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Shane Warne’s limelight

  • 07 March 2022
  It was once said of T. E. Lawrence that he had a tendency to back into the limelight. With the late Shane Warne, arguably the finest slow bowler cricket has ever produced, it edged towards him. His debut appearance against India in the 1991-2 home series in Australia was not auspicious. Paunchy, exuding a vernacular Australian coarseness, and initially wayward, he received an object lesson from India’s Ravi Shastri and the youthful Sachin Tendulkar at the Sydney Cricket Ground. But there were already those incipient signs: the slovenly look, the ear piercings, the peroxide hair.

Then came the tour of New Zealand — ominous signals for opposing cricket teams.  Against the West Indies on home soil, Warne proved memorable.  Then the Ashes in England, and the ‘ball of the century’ to Mike Gatting at Old Trafford. Leg spin bowling had come into vogue again, having been previously eclipsed by the cricket world’s gluttonous diet of pace through the 1980s. Warne bestrode the fields with an action sweetly described by Gideon Haigh as ‘both dainty and menacing, like Ernst Blofeld stroking his white cat.’

From then, Warne became the luminous cricketer, and more than that, the celebrity sportsman recognised for exploits on and off the field. As veteran ABC cricket commentator Jim Maxwell described it, ‘He brought some gamesmanship, some showmanship to the centre of the ground that we hadn’t seen before and he backed it up with enormous skill.’  Former Pakistani player Shahid Afridi, himself no slouch at wrist spinning, eloquently dubbed Warne ‘a university of leg-spin bowling’.

Ironically enough, Warne was so fiendishly good at the craft he did not seem to be consciously practising it. Paradoxically, he seemed elsewhere from the game, sublimely distracted even as he was executing it. Some forget that his first passion was for Australian Rules Football. In 1989, he was disabused of any professional prospects when he received a dismissive note from St Kilda Football Club after his final trial. David Runciman remarks on this point with edgy accuracy: ‘the mystery balls, the tricksy fields, the elaborate appeals — was just window-dressing.’

Similar to such mercurial figures as England’s Ian Botham, the press appended themselves like limpets to his every move. They detected and punished indiscretions, made copy on breaches of protocol. Cricketing authorities, while tolerating his seemingly limitless talent, ensured that this errant figure would never captain Australia. 

'The multitude of mistakes and misjudgements, which somehow made him even more appealing