Gideon Haigh’s tribute to Shane Warne originally appeared in the 2023 edition of Wisden Cricketer’s Almanack.
On the evening of June 4, 1993, the Carbine Club – bonded by “sport, fellowship and the community” – gathered at the Melbourne Cricket Ground for their annual dinner. Guest speaker was Terry Jenner, the cricketer-turned-coach who had recently been associated with Shane Warne, the rising leg-spinner. Before long, a television at the back of the room, tuned to Channel Nine, began screening the First Test of the Ashes from Old Trafford. As the night neared its end, a club member was standing beside Jenner as his protégé took the ball for the first time.
This part of the story we know: after veering to leg, Warne’s leg-break reversed course and cuffed off stump, leaving Mike Gatting between wind and water, and the world agog. The reaction at the MCG? “You cunt!” said Jenner. “You fucking little cunt!” The club member couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “But Terry,” he pointed out. “That ball…” Jenner broke into a smile. He had, he explained, had a long conversation with Warne about how to approach his initial overs against England. Nothing special, they agreed. Feel your way into the contest. Be patient.
So much for that: Warne had decided he was the contest, and would not wait. He later transcribed his interior monologue: “You gotta go. Come on, go mate, pull the trigger, let’s rip this.”
Thirty years on, Warne is gone, but his signature feat and its impact abide. One of the most remarkable features of the Ball of the Century is that nobody had imagined such a notion until it happened. We were seven years from the new millennium before it was proposed that a single delivery could stand out from everything before it. Baseball had its Shot Heard Round the World, football its Hand of God. But cricket had never so isolated, analysed, celebrated or fetishised a single moment. Here was the mother of all highlights, ahead of a boom in the concept expedited by a format – T20 – geared to their mass manufacture.
Also leaning against the trend towards commodification was Warne, who never bowled a ball without expecting to appeal, was always shrugging off the ordinary in quest of the extraordinary, and forever reminded us that we love cricket because we don’t know what will happen, rather than because we wish for an orderly procession of familiar events. Nobody saw Warne coming; nobody has replaced him. He benefited, to be sure, from the Australian initiative of a cricket academy in Adelaide, which is where he first encountered Jenner. Yet Warne was there only because his preferred career as an Australian Rules footballer in Melbourne had petered out. Even then, he was rejected at first for his youthful wildness. “Cricket found me,” he was wont to say, which was not quite accurate, but as an idea uplifting.
The balance of his career, in some ways, had to contour itself to the template of that first ball. In the aftermath of his death, highlights reel after highlights reel was presented for our delectation, offering variations on the same theme. Warne’s inimitable pause at the end of his run; Warne’s seemingly artless approach; Warne’s hugely powerful surge through the crease, for an instant almost airborne. Then came that little interlude of the ball’s flight, beguiling but deceptive; and, at last, the springing of the trap, the baffling break, the bewildered response, the flying bails. He bowled only 16 percent of his 708 Test victims, but disintegrating stumps – the bowler’s vindication and the batter’s abjection – are an entire story, accessible to everyone.
Yet these reels hardly did his career justice. Warne bowled 51,346 balls in international cricket, which means 98 percent did not take wickets. What really counted was the anticipation experienced in watching him. You wouldn’t be anywhere else, didn’t dare look away. He stretched our imagination, and our credulity, even telling us so: “Part of the art of bowling spin is to make the batsman think something special is happening when it isn’t.” We were in the presence, then, of a master illusionist. To vary Arthur C Clarke’s line about technology, any sufficiently advanced leg-spin is indistinguishable from magic.
To reinforce this illusion, to practise what in magic is called misdirection, Warne summoned a deliciously expressive repertoire: gasps, grins, moues, imprecations, scowls and stares. He could not even stand at first slip inconspicuously, given his unmistakable crossing of the legs between deliveries, and his custom of favouring a broad-brimmed sunhat, lightly disturbing the Baggy Green consensus. But it was when he ceremoniously surrendered his hat to the umpire that you took your seat to enjoy the show, starting with the trademark rub of the disturbed dirt in the crease, and the saunter back.
The tennis writer Richard Evans once described the contrast between John McEnroe in repose and in action, how the spindly, puffy-haired, flat-footed figure at the baseline electrified when the ball was in flight. Warne accentuated this by first simply walking – walking! – to the crease. He might have been approaching the umpire to tap his shoulder. Then, to borrow a recent movie title, everything everywhere all at once, the seamless delivery stride and follow-through – the bowling action kept in trim by Jenner, but altered over the journey really only by age and attrition, and then but slightly.
Contrast, too, what was commonly believed about Warne’s skill before June 1993, and how he compelled us to adjust our understanding. In the decades before him, only Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, sui generis, and Abdul Qadir, rara avis, had nourished belief in leg-spin’s match-winning properties. It was, we were advised, an unpredictable faculty, an expensive luxury. It involved a great variety of deliveries. It lured batters to destruction by indiscretion. It needed congenial conditions, including dry, dusty or disintegrating pitches. It required constant innovation to stay ahead of the batter, which precluded attention to the game’s other departments. Captains might deploy leg-spin to afford their fast bowlers respite. Otherwise it bordered on anachronism.
Apart from a fond regard he expressed for Qadir, Warne showed no sign of having watched any leg-spinner before him, or partaken of any of the skill’s associated folk wisdom. By his own admission, his boyhood backyard heroes were Aussie pacemen, macho and theatrical, and batters, tough and leathery. That is understandable: when Warne came to England that first time, it had been fully 30 years since Australia tackled an Ashes with a world-class wrist-spinner. Coincidentally, that cricketer, Richie Benaud, was calling the Manchester Test when Warne bowled to Gatting, and was there to pronounce, now and ever more: “He’s done it.”
By the time Warne had departed the Test stage, he had repudiated all those prior beliefs. His cardinal virtue was as much his accuracy as his degree of spin. He bowled with prodigious precision and relatively few variations; he hemmed batters in from all angles, including round the wicket, and succeeded in all climes and countries, with the exception of India, previously held to be spin’s great citadel, and to a lesser extent the West Indies. The discrepancy between his home and away bowling averages was less than two runs. Nor did Warne revert to the mean: after the Ball of the Century, his career average fluctuated little, while his most prolific years were separated by over a decade (72 wickets at 23 in 1993, and 96 at 22 in 2005).
Above all, Warne was never other than a frontline weapon. He saw bowling defensively as a contradiction in terms. He sought neither protection nor reinforcement. On the contrary, he rejoiced in being Australia’s sole spinner, and was notably less effective in partnership with Stuart MacGill, another gifted leggie. When Colin Miller supplanted Warne for a Test in Antigua in April 1999, he never forgave his captain, Steve Waugh. His great confrère was instead Glenn McGrath, a pace bowler with similarly robust core skills, and the same mix of patience and aggression. Warne enjoyed batting, was handy enough at No. 8 to allow Australia to do without a bona fide all-rounder, and excelled in the field, taking 205 international catches. He was leaving accumulated knowledge and established ideas in the dust.
Warne was also busily transcending our conception of a cricketer. It need hardly be said that he rewrote the book on fame. In Australia before him, Don Bradman had set the standard for deportment in greatness – a monument as much as a man, an austere figure sealed off by his renown. Warne ascended no pedestal. By his colourful lifestyle he made privacy elusive, but by his personality he made public dealings easy. After his death, it seemed almost everyone had their own Warney story: he had a capacity for seeing others, for recognising them, for making them feel a little special. There had been other glamorous cricketers: Miller and Compton, Lillee and Imran. But nobody tackled fame so willingly, so hungrily, with an enthusiasm almost ingenuous.
Especially once introduced to social media, which allowed him to monitor and regulate his interaction with the outside world, he provided cheery relief from seriousness, and in a way that seemed breezily natural. “If you’re happy all the time,” he would say, “good things will happen to you.” Never mind that the latter also helps the former: he matured into a splendid advertisement for being famous, apparently enjoying every minute.
But the celebrity perishes with him; it’s as a cricketer Warne will endure. He unveiled his own statue at the MCG; now half the ground bears his name. When the Melbourne Cricket Club foreshadowed the Great Southern Stand in 1991 by explaining that the structure was “too significant in every sense to be named after any one individual cricketer, footballer, administrator or public figure”, they expressed the conviction that “posterity will support the decision”. When the Victorian government decided within hours of Warne’s death that it would be rebaptised the Shane Warne Stand, it seemed the most natural thing in the world.
It’s arguable that Warne has, inadvertently, proven a mixed blessing for those striving to follow his example. It was expected he would inspire a generation to take up slow bowling, and perhaps he did, but he also set a standard that made it difficult for them to persist. The Australian men’s team restlessly turned over a dozen spinners in the five years after his retirement, before settling on the phlegmatic off-breaks of Nathan Lyon. Warne’s most successful imitators, unexpectedly, have been female: Australia’s Georgia Wareham, Amanda-Jade Wellington and Alana King.
The only bowler Warne did not overawe, perhaps, was himself. After the close that evening at Old Trafford, he and his colleagues sat around the dressing-room watching a BBC wrap of the day, and replay upon replay of that delivery. “Mate,” said his wicketkeeper, Ian Healy, “that is as good a ball as you will ever bowl.” A daunting idea, one might think, at 23. What to aim for now? What to do next? So it was that he started on the path to becoming as good a slow bowler as there will ever be.
Gideon Haigh’s latest book is The Night was a Bright Moonlight and I Could See a Man Quite Plain: An Edwardian Cricket Murder.