Vale Warnie: one of those rare sportsmen who changed the way the game is played
Australian – and world – cricket suffered a terrible 24 hours late last week.
On Friday night I went to bed sad at the news of Rod Marsh’s passing, aged 74. As a young kid in England in the 1970s, I loved watching the Ashes on the BBC and Marsh, along with his England counterpart Alan Knott, were two of the best wicket-keepers the world has ever seen. “caught Marsh, bowled Lillee” became a catchphrase in that wonderful era of Test cricket. I noted that one of the many tributes paid to Marsh was from 1990s/2000s superstar Shane Warne.
On Saturday I woke to the truly shattering news that Warne himself had passed, aged just 52. That hit me like a hammer blow, as it did many millions of people here and around the world. Marsh’s passing was like part of my childhood going. This was like some of my adult life being ripped away. I’m not ashamed to admit tears were shed.
Where to start with Warnie?
There have been many excellent obituaries and tribute articles in the last 48 hours which I won’t try to compete with. He was quite simply one of those very rare sportsmen who changed the way the game is played. Possibly the best bowler of all-time.
Warne emerged in the early 1990s, when the world game had been dominated for 20 years by the West Indies all-pace attack. Spin, especially leg-spin, seemed an anachronism. Warne single-handedly brought it back.
In England, the first we saw of Warne was in the 1993 Ashes series. We’d heard a bit about this blond beach kid the Aussies were starting to rave about.
Would he live up the hype?
One ball into his Ashes career we had the answer. The ‘ball of the century’ bowled outside Mike Gatting’s leg stump, which then turned viciously, as if being pulled on a string, to knock the off-stump bail off leaving a very good batsman staring in bewilderment at what had happened. If you’re too young to have seen it, check it out. A legend was born in that moment.
Warne was probably at his best for the next four years. He was such an exciting bowler to watch, always attacking. With some bowlers, during a long game, you can go and get a beer or make a cup of tea. Not with Warne – something was always likely to happen.
The spin he generated came from exceptional upper body strength – shoulder, arm and wrist. After a serious shoulder injury he was never quite the same bowler but made up for it by unerring accuracy, psychology and game management. No-one was better at psyching out a batsman than him.
He was the biggest showman in the game, a larger than life character, the classic Aussie larrikin. He became a household name in the UK and in some ways transcended his sport. His manic, wicket-wielding dance routine on the Trent Bridge balcony after Australia’s 1997 Ashes success was for years used on a TV sports comedy show, but it showed his free spirit and passion for the game, and life. He wore his heart on his sleeve. That was Warnie and why fans loved him so much. In 2006, he was asked to be part of ITV’s soccer world cup coverage for Socceroos games, not because of any great knowledge but because, along with Kylie, he was the Aussie best-known to UK audiences.
His regular indiscretions off the field always found their way onto the front pages, as did, later, his engagement to stunning English rose, Liz Hurley, whose photo newspaper editors needed little excuse to publish prominently. Like another Aussie icon who died too young, Michael Hutchence, he had an indefinable star quality and charisma. But he never forgot what he was – a cricket man through and through.
Those indiscretions, drug bans and his involvement in a betting scandal cost him the chance of being Australia Test captain. His tactical awareness was second to none – he was truly the best captain Australia never had. My English county side Hampshire, benefited as he became an inspirational captain for us instead.
Even though his powers were at their height in the 1990s, to my mind his finest hour was the classic 2005 Ashes series where almost single-handedly kept Australia in the contest, after fellow bowling legend Glenn McGrath was injured. Warne snared 40 wickets in that wonderful summer.
But you don’t get 700 Test wickets just through talent. It needs will and hard work as well. At the end of that series Warne was almost on his knees and desperately needed – and deserved – a long rest. But the very next day he insisted on driving from London to Glamorgan where Hampshire had a match. As our captain he felt he needed to be there, even though no-one would have blamed him for missing it. That’s real professionalism.
By contrast another Hampshire player in that Ashes series, flamboyant England batsman Kevin Pietersen felt too ‘exhausted’ to play for us after his match-winning innings in the final Test. Instead he was seen falling out of West End nightclubs all week. Pietersen ended his Test career with 8000 runs – good but not great and far less than someone with his natural talent should have achieved. That’s the difference between a good player and a great one.
Many younger readers will probably know Warne more from his TV commentary which I found was always genuinely insightful and honest, if sometimes bordering on brutally so. He once said of England spinner Monty Panesar, who had played 33 games for his country, that he seemed to ‘have played his first match 33 times’ rather than developing and learning from that experience. Harsh but true. Panesar’s career never progressed significantly afterwards.
It’s so sad that for the next 20 years we will be deprived of that insight on our TV screens. He had so much more still to give the game. Many players from around the world – England, Australia, India – have vouched in the last 48 hours how much he gave them advice, and helped shape their careers. He was generous with his time both for fellow players and also fans, to whom he remained down to earth despite all his fame and success.
Victoria Premier Dan Andrews has promised a state funeral. As a proud son of Melbourne, Warne deserves it. The renaming of the MCG’s Great Southern stand is a nice tribute although the ‘S.K Warne’ stand seems too formal to me. Just call it the Shane Warne stand.
I was privileged to be at the MCG in December 2006 when he got his 700th Test wicket. Against England naturally, running through us again in his (and McGrath’s) penultimate Test.
I was surprised just how upset I was when I saw the news of his premature passing. Few people who you don’t know personally, can bring on that depth of emotion. RIP Warnie and thanks for all the memories.