mild terror of a school exam-hall.
And in watching Warne put aside the ego and just get down with the grind, it was a reaffirmation of that sense we all had had beamed into our living rooms throughout the course of his matchless career - that in spite of the artifice of his art, and the apparent superficiality of his bleach-blond image, Shane Warne was entirely for real.
In 2018, I was privileged enough to witness the truth of Warne in its full majesty. A chance, at the Kia Oval, to face a full over in the nets from the greatest bowler of my lifetime, and - at the behest of his old Ashes rival, Michael Vaughan - to "smash him out of the park".
Inevitably we talked poker while I was strapping on my pads - it's how we always communicated in our intermittent meetings, with Warnie always keen to unload about some lucky sucker who'd cleaned him out the previous week - but two moments in particular stand out now, as I look back on a career highlight that is laced with more poignancy than I could ever have envisaged at the time.
Firstly, there was his generosity of spirit, as he played along with my inept efforts to take him to the cleaners while imploring me not to hold back because I "probably [wouldn't] get this chance again". How devastatingly final that now sounds.
But then, right at the end of the session, while signing off for the cameras, there appeared on Warne's features a flicker of apparently genuine hurt, as I joked about how he had "ruined my childhood" with his routine dismemberment of my England heroes.
The moment passed as quickly as it appeared, but it's strangely haunting nonetheless, for it spoke to Warne's most basic desire to be a people-pleaser - which, when you think about it, ought to be a given for one of sport's great entertainers.
It's not always quite as linear as that, however. Not many megastars are quite so devoid of pretension as Warne remained to the end - even allowing for a hectic, jet-set lifestyle that only a man who burned at his wattage could have kept up with.
But that glimmer of a tell does perhaps explain why Warne never quite raked in the poker millions that he always believed were his for the winning.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket