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Wisden Almanack 2023

Set phases to turn: Tribute to Shane Warne – Almanack

Shane Warne celebrating his 700th Test wicket
by Andy Zaltzman 15 minute read

Andy Zaltzman’s tribute to Shane Warne originally appeared in the 2023 edition of Wisden Cricketer’s Almanack.

Shane Warne’s 15-year Test career can be statistically divided into four main phases: a brief apprenticeship, followed by two prolonged flowerings of unmatched mastery of cricket’s most difficult art, either side of a three-year relative slump, aggravated by injuries – and Indians.

Phase 1 encompasses his first eight Tests, from January 1992 to January 1993, in which he managed 14 wickets at almost 50. Starting against India, he became part of a list – now numbering 14 – of bowlers who in their first two Tests took no more than one wicket for at least 200 runs. Ten of the other 13 finished their career with fewer than five wickets; apart from Warne, only Andrew Caddick went beyond 30.


Warne’s early struggles were interrupted by a match-winning three-wicket burst against Sri Lanka in Colombo (until then, his Test figures were 1-335), and 7-52 against West Indies at Melbourne. Even so, he had a poor start to his Test career. Of the 106 Australian men to have bowled at least 1,000 deliveries in their first eight Tests, only three had a higher average than his 49: Ian and Greg Chappell, both back-up bowlers, and leg-spinner Peter Sleep. And only five had a higher economy-rate than Warne’s 3.25.

His greatness – Phase 2 – emerged in New Zealand early in 1993, when he took 17 cheap wickets. Then came Old Trafford, where Warne erupted into Ashes immortality with his hypnotic, physics-querying ball to Mike Gatting, perhaps the most memorable delivery out of more than nine million in all international cricket.

England’s collective batting psyche never recovered, although that summer they did not collapse to him. The Gatting ball was merely the first of Warne’s 2,639 in the 1993 Ashes, still a record for any Test series, and he took just one five-for. But he conceded less than two an over, and bowled a staggering 178 maidens, almost 30 per game (only Alf Valentine, with 197 for West Indies in England in 1950, has bowled more six-ball maidens in a Test series). On batting-friendly pitches, then, England were rendered strokeless by a 23-year-old. No Australian spinner had bowled 40 overs in a Test innings in England since Ashley Mallett at The Oval in 1975. Warne did so seven times in 1993, including all six second innings. From then until the end of the 1997-98 Australian season, he was brilliant. This first period of supremacy brought him 289 wickets at 22, with an economy-rate of 2.23.

His one significant slump – Phase 3 – began and ended with tours of India, early in 1998 and 2001, when he twice averaged over 50. He had undergone shoulder surgery in May 1998, and his 23 Tests in this period yielded 73 wickets at 38, including 2-268 in three Tests in the West Indies, where he was briefly dropped.

Overall against India, Warne managed 43 wickets at 47 in 14 Tests, including 34 at 43 in nine in India, when the hosts’ slow bowlers took 120 at 29. Elsewhere in Asia, he managed 93 at 20 in 16 games, while opposing slow bowlers averaged 38. But two of those 14 Tests against India came in his debut series, three not long before his surgery, and six in the three years after it. So Warne played just three Tests against India in his two peak periods combined – all away in 2004-05, when his 14 wickets at 30 helped Australia to a 2–0 lead, before a broken thumb forced him to miss the final Test on a Mumbai turner.

This was the only series in his two peak periods when Warne had a higher average than the opposition’s spinners. He played in two or more Tests of a series 43 times, and had a better average than opposition spinners 36 times; four of the other seven were against India. In all, his average against them was almost 16 higher than the Indian spinners; against other Test opponents,Warne was better by at least 12. England’s spinners, for instance, averaged 47 against Australia in Tests featuring Warne, who averaged 23. South Africa’s spinners responded to his 130 wickets at 24 with 54 at 50.

His Test lull happened to encompass his greatest white-ball achievements: in the final three matches of the 1999 World Cup, he took 10 for 95 in 29 overs. His ODI stats (293 wickets at 25) do not grab as much attention as his Himalayan Test numbers. And yet of the 62 spinners who bowled at least 150 ODI overs during Warne’s career, from March 1993 to January 2005, only Saqlain Mushtaq and Muttiah Muralitharan had a better average. Warne’s economy-rate (4.25) and strike-rate (36) were also excellent.

In three of his four World Cup semi-finals or finals, he took four wickets – the exception being the 1996 final, when he was hampered by a slippery ball under lights in Lahore, and went wicketless against superb Sri Lankan batting. Apart from Australia’s Gary Gilmour in 1975, no other bowler has taken more than one four-for in World Cup semis or finals. In 68 ODIs after the 1999 final against Pakistan, until he was banned for taking an illegal substance just before the 2003 tournament, he managed just one more four-wicket haul, and averaged nearly 30 (he played only one more ODI after that, for the World XI against Asia at Melbourne early in 2005). Perhaps, big World Cup matches aside, one-day cricket did not fascinate him as much as the five-day game.

Warne found his Test form again in England in 2001 – the start of Phase 4. He took 31 wickets at 18 in five Tests, striking every 38 balls, twice as often as he had over the previous three years. (He also became the second bowler to take separate hauls of one, two, three, four, five, six and seven in a series, after India’s Subhash Gupte, another leggie, against New Zealand in 1955/56.)

After an ineffective series against New Zealand later in 2001, Warne played 16 more Test series (plus the one-off match against an ICC World XI). Australia won 15. Even in the exception – the 2005 Ashes – Warne constructed his greatest all-round performance: 40 wickets at under 20, and 249 runs at 27. By now, his batting had evolved from handy to influential, while his slip catching was another asset. His last 70 Tests produced a batting average of 20 (it had previously been 14), with 10 of his 12 half-centuries, and 72 catches.

It was appropriate that Warne’s defining delivery and his greatest series both came in England. When he arrived in 1993, England had for
decades been inimical to his art. Since the second of Bill O’Reilly’s Ashes tours, in 1938, front-line wrist-spinners – including Gupte, Richie
Benaud, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar and Abdul Qadir – had averaged over 40. The most wickets by a wrist-spinner in a series in England in the 50 years before Warne was Gupte’s 17 in five Tests for the 1959 Indians.

By the end of his second Test in England, Warne had 16. By the end of the third, he had become the first touring wrist-spinner to take 20 in a series there since O’Reilly. By the end of the sixth, he had become the first to take 30, a total exceeded in 2001 and 2005. Not only did he stun, then surgically dismantle, England’s batting, he became more dominant as his career progressed. On his four Ashes tours, England found more ways of scoring off him: 1.99 an over in 1993, 2.43 in 1997, 2.96 in 2001, 3.15 in 2005. But they also found more ways of getting out: his strike-rates were 77, 59, 37 and 37.

He maintained astonishing consistency. Between November 2001 and his penultimate Test, at the MCG in the 2006/07 Ashes, Warne took two wickets in one or both innings of 49 consecutive games – only Murali, with 52, has a longer sequence. This second period of greatness brought 332 wickets in 58 Tests at 24, with an economy-rate of 2.94.

Test batting had become more attacking during Warne’s career, yet he still exerted mastery. That made this final phase arguably his greatest. While his average was a little higher (24 to 22), he took more wickets per match (5.72 to 5.16). He had become what had seemed impossible – an even better bowler. After his international career finished, with a total of 1,001 wickets (999 for Australia, two for the World XI), Warne helped establish wrist-spin’s preeminence in the early years of the T20 format, and was among the leading wicket-takers in the first four seasons of the IPL, with 57.

Alongside the second golden age of leg-spin, Muralitharan purveyed an unprecedented brand of off-spin. The only bowler with more Test wickets than Warne, Murali collected 800 at 22 each, to Warne’s 25. Murali had a better economy-rate (2.47 to 2.64) and strike-rate (55 to 57); he took 67 five-fors to Warne’s 37, and 22 match hauls of ten, a dozen more than Warne. And all from fewer Tests: 133 to Warne’s 145.

But if you remove Tests against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh (of which Murali played 25, and Warne three), Murali took 624 wickets at 24, Warne 691 at 25. Away from home against top-eight sides, Warne took 372 wickets at 24, Murali 252 at 28. Murali shouldered the burden, and harvested the statistical rewards, of being his team’s main bowler; for much of his career, he had only Chaminda Vaas as significant wicket-taking support. Warne played mostly in a potent attack, founded on the greatness of Glenn McGrath.

In a wider context, Warne’s achievements are even more striking. Leg-spin, if not dying, was only occasionally emerging from its sickbed. Following its rapid evolution in the early 20th century, it was prominent between the two world wars, when wrist-spinners collectively averaged 32, fractionally better than the combined figure for finger-spinners and seamers. From 1946 to 1976, wrist-spinners averaged 37, the rest 30; between 1977 and 1991, they averaged 36, the rest 30.

Warne’s Test career began in January 1992, and lasted 15 years and four days. He finished with 708 Test wickets at 25. During his career, all other wrist-spinners – including some of its best exponents, such as Anil Kumble, Stuart MacGill and Mushtaq Ahmed – averaged 34, and non-wrist-spinners 32. After his retirement, it took 392 Tests, over more than ten years, for all wrist-spinners to match Warne’s career aggregate; those 708 wickets cost 40 each.

Cricket is one of the most measurable sports, though Warne, like all greats, cannot be measured in statistics alone, however staggering. It is impossible to quantify an aura, or the transmission of belief to team-mates, or doubts implanted in opposition minds. Numbers cannot capture the magnificence of his cricket, or the drama he created. He expanded the possibilities of his craft and his sport, enraptured the game for a decade and a half, and set standards of control, penetration and consistency which others could not hope to emulate. And yet statistics can illustrate the extent of his brilliance, give context to his achievements, and shine a light on one of cricket’s defining giants.

Andy Zaltzman is the Test Match Special statistician, and host of The News Quiz on BBC Radio 4.

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