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Feature

Warne's magic was made for television

The intrigue at what he could do demanded we know more, but delivering the ball was only part of it

Shannon Gill
12-Mar-2022
Shane Warne in his delivery stride

For Shane Warne, delivering the ball was only part of the game  •  Getty Images

Shane Warne was born in 1969, the year the world gathered around televisions to watch the moon land. The year he started primary school colour television came to Australia. These two events coronated television as the dominant cultural force in Australia for the next 30 years. They're also neat coincidences because this environment shaped, and then showcased, Shane Warne as the customised sporting star made for Australian television.
He was a child of television's golden era, his own populist aesthetic of loud, flashy but still endearing was exactly how television presented in the late 70s, 80s and into the 90s. Happy Days characters, Countdown-era pop, and references to gross out comedy flicks seemed permanently imprinted on his brain, evident through his commentary and social media feeds. And while television informed the kitsch pop culture lens he saw the world through, it was also the medium made for the bowling that would enchant the world.
If World Series Cricket was the television revolution that transformed the game, appropriately given it was some of Warne's first cricket memories, it only reached its full potential as a TV product when Warne arrived.
For all the thrill of fast bowling, it's a skill most appreciated in person, and in retrospect 1980s broadcasts did not offer many layers to the blur of pace.
Warne offered something very different, his simple grip and delivery stride allowed you to watch the ball out of his hand at its slower pace, follow its trajectory and then its bounce and spin. It didn't matter if you'd played hundreds of games of cricket or were a novice, understanding that Warne had magic was simple because it all played out so clearly in front of you. There's not been a pace 'ball of the century' to rival the Gatting ball, because apart from it being simply astounding, it allows time for the dip, swerve and turn to be savoured by television viewers. It's a three-part act that no other type of bowling, or bowler, can rival.
Within 12 months of Warne's emergence as a bona fide superstar the then Australian Cricket Board was attempting to extricate itself from the PBL strait jacket and allow itself to sell its television rights for their true worth. Just in the nick of time it now had a beacon that would draw droves to their TV sets, and the board was rewarded handsomely when it sold the rights back to Channel 9 unencumbered.
Warne's role in that and the future financial riches that would tumble in cricket coffers over the next 25 years cannot be underestimated, because Warne was the most accessible bowler on television we'd seen.
He was the magician who didn't use a handkerchief to hide his tricks, your eyes saw it all unfold. It was why, as many have said this week and for years prior, you could not look away from a Warne bowling spell.
While fast bowlers can bang the ball into the pitch in a whir that can over upon over look almost identical to the untrained eye, every Warne ball was an unfolding event. The child of television knew you had to have plot twists to keep people interested, so what would he bowl next? Each over was a new television episode, and for the 90s and first half of the 2000s it was the most popular show on the box.
If television innovations like super slo-mo and spin-vision in the mid-90s were not created because of Warne, they were made essential to broadcasts by his presence. Now we could watch in greater definition, slower, the revolutions of the ball visible and the magic closer. The intrigue at what he could do demanded we know more, but delivering the ball was only part of it.
Dennis Lillee captured the hearts and minds of Warne's generation with television close-ups of his theatrical wiping of the brow and appealing. Whether it was deliberate or subconscious, Warne turned the Lillee approach up to ten. If every over was a television episode, the facial reactions and exaggerated body language were just as important as the balls themselves.
The close ups of his oohing and aahing with the blonde hair and earrings completed the package. He wanted to stand out on TV like his idols, sporting and otherwise. It played a part in one of his most infamous scandals, his explanation for taking the diuretic pill that resulted in a 12-month ban was that he wanted to lose weight to "look good on television".
This was all indicative of a man who, while sometimes sensitive to the criticism that came with it, seemed more at home in the TV spotlight than any Australian sports star before or after. It's why he never left the spotlight.
After retiring from international cricket, he came back to the BBL where he was essentially a playing commentator. From there he globetrotted the world as a constant commentary presence on screen. He even had a go at hosting a tonight show, which you suspect is what he would have ultimately loved doing most; Warnie talking about all the things other than cricket that he liked.
He completed the television experience by acting as a Shane Warne impersonator in the Australian sitcom Kath and Kim, a show that satirised and celebrated the characters' low-brow suburban tastes, most of which were based on what they saw on television. If that and the jokes about texting weren't meta enough, Warne was one of those tastes. He was unashamedly a kindred spirit of Kath and Kim.
And now amidst a pall of sadness there's some solace to be found that will become more prescient as the years go on.
Less than three months before his passing Warne released a made-for-TV documentary that most significantly revealed to the public the dedication and love in his relationship with his children. The man made for television had unknowingly left us with a perfectly wrapped package of his extraordinary life for the small screen. Like the Gatting ball, we'll watch this final episode time and time again, just the way he would have liked it.