The leading cricketer in the world, 2004

Shane Warne

Greg Baum

The Wisden Forty, including the Leading Cricketer in the World, have been selected by Wisden on the basis of their class and form shown in all cricket during the calendar year 2004. The selections were made in consultation with many of the world's most experienced cricket writers and commentators. In the end, though, they were Wisden's choices, guided by the statistics but not governed by them. The selection panel are no more infallible than any other selectors.

Back in the wickets at Auckland © Getty Images
In Shane Warne's prodigious career of spin, twist and revolution, no turn has been more startling than his comeback after a year's suspension to his former mastery at the venerable age of 34. In the soap opera of his life, the star was written out and wrote himself back in again, larger than before. But Warne's whole career has been about the inspiration he finds in the smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd, and above all in the scale of the challenge.

He was thoughtless for a moment and idle for a year, and it was trying. The World Anti-Doping Authority, the Australian government and the cricket board were three of many forces who stayed on his back, and there were the several rods he made for himself, too, for he was never discreet. He remained in the limelight, but as a shadow. Some doubted that he could come back. Steve Waugh thought he would need time, but Terry Jenner, his mentor, felt he would return renewed.

His first step back was in a Victorian Second XI game at Melbourne's Junction Oval, a humble fixture suddenly made incongruously glamorous. He got hit for six an over in the second innings. But these were the wings, where he has never thrived; the selectors scarcely hesitated before putting him on the plane to Sri Lanka shortly afterwards. Immediately, it was as if he had never been away, as he took ten wickets in each of his first two Tests. This was the big stage, and he was the big player. The Sri Lankans, who had played him deftly in the past, succumbed at home (26 wickets in three matches), and again in an off-season series in Australia (ten in two). India, previously fallow ground, also yielded wickets (14 in three) as Indian batsmen who had previously treated him with contempt now faltered.

Warne celebrates breaking the world record at Chennai © Getty Images
More wickets ensued in home series against New Zealand (11 in two) and Pakistan (nine in two, plus five more in the first week of 2005), two countries who have never relished him. He ended with 70 wickets in 12 Tests in 2004, comparable to 1993 (72 in 16) and 1994 (70 in ten) when he was the new sensation. Warne missed matches against India in Sydney (still suspended) and Mumbai (injured) that on historical indications would have brought him many more wickets - without him, on a maverick pitch in Mumbai, Australia suffered their only defeat of the year.

He and Muttiah Muralitharan raced for the world record, and for a time shared it, until Muralitharan's personal boycott of Australia and another injury left Warne supremely alone. Meantime, he summered in England, leading Hampshire to their most successful season for more than a decade. Though he was on less money and attracted less fanfare than in a previous stint, his sheer zest for the game stood out amid the prevailing dullness. Warne was not a better bowler than before; that would have been impossible.

But he was at least as good, and that was itself a redoubtable achievement. Like Dennis Lillee before him, he reinvented the wheel. He bowled almost no flippers, nor many wrong 'uns, but depended on craft, wile and guile. He took wickets by skill, by force of personality, by subterfuge. Sometimes umpires were as transfixed as batsmen.

He was as indefatigable as ever, and as willing, maintaining his career average of around 46 overs a Test, and his economy rate of around 2.5 an over. Others - MacGill, Hogg, sometimes Katich - had served Australia well enough during Warne's absence, but Australia looked a complete side again with him back in it.

Two at the top: Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan pose ahead of the Tsunami Relief match at the MCG © Getty Images
Everything was restored, even the melodrama that has characterised his career as surely as his wickets. He broke his thumb. He made tactless remarks about the advantages Muralitharan had enjoyed. After his successful return in Sri Lanka, he commented on how satisfying it was to play under a captain who had faith in spin in a crisis, an apparent jibe at the retired Waugh. He lived in the headlines, his old habitat.

After he appeared in the tsunami relief match at the MCG in January 2005, Australian captain Ricky Ponting hinted that Warne would come out of retirement in time for the 2007 World Cup if other spinners did not mature sufficiently. Warne, significantly, did not discount it. He has never tired of the thrill of the contest, nor the view from the top. He had missed a year and played a year, and there could be no doubt which year was preferable. So the natural order of the last decade was restored, but at the end of 2004 all were reminded to presume nothing. Warne was assuredly back, but the ground at Galle on which he had made his return nine months earlier was in ruins.

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