Shane Warne: The spin legend who inspired millions to ‘rip it like Shane’

Driving fans to find their own ‘Warne moment’ with the ball, he had the showmanship of a passionate entertainer.

WrittenBy:Anand Vardhan
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It was early 1992. The possibilities of what you could do with a cricket ball on the pitch, and not in your backyard, were going to be redefined by a young, slightly unsure, blonde-haired debutant. The young man’s bowling figures in his first encounter with test cricket in Sydney showed little clue of what was to follow.

Perhaps his debut was as deceptive as his leg-rippers, floaters and sliders, which were going to fox countless batters on the pitch in the years to come. Shane Warne was on his way to an iconic 15-year career that saw him revive the art of leg-spin bowling with the mastery, elan and appeal of box office entertainment.

That was perhaps the most enduring imprint of Warney, as he was fondly called, in his remarkably eventful life of 52 years. Even for the greats of the sport, it is no mean feat to be remembered for not merely great records – and Warne was the first spinner to touch 700 test scalps – but for how they were attained. It is a testament to the great ripper that, more than cold and impressive statistics, he was etched in cricketing lore for the craft at work in mesmerising batters and plotting memorable dismissals.

This perhaps accounts for the fact that he was the only one to be named for his bowling prowess among the five Wisden cricketers of the 20th century along with three batting greats – Sir Don Bradman, Sir Jack Hobbs and Sir Vivian Richards – and all-rounder Sir Garfield Sobers.

But the higher accolade was the fact that he brought millions of new converts, crowds and also attention to the guile and fine art of leg-spin. To add to that, he revived it with the showmanship of a passionate entertainer. There can be any number of lists of one’s favourite Warne deliveries – just search any cricketing journal or YouTube for favourite picks – and all this added to the lore woven around the man.

But how can one skip the ball that started this fascinating story?

Immortalised as the “ball of the century”, Warne’s first ball on the first day of his first Ashes test at Old Trafford to Mike Gatting in the English summer of 1993 – the summer in which the legend of Shane Warne was finally born. Even today it inspires lyricism in people when recalling how it was bowled and what it did. In a more prosaic tone, these details come to mind: the loopy leg break drifted, swerved, dipped a bit, pitched outside the leg stump and, as Mike Gatting got half-forward, it turned viciously to hit the top of his off-stump.

Even though Warne bowled many more memorable deliveries around the world, the talk around the Gatting ball refuses to die. Almost two decades after the ball was bowled, Barney Ronay wrote in the Guardian about the myriad ways in which the moment has been recalled:

“There shouldn’t really be anything left to say about Warne’s Ball, otherwise known as Shane Warne’s opening delivery in Ashes ; or more commonly as The Ball of the Century, Birth of A Superstar, Awakening of the Kraken, the Jailhouse Rock of Australia’s custard-blond leg-break Elvis, and so on ad infinitum.

“In part this is because so much has already been said and written, an entire vast, groaning old library of ball talk, from the historian’s cold-eyed anatomy to the biographer’s partisan gurgles.”

Warne himself, however, played it down. “Fluke, given the nerves and the cold” – that’s how he remembered it many years later.

In the pecking order, others rank a tad lower, such as the Basit dismissal in the mid-1990s and Andrew Strauss going clueless about his leg stump in 2007, that too after having a good look at Warne for years. Much like the numerous recollections of Warne’s guile with the ball, his life and career were the subject of around 12 books before he entrusted Mark Nicholas, his friend and former English cricketer and commentator, to tell his story in his own words.

Warne’s autobiography was remarkably candid for a sporting icon, as he showed a keen sense of family history in recalling the story of his Polish grandfather and grandmother, their new life in Australia, and later the influence his parents had on him. His description of Melbourne middle-class life in the ‘80s was evocative of many strands. So was his adolescent dabbling with Australian rules football. More significantly, his detailed description of learning his craft and honing the art of “what and when” to bowl and where with his mentor Terry Jenner made for fascinating insights. Besides the rigours of the trade, Warne’s passion and acumen in aceing mind games on the ground were evident in what he shared with his readers.

He was quick to grasp challenges and to acknowledge fine performances against him. In ranking Brian Lara and Sachin Tendulkar as the best batsmen of his generation, Warne was honest enough to say they often got the better of him. In hindsight, his performance on Indian soil was also marred by his shoulder operation in 1998, after which his wrong ‘uns lost their bite and so did some of his variations. This meant he was not bowling his best when Tendulkar, along with other Indian batsmen, neutralised him in the 1998 series, while VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid did so more memorably in 2001. But he did give a better account of himself in the Indian tour of 2004.

He became a vital part of the mean, all-conquering Australian winning machine of the 1990s and the early part of this century under three skippers: Allan Border, Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting. Some even felt that given his sharp tactical bent, he was the best leader that Australia never had. His success with the unfancied Rajasthan Royals in their title win in the inaugural edition of the Indian Premier League in 2008 is often cited to argue for his untapped potential as a leader in international cricket.

Warne, however, was more realistic about the slim chances of a bowler donning the skipper’s hat in the Australian set-ip, also given his unconventional stand and intermittent brush with controversies. Being cricket’s favourite glamour boy of the ‘90s and some careless off-field dalliances also meant he was hitting headlines for non-cricketing reasons – such as the Salim Malik betting saga in Pakistan, unexpectedly testing positive for a banned drug, tabloid coverage of his womanising, his divorce from Simone Callahan, and his relationship with actor Elizabeth Hurley. However, later years saw him rebuilding bonds with his ex-wife and their three children.

Post retirement, Warne’s broadcasting career as a cricket commentator for Sky Sports and Channel Nine saw his astute mind for the sport, sharing insights and sharp observations with millions of viewers. For those missing the master of the spinning trade displaying his famed tricks in retirement years, the commentary box became a new address to pick the mind of the plotting stalwart.

If you are from a generation that just picked up the ball, wanted to give it a rip, or let it go deceptively straight from a spot of your choosing, you were just trying to have your Warne moment. That’s how Warne loomed large over our spinning imagination. The man became the byword for his craft – rip it like Shane.

In doing so, Shane Warne brought millions to the ground or TV screens just to see the ripping trade touch the levels of sublime artistry.

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