In 1998 I was at my uncle’s for dinner and the conversation invariably turned to the upcoming Australian tour to Pakistan. After weighing Pakistan’s chances for over an hour, my uncle announced his judgment. As a lawyer for Lincoln’s Inn, he certainly had the seriousness for bold proclamations.
“The only way Pakistan will win is if Shane Warne breaks his ankle,” he intoned. “Sir, let’s pray he breaks an ankle or a leg.”
It was an ominous statement, and prayers were answered despite it being a shoulder injury, not an ankle. Warne did not play, but the rest of the bowlers drove through Pakistan to give Australia their first Test Series victory in Pakistan since 1959.
My uncle was a stoic man and hearing his rather emotional and slightly irrational words got me thinking. Was Warne really that scary? Of course my uncle had seen Warne torment England Ashes after Ashes and knew his game.
I knew the ‘Ball of the Century’ and saw him play at the 1996 World Cup, but Australia missed two games and Warne was eclipsed by Jayasuriya and the marauding Sri Lankans.
Using numbers to define Warne is like using sound wave theory to define Mozart’s symphonies
Shortly after, Warne suffered a shoulder injury and Stuart McGill became the first-choice lineman for Australia. “Warn who? McGill the new king of spin! screamed a newspaper headline.
But Warne made everyone swallow his words and from there many of my favorite cricketing moments revolved around him. The 1999 Australia-West Indies had him face Lara in his imperious pomp. It had lost its googly by then, but everything else was absolute perfection.
There was a massive spin that defied the laws of physics. There was a magic drift loaded with a wizard spell. The fin swooped, spit, and bit as it landed, throwing dirt and bits of pitch in its furious revolutions. The ball hummed and hummed as it moved, then teased and tortured the batsmen until the inevitable happened. Bowled, front leg, puzzled or caught, often Warne’s choice.
In the early 2000s, Warne mowed down the sides. Two series stand out, the two Ashes which is poetically correct since it announced itself in one.
The Ashes of 2005 were billed as Shane Warne vs. Kevin Peterson, and it didn’t disappoint. Game after game, Warne delivered crucial blows. Deprived of Glenn McGrath and facing the best English team since the 1970s, Australia held almost to the end only thanks to Warne’s 40 wickets at less than 20 apiece. A dropped catch from Peterson lost the series but Warne had held the old foe in the palm of his hand all summer.
His swan song came in 2006 in his native country as Australia took sweet revenge and decimated England 5-0. Warne rumbled and cut as he had, but much to the disappointment of Ricky Ponting and the rest of the world, he announced his retirement at the end of the 2006 Ashes.
The numbers and accolades are staggering. One of Wisden’s top 5 cricketers of the 20th century, only bowler to be included. 708 Test wickets, second highest ever. A decade and a half of pure domination. But using numbers to define Warne is like using sound wave theory to define Mozart’s symphonies. Simply put, Warne put the cool in spin bowling. A peroxide-blonde bowler who strolled nonchalantly around the field and threw Molotov cocktails at the hapless batsmen.
In a time of great spinners, Warne stood apart, a colossus but also utterly human. Warne was as sharp with his words as he was with the ball. Ian Bell was derisively labeled the “Sherminator”, after a humiliated character from the high school comedy “American Pie” whom Bell bore a slight resemblance to.
When Warne launched a peach on England, he said aloud: ‘It’s unplayable, like the Spice Girls’, a devastating shootout that did him justice and eclipsed England’s proudest achievement at the time. A scandal stripped him and Australia of their test captaincy. Ponting was a worthy captain, but Warne was the best captain any country had and would have taken Australia even higher than the high standards set by Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting.
Off the pitch, Warne was a flawed genius which made him relatable and more endearing than the stoic Kumble. When his statue was unveiled in his presence at Madame Tussauds in London, he bristled in front of the crowd because the wax work made him look overweight. Warne was so sensitive about his weight that a drug that would shed a few pounds was caught at customs en route to the 2003 World Cup and he had to miss what would have been his second World Cup victory. He never stopped working hard to look good and as a ladies’ man he never seemed happier than with Elizabeth Hurley on his arm.
In recent years, he’s taken over the commentary box, delivering jaffa on the mic. In an age when commentators walk on eggshells and put up with small talk, Warne was incisive, insightful and utterly delightful. His latest comment was heard at the 2021 Ashes where he took every opportunity to taunt England commentators who had to take his and Australia’s jabs to the chin. Between zings, I heard him speak eloquently of Usman Khawaja’s journey as the drummer made a career-defining century. Warne wished him luck on the Pakistan tour and how much he enjoyed playing cricket there in 1994 and 1996 and was looking forward to the Australia – Pakistan series.
Considering all of this, it was truly devastating to learn of Shane Warne’s untimely demise. The greatest spinner of all time, legendary sportsman, as great off the court as he was on it, he was quite unique. Warne was Mohammad Ali and Michael Jordan, he was John McEnroe and Usain Bolt, Babe Ruth and Maradona, someone who not only elevated his sport but came to define his craft. The word “genius” is too often thrown around like cheap confetti. Let there be no doubt, we lost a rare genius yesterday.
The world is poorer now, but while we mourn his passing, let us also celebrate and rejoice that he allowed us to have him here for a time. Go Warnie! Tear up some jaffa in heaven!
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