From WG Grace to Ian Botham, the greatest cricketers have been men of huge, unruly appetites. So it was with Shane Warne.
A lover of contests, of women, and of king-sized margarita pizzas, Warne could never get enough of anything. He took more wickets than James Anderson, enjoyed more big nights out than Oliver Reed, and radiated more gleeful, infectious energy than anyone I have ever known. When news of his death broke on Friday afternoon, it felt as if someone had turned off the lights.
As cricket fans, we should be grateful that Warne came along when he did. He exploded into the Test game in the early 1990s — the dawn of the satellite age, which offered viewers around the world a ringside view of his skills. Even as late as 1987, the BBC were only using a camera at one end of the ground. Back then, much of his flight and guile would have been rendered invisible by the batsman’s backside.
Had Warne arrived even 10 years later, though, his free spirit might have been crushed by the stifling conformity of modern sport. There would have been skinfold tests, meetings about team culture and inquests into the cigarette ash in his blazer pocket. In 2013, Australia’s then coach Mickey Arthur famously sent a player home for failing to submit a homework exercise. What fate might have befallen Warnie in such a climate? Jail time?
Even as far back as the early 2000s, Warne was already butting up against what he called the “mumbo-jumbo” of another schoolmasterish Australian coach: John Buchanan. During the 2001 Ashes, I witnessed their backstage tension first-hand. That summer, Warne had signed up for nine episodes of Jamie Theakston’s Cricket Show on BBC Radio 5 Live. He would come straight off the field to join us at a local studio.
As we were about to leave Edgbaston, just two days into the series, Buchanan and Warne walked out from the dressing room together, looking stern. Buchanan was clearly worried that Warne — who never ducked a question, nor gave a boring answer — would let something private slip. Neither did he want to let Warne out of his sight, offering a parting shot that he should “stick to the diet”.
As soon as Warne got into the car, he immediately asked the producer to order him a pizza, some chocolate and a can of coke. He proceeded to consume them with great relish during the broadcast, while simultaneously reassuring Theakston on air that he was following all Buchanan’s rules assiduously. Every time he mentioned Buchanan’s name, he waved two fingers in a silent V-sign.
In spiritual terms, Warne was a figure from the amateur age who happened to land in one of the strongest eras of professional cricket. His contemporaries were giants: Curtly Ambrose, Wasim Akram, Allan Donald. On unhelpful pitches, Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara were good enough to smack Warne about, as if he were any normal spinner. Even so, when Wisden came to choose its five cricketers of the 20th Century, Warne stood above them all.
Much of this comes down to Warne’s natural instinct for showmanship. Like Usain Bolt or Roger Federer, he took visible joy in his own gifts.
To prove the point, here’s an Andrew Strauss anecdote from the 2005 Edgbaston Test. Fielding close in, Strauss offered a typically polite sledge: “C’mon, Gilo, he’s really struggling against you here.” Warne snarled something unprintable in reply, before adding: “Listen mate, you say another word to me and I’ll hit the next ball for six.” When Strauss repeated his original comment, Warne was as good as his promise, slog-sweeping a massive six over square-leg. He followed up with the kicker: “You gonna say it again, mate?”
Warne’s verbals were legendary, displaying the same psychological acuity that would later make him a handy poker player. Bowling to Mark Ramprakash at Trent Bridge in 2001, Warne feigned supportiveness. “Come on Ramps, you know you want to!” he said. “That’s the way Ramps, keep coming down the wicket!” Eventually Ramprakash took the bait, launched a humungous heave, and was stumped.
Others were cowed into silent victimhood. There was a feline cruelty to the way Warne toyed with South Africa’s hapless Daryll Cullinan, who once foolishly told an Australian newspaper that he had resorted to visiting a psychiatrist in an attempt to break the mental hold. Warne’s response on their next meeting? “Daryll, I’m going to send you straight back to that leather couch.” Eight balls later, Cullinan left the field, his stumps in disarray.
“There’s no mates on the cricket field,” Warne once said. Off it, though, he was the epitome of graciousness — a point underlined by the conclusion of the 2005 Ashes. England would never have won that series if England’s final-day centurion, Kevin Pietersen, had not been reprieved by Warne’s own dropped catch in the slips. And yet, as the players walked off, Warne was big enough to approach Pietersen and say “This is a special, special moment. Just savour this innings.”
Such sportsmanship was recognised by the Oval crowd that glorious afternoon, who sang “We wish you were English” as he doffed his trademark floppy white cap.
Sport was just sport for Warne. For as long as the game lasted, his absorption was total. But then, as soon as the umpires called time, he parked the day’s play and switched to another challenge.
Unlike so many po-faced athletes, Warne never forgot that sport was supposed to be fun. Nor did he lose his connection with the fans. Here was a man who never refused an autograph-hunter, nor failed to share a couple of words as he signed.
Warne was cricket’s answer to Elton John: the great performer who would put on a display for any audience. In an echo of Ian Botham, the petrol gauge never seemed to flash red, even though he lived his life at full throttle.
In fact, Warne’s bowling was the only slow thing about him. And though his passing has left us bereft, we should try to remember the good times. Because it’s a privilege to have witnessed his comet trail: a sporting supernova who burned out all too soon.
© Telegraph Media Group Ltd (2022)