Shane Warne, a Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 1994, died on March 4, 2022, aged 53. One of the greatest cricketers of all time, Warne had 708 wickets and 3,154 runs from 145 Test matches, and was Player of the Match in both the semi-final and the final when Australia won the World Cup in 1999. He was remembered in the 2023 Wisden Almanack.
The legend was born with a single delivery. It was June 4, 1993, the second day of the First Ashes Test at Old Trafford, when Allan Border asked Warne – rosy-cheeked, nose smeared with cream, spiky hair bleached blond – to bowl. Warne later claimed he was “pumped up and rocking and rolling”. Actually, he was nervous as a kitten: landing the ball somewhere close to the right spot would have been success enough. Instead, he created folklore. After a casual stroll to the crease and a whirring shoulder, he made the ball dip, swerve outside leg, spit across Gatting’s half-forward defence at a set-square angle, and clip off stump. “First ball!” said BBC commentator Tony Lewis, who like many could not quite believe his eyes. “Now, what’s happened? Mike Gatting’s staying there. The bail is off. He’s bowled him! Gatting can’t believe it…First ball: lethal.”
By the time Warne played the last of his 145 Tests, helping Australia to a 5-0 Ashes whitewash at Sydney in January 2007, only Muralitharan had more than his 1,001 international wickets. But a more important statistic remains unknown: the number of boys and girls drawn to cricket by Warne’s energy and joy. He didn’t just weaponise wrist-spin: he covered it with glitter and imbued it with glamour.
Accurately landing a leg-break is as hard as spinning it prodigiously. Warne could do both. While he had a flipper, top-spinner and a reasonable googly, it was his leggie that made him special. A serendipitous accident as a child – he broke both legs, and for a year wheeled himself around on a customised trolley – had built up his shoulders, which were so strong he barely needed a run-up. Thick sausage-fingers enveloped the ball, and his personality exerted a crushing grip too. According to Ramiz Raja, the former Pakistan batsman: “He created this slow death and slow drama.” Some of the theatrics took place before the cricket began, and few Ashes build-ups were complete without Warne announcing his latest delivery – usually one of his normal balls rebranded as an innovation, such as the slider or the zooter.
Gatting considered him “without a doubt the No. 1 bowler ever”; Mike Atherton thought him the most intelligent he faced. Warne was a stock and strike bowler combined, in perhaps the greatest side of all time. Twice, between October 1999 and February 2001, then between December 2005 and January 2008, Australia won 16 Tests in a row, with Warne playing 11 times in the first sequence, and 12 in the second, before retirement. Glenn McGrath proved a wonderful foil, but they were chalk and cheese: Warne the look-at-me star of mystery and style, McGrath straightforward and strictly top-of-off.
Warne relished the battle as much as the bouquets, and in this respect the cover images of the 2006 and 2007 Wisdens are revealing. Teeth shine and eyes gleam on the first, as Andrew Flintoff drapes an arm around him at the end of the epic 2005 Ashes. It is hard to conclude Warne had finished on the losing side. A year later, he is photographed leaving the field at the SCG, clapping a stump against his palm, mouth now shut, perhaps to hide the emotion. Australia have just hammered England, but there is a sadness: his international race is run.
Gatting besides, there were countless highlights along the way. In 2005 alone, he had astounded Andrew Strauss and Marcus Trescothick with deliveries that spun impossibly. Another left-hander, West Indies’ Shivnarine Chanderpaul, had been done similarly a decade or so earlier, while the way Warne set up Pakistan’s Basit Ali after a long conflab with wicketkeeper Ian Healy before the last ball of the day at Sydney in 1995/96 became another after-dinner story – appropriate, as they were chatting about where to eat that evening. Daryll Cullinan, meanwhile, was considered one of South Africa’s best players of spin, until Warne got inside his head.
As late as 2011, miked up in the Big Bash League, Warne told commentator Brendon Julian he was about to slide one through a bit more quickly, because he fancied Brendon McCullum to sweep. On cue, the ball dipped under McCullum’s horizontal bat and hit the stumps. “That worked pretty well,” said Julian. “Yeah, not bad, BJ,” said Warne with the familiarity that became well-known to viewers in the UK, where he was a regular and insightful member of Sky’s commentary team. If he could be repetitive, he was easily forgiven, and usually fair.
And yet, until the 1993 Ashes, his career had been a slow-burner. Aussie Rules rather than cricket was his boyhood passion in the Melbourne suburbs; according to Warne, illness ruined a potential break in the sport, even if he owed the Hollywood nickname to Trevor Barker, his hero at the St Kilda football club. Warne made his first-class cricket debut Seventh relatively late, at 21, after summers with club sides in Bristol and Accrington remembered for hedonism as much as cricket. Whether, in 1990, he was told to leave the Australian Cricket Academy, or walked out of his own volition, depends on whom you ask.
But Australia had always backed leg-spin, and Warne was a talent. Within a year of playing for Victoria, he made his Test debut, against India at Sydney in 1991/92. It proved chastening: Ravi Shastri hit 206 before becoming his first Test wicket, and Sachin Tendulkar 148. Warne finished with 1-150, and never altered his opinion that Tendulkar was the best he bowled to. Three late wickets in a narrow win against Sri Lanka in Colombo seven months later were his first significant contribution, before he marked the 1992-93 Australian summer with 7-52 against West Indies at Melbourne. Seventeen wickets at 15 in New Zealand cemented a trip to England.
They instantly became his favourite opponents, his tally of 195 Ashes wickets a record for any series. Gatting was the first of 34 English victims in 1993 – a performance that made him one of Wisden’s Five – while his 27 in 1994/95 included a hat-trick at Melbourne. There were 24 more in England in 1997, then 31 four years later. Asked whether his players might cope better with Warne by fraternising with him, England captain Nasser Hussain, replied: “If you go out with Warne, you don’t learn to pick his googly. You just learn he has bad taste in shirts.” (His Baggy Green, meanwhile, would generally be discarded in favour of a floppy white sunhat.)
You also learned about his diet. When Graham Gooch joked that Gatting would not have let the ball through had it been a cheese roll, he missed the point: Warne would have eaten it himself. Thick butties lathered in spread and cheddar were among the few foods he ate, and Healy once observed that his “idea of a balanced diet is a cheeseburger in each hand”. When Warne saw Ian Botham’s foreword to his second autobiography, he was astonished his mate thought he loved ham and pineapple pizza. “He knows it’s margheritas,” Warne exclaimed, though he respected Botham too much to make the change. He was a heavy smoker, too, and courted trouble in 1999 when he was photographed in a Caribbean bar, cigarette in hand, having been sponsored by a chewing-gum manufacturer to quit.
By then, long spells had taken a toll. In 1996, he needed surgery on his spinning finger; two years later, after more punishment from Tendulkar, he underwent a shoulder operation. Warne thought he was at his best between 1993 and 1998, and admitted he was overweight for the next three years. He remained formidable, except against India, who made him pay 47 for each of his 43 wickets. But he compensated for weaker muscles with his experience, growing more adroit at changing his position at the crease and accepting natural variation from wearing pitches. And he could still spin the occasional ball further than anyone. When Wisden chose its Five Cricketers of the Century in 2000, Warne was among them. He was the only one still playing – and without a knighthood.
He could be less savvy off the field, and remained vulnerable to a newspaper sting. Naivety also resulted in the two biggest controversies of his career. In 1994, after heavy losses on the roulette wheel in Colombo, he accepted $5,000 from a bookmaker posing as a supporter called “John”, who then sought information on pitches and teams; Mark Waugh was also hoodwinked. Cricket Australia covered up the incident but, when the truth broke four years later, Warne appeared shady and duplicitous rather than misguided, having meanwhile reported an approach by Salim Malik to underperform in a Test against Pakistan.
Then, on the eve of the 2003 World Cup in South Africa, he was forced to fly home after a drug test revealed traces of a banned substance. Having dislocated his shoulder in a one-day game against England, he was suspected of taking the diuretic to mask detection of illegal steroids that would have hastened his recovery. (In The Guardian, David Hopps noted that even his urine now had highlights.) Warne’s explanation, that his German-born mother, Brigitte, had given him the pill to lose weight, was ridiculed by Dick Pound, the head of the World Anti-Doping Agency, but plausible to those who knew his vanity. The one-year ban could have been career-ending; in the soap opera of Warne’s life, it merely ended an episode. Returning with 26 wickets in three Tests against Sri Lanka, he convinced himself that his “enforced break” had been a blessing.
Back in 1993, Warne had taken his girlfriend, Simone Callahan, to the Lake District and proposed spontaneously in a rowing boat. Twelve years on, she finally tired of his infidelities, and dissolved the marriage. For Warne, more than most, sport was a sanctuary from the real world and, over eight memorable weeks in 2005, he fought the torment of lonely hotel nights to produce arguably Test cricket’s greatest all-round performance in a losing cause: 40 wickets and 249 runs, even if he dropped Kevin Pietersen at slip on the last day at The Oval, 15 runs into his series-clinching 158. Warne’s batting was a reminder that he was never far from all-rounder status: 3,154 Test runs at 17 included 12 half-centuries and, to his everlasting irritation, a top score of 99 (replays showed the delivery he holed out to, from New Zealand’s Daniel Vettori, was a no-ball). Had he not stepped on his stumps on the impossibly tense last day at Edgbaston, the 2005 summer might have taken a different course.
Spurred on by Australia’s 2-1 defeat, Warne committed himself to one last Ashes, at home in 2006/07, and delivered in the second Test at Adelaide, an illusionist persuading batsmen that a flat pitch was a bed of snakes. England lost nine for 60, and in these pages Matthew Engel evoked Thomas Carlyle’s theory that the human story has been determined by only a few. Warne, he felt, now stood among those Great Men.
He was hardly less effective in one-day internationals. Wearing the No. 23 shirt, after his Aussie Rules hero Dermott Brereton, he took 293 wickets in 194 games, and shone when it mattered. Dropped during the preceding Test series in the West Indies – a slight for which he never forgave Australia’s captain, Steve Waugh – he arrived in England for the 1999 World Cup with his shoulder and ego equally bruised, and Simone heavily pregnant back home with the second of their three children (Jackson, who was sandwiched by two girls, Brooke and Summer). As the tournament began, he was warned by the ICC over a newspaper column attacking Sri Lanka’s Arjuna Ranatunga, and caused further opprobrium with a middle-finger gesture to a taunting spectator at Worcester.
Australia started the World Cup badly, but rallied as Warne rediscovered his mojo. In one of his most prescient observations, he told a team meeting that South Africa’s Herschelle Gibbs sometimes threw the ball away in premature celebration when he took a catch. During a Super Six match at Headingley, Gibbs spilled Waugh in exactly that manner, leading to Waugh’s apocryphal line about Gibbs dropping the World Cup. Warne was Man of the Match in the semi-final, also against South Africa, when his four wickets – including Gibbs, bowled by a replica of the Gatting delivery – set up a breathless tie. Australia progressed because of a better net run-rate earlier in the competition. And he claimed the award again in the final against Pakistan, thanks to another four-for. With the trophy secured, he suggested theatrically he might retire because his Test place was uncertain. It wasn’t, and he didn’t.
The Gibbs insight crystallised why Warne was considered the best Test captain his country never had, mainly because Cricket Australia would not tolerate such a larrikin. Hampshire had no such qualms, with club president Colin Ingleby-Mackenzie, a kindred spirit of yore, declaring at his appointment in 2004: “Lock up your daughters, because Warney’s in town.” Having coasted for years, Hampshire became ultra-competitive, narrowly missing a first Championship since 1973. Warne took ages to get over Kent captain David Fulton’s decision to accept a chase of 420 in 70 overs rather than play for a draw against Nottinghamshire, Hampshire’s main rivals, in the penultimate game of 2005. Nottinghamshire won, and pipped Hampshire by 2.5 points. No matter that Warne, who later had a stand at the Rose Bowl named after him, was a gambler himself, happily risking defeat for victory.
But he did triumph with the unfancied Rajasthan Royals in 2008, winning the inaugural Indian Premier League by force of his infectious self-belief on an awestruck group, and conferring on the tournament the stardust it craved in its first year; among the captains of the eight franchises, he was the only non-Indian. More easily forgotten were his 11 one-day internationals in charge of Australia, all but one in 1998/99, with Steve Waugh injured. He won 10, and Wisden said his “attacking field placings stopped singles and created pressure. He rallied his troops like a football coach, with plenty of backslaps and good communication.”
Tributes to Warne spanned the social divide, from the political elite to the earthiest fan. Pies and fags were left by his statue outside the MCG, where the huge Southern Stand now bears his name. Any young spinner glancing in that direction should be in no doubt about the advice he would offer: whatever you do, give it a rip.
Warne, Shane Keith died on March 4, 2022, aged 53.