Vale Warnie: one of those rare sportsmen who changed the way the game is played

Cairns, July 13, 2004. (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

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.


20 thoughts on “Vale Warnie: one of those rare sportsmen who changed the way the game is played

  1. Brilliantly written piece Ian. I am sure it will resonate with a lot of cricket and sport fans. I grew up watching Warnie along with my father and grand pa dismantle all batting sides. Fond memories!!

    The world will miss him!

    Thanks again for your beautifully written piece Ian!

  2. I have such fond memories of watching the cricket with my Grandpa, me sitting cross legged on the floor and him sitting in his favourite armchair watching a television that was definitely invented before I was born. The sheer excitement that was felt whenever Warnie was up to bowl was palpable. He gave joy to the young and the young at heart with his bowling and the intensity he brought to the pitch, you would wait with bated breath to watch that ball rip. He was my Grandpa’s favourite player, I think especially because he never hid from who he was, flaws and all. We all will miss the great cricketer, but I am so saddened for his children who will miss their dad.

  3. Thanks for this article Ian. I completely share your sentiments and was also surprised at the emotions it generated within me. With utter devastation happening all around the world whether it be wars or natural disasters, it is somewhat hard to reconcile being distraught about the passing of a sportsman. But that’s exactly how the shock death of Shane Warne has left me. Cricket is my favourite sport and is part of my identity. The mark he left on the game as a player, coach, commentator and ambassador represents the blueprint for how the game should be played and loved. A devoted father, a fearless competitor, and a flawed human being but one who owned all of it and never pretended to be someone he wasn’t – rest in peace King.

    1. Thanks Wendell. I too struggled to reconcile being distraught over one person compared with all the terrible suffering going on. I felt a bit guilty, but I guess its just human to feel that way. Thanks for sharing. Best, Ian

  4. Warnie was a legend. Two of my favorites Victorian Players gone including the late Dean Jones (Deano). I followed his career from start to finish like many other legions of fans. I went to many test matches and 1 day matches to see him play. I even remember going to the one day matches when it was use to be called the Benson and Hedges series. Reading the announcement of his passing like others i was in shock. Will walk to the G later this week and pay my respects to the man. Beautiful article Ian.

  5. A well written piece summing up really what many of us are feeling. With a personality as large as Warnes you just expect his innings to go far deeper than 52. We will never see anyone quite like him.

  6. Beautifully written Ian – I too, shared a tear – when I woke early to this tragic news – I just sat down stunned. He was the heart and fire of our all conquering Test team for many years; simply brilliant bowling when there ‘was nothing in the pitch’ for spinners. He was very competitive, one of the lads, and an incredible team member – who would, and did until his passing – do anything for those he loved and respected. I loved when he had the mic on the field, especially when he was bowling and sharing how the batsman played each ball gave him clarity on the smallest of weaknesses he was going to expose with his ball, in flight, or spin or his flipper . . . Ian, I didn’t know about Hampshire match straight after his test match – true professionalism – Warney, you will always be remembered – thank you for the incredible memories.

  7. Beautifully summed up Ian. A master of his craft. As Outsiders on the ABC said yesterday … “fabulous, flawed and unforgettable”. He transcended cricket. RIP Warney. Our thoughts are with his family.

  8. Extremely sad to hear this!! A great personality has left us forever.
    Everything seemed to be an art about him. May the soul rest in peace!

  9. Spot on, Ian. You really couldn’t get that cup of tea while Warne was bowling because you just might miss something incredible – though it usually meant a wicket against my team. I have no idea how a batsmen gets himself prepared against that kind of bowler, it would be like trying to defend against one of those rubber “super-balls” we had as kids.

  10. I could not have said it better myself Ian. Well done. As two people who have often traded well humoured barbs about the cricket, I love how many of your thoughts are mine too. He was a childhood icon. He was flawed as many greats are, but who isn’t. I was there for the hat trick in 94 (still got the blade of grass I picked off the ground after) & when he donned the helmet in 1997 to calm Bay 13 down. Good on you for penning such a lovely tribute.

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