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The man who became legspin

No bowler exemplifies the art of the legbreak as much as Shane Warne does; no bowler ever will

Gideon Haigh
Gideon Haigh
Larger than life  •  Getty Images

Larger than life  •  Getty Images

Shane Warne will probably never play at the Melbourne Cricket Ground again, but a corner has been marked out for him. In October 2008, in the bowels of the ground, the National Sports Museum activated "Shane Warne: Cricket Found Me", in which a three-dimensional image of Warne speaks for more than 10 minutes, seemingly ex tempore, while appearing to walk around a dressing room.
The technology is remarkable; Warne himself, however, is more remarkable still. He was required to speak about his career to a camera, without prop or prompts, in one uninterrupted take. As you observe, he did so effortlessly, without ever breaking eye contact - or, perhaps more accurately, lens contact. Elsewhere in the museum, a simulacrum of the Australian Rules footballer James Hird, an intelligent and well-spoken young man, goes through the same routine in a similar display: his attention falters, his eyes dart away, his body language is tentative. You watch Warne again. You hate to admit it but it's true: he seems to be talking to you. Now that is charisma.
Warne was an extraordinary bowler. It can't really be said often enough. He will personify legbreak bowling for as long as the skill exists. If and when an outstanding new purveyor achieves note, the question will be: how does he compare with Warne? As fascinating to watch as were Anil Kumble and Mushtaq Ahmed, Warne's was the style to study and emulate - so simple, so unadorned, so apparently artless. So epic were his feats, too, that it is hard to recall legbreak bowling before him. In the 1980s, of course, there were the mysteries and intrigues of Abdul Qadir. But Qadir's wickets down under cost 61 runs each. Had Cormac McCarthy written a novel of Australian cricket at the time, in fact, it would have been called No Country for Young Legspinners. That was certainly the attitude, when Warne first played Sheffield Shield, of his captain Simon O'Donnell and coach Les Stillman. Seldom has received wisdom been more promptly and utterly routed.
Warne cut a swathe through batsmen in the early 1990s who had seen nothing remotely similar for generations - which was amazing. Then he cut another swathe and another - which was miraculous. After his Test debut in England, with its fabled "Gatting ball", Warne's bowling average was 28. It diminished to 22.55, grew to 26.7, and finally settled at 25.4. Until then legspin had been a speculative investment, cricket's venture capital; Warne made it into bowling bricks and mortar. Everything told you it should be otherwise. Batsman would get used to him. Coaches would work him out. Curators would prepare flat pitches. All these were before the physical dangers Warne posed to himself, for legspin involves colossal efforts at pivotal points in the human anatomy. And, to an extent, all the aforementioned possibilities eventuated. In each case, though, Warne rose to the challenge of counteracting them. He kept getting batsmen bowled. He get kept getting them lbw. He kept getting them WTF. He had almost no right to, but he did.
Yet even then, this doesn't quite do him justice, for Warne was no more to be considered simply a bowler than Marilyn Monroe was to be deemed merely as an actress. He was a presence, on the field, in the game, in the media, in the mind. To each delivery, there was a whole preamble, sometimes theatrical, sometimes languorous, always captivating. As he dawdled before his trademark saunter, he would curl the ball from hand to hand, an action both predatory and dainty, feeling his own powers of torque communicated through the ball, keeping the batsman in his crouch that little longer than perhaps was comfortable - time for thought, time for doubt. That pause: it was almost imperceptible, yet time would seem to stand still. It called to mind Paul Keating's parliamentary retort when quizzed by his rival John Hewson as to why he did not call an early election: "The answer is, mate, I wanna do you slowly."
He kept getting batsmen bowled. He get kept getting them lbw. He kept getting them WTF. He had almost no right to, but he did
In the last few years of his career, these performances of Warne's bordered on burlesque. The Ashes of 2005 and 2006-07 were series divided: there was the cricket featuring Warne, then the rest. There was brilliance, there was bluff; he was the beamish boy one moment, the blowhard the next. He was seldom outbowled, hardly outfoxed, never out-talked. His manner with dissenting umpires was straight from the WG Grace playbook: "They've come to watch me bowl, not you umpire."
Nor was it always a pageant of success. A day that sticks in the mind is the fourth in Perth in December 2006. Warne toiled for almost two sessions from the Prindiville Stand End, on a perfect batting wicket, in temperatures well over 40 degrees, taking 1 for 100. Yet every ball was full of willingness and will power. Every time he paused at the top of his run, you felt like the batsman was simply there for his delectation. Every time he whirled into his action, you expected a triumphant appeal to follow. At the time, it transpired, he was contemplating the retirement he announced before the next Test. You'd never have guessed: he seemed to be setting himself to bowl forever. Late that day, Glenn McGrath, spared work for the afternoon, struck crucially with the second new ball, and afterwards commented that the wickets were as much Warne's as his: how often, by the pressure he exerted, by the yakka he soaked up, that was true.
On fame in cricket, meanwhile, Warne rewrote the book. In this, to be sure, he had some help. On television in India, Sachin Tendulkar has exerted perhaps the single greatest influence; on tabloid culture in England, Ian Botham left indelible inky fingerprints. Yet Warne blazed a trail of fame everywhere cricket took him, and everywhere he took cricket. He oozed action. He radiated star quality. An expectation surrounded him, including his own of himself, as it has done few other players, and as it was once summarised by another Australian cricketer: "Every time Warne bowls he expects to take wickets. Every time he bats he expects to make runs. Every time he sees a woman he expects to get laid."
His weakness, particularly in the last of these, was an incapacity for saying no - to others, to himself. But you could sort of understand this apparently infinite suggestibility: after all, most of the time "yes" worked so damn well. And in the end Warne pulled it off: even after all his tribulations he has ended up being a good advertisement for fame. Certainly he always seemed to enjoy it - sometimes to a fault. "He loves to be loved," said his captain Steve Waugh, and the media has never outgrown its infatuation with him. For all his sometimes tetchy relations with them, too, Warne has returned the media's embrace. No past master has fitted as seamlessly into commentary as Warne - insightful, irreverent, irrepressible, even in his recent perma-tanned petrifaction.
Warne also remained, above all, absolutely true to his gift. Fame had opposite effects on Tendulkar and Botham. Tendulkar preserved his excellence by sequestering himself from a clamouring public; Botham swallowed celebrity whole and spat out self-parody. Warne swaggered down the middle of the road, living large but always bowling big, revelling in the attention while never losing the love of his craft. Even now, at 41, in the IPL, he looks completely engaged in every game, playing because he wants to, not because he has to. There are those who say he obtains wickets because he is Shane Warne; to this, Warne would undoubtedly reply: "Thanks for the compliment."
Warne has inspired books, busts, bottles of wine, hagiographies, hatchet jobs, mountains of memorabilia, even a musical. But in some respects, the MCG's installation of him is his most faithful reflection. Many, many more people saw Warne as image than reality; he is a man of comparatively few close friends and millions upon millions of acquaintances. Yet somehow, despite all the layers of mediation, all the received opinion, all the manufactured outrage, the naturalness came through, and we felt we knew him.

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer