‘Come on ladies, all together! Shane Warne, Shane Warne, you are a big flirt.’
1998, 2nd Test between India and Australia at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata – It was at the back end of the day’s play and India was cruising to a huge total. The stadium was chock-a-block, and the crowd cheered every nudged single, screamed home every boundary and broke the permitted decibel levels whenever the ball soared into the stands.
However, the noise and enthusiasm was predominantly high-pitched at the block just behind the third man boundary. A group of ladies sat chanting – ‘Shane Warne, Shane Warne, you are a big flirt’ - with flawless synchronization.
Shane Warne was done bowling for the day and as usual, was pasted for plenty by the one and only, Sachin Tendulkar. But that was not a factor for the ladies sitting in the block behind the third man.
The screaming and chanting continued, but Shane Warne didn’t respond and refused to divert his attention. He pulled up his sleeve, adjusted his white floppy, wiped the sweat off his hand and concentrated on the game.
Maybe he had too much going through his mind. He must have been feeling flat after a really bad spell on and off the field. He was easily coming second best in his duel with Sachin Tendulkar, and the media had quite a lot to say about everything he did – the brand of zinc cream he smeared on his face to the baked beans he ordered while dining to avoid the “Indian Curry”.
‘Shane Warne, Shane Warne, you are a big flirt’ - The women were persistent and as soon as the umpire called “Stumps”, something spectacular happened.
Shane Warne turned around, took off his floppy, took a bow and blew air kisses to the women in the stands. That was enough! The entire stand bounced to its feet and cheered off the greatest leg-spinner in the history of the game.
Watching Shane Warne in action, on the cricket field, was perhaps the greatest show on the turf. He was not only the greatest leg-spinner ever, but also a complete entertainer and he pulled off both his antics with ultimate ease.
“Leg-spin bowling is perhaps the hardest and most complex facet of cricket… and the easiest thing starting out would be to keep it simple and true to your ability.” – Richie Benaud
That’s exactly what Shane Warne did. He took a very complex skill, mastered it and executed it with an easy on the eye approach. The genius of Shane Warne lay in his simplicity. His easy flowing action and charismatic personality offered inspiration to most aspiring leg spinners and since his retirement, talented leggies have devoted their life to model themselves on the dazzling Victorian.
However, it wasn’t as easy as he made it look.
According to Allan Border - “Warnie was a freak. He had these big fingers, a strong wrist and shoulder and he could do it all off a few paces with a shuffle to the wicket. But I am wondering whether that is the right way for a lot of the bowlers who have tried to copy him.”
Clearly, it isn’t. Thousands of young leg-spinners have been coached the “Warne way” but none have made it to big because – “Most bowlers just can’t walk up and bowl like Warne. They need rhythm and momentum…. I reckon it might be time to try something new.” - Former selection chairman Trevor Hohns
Both Border and Hohns are right. Shane Warne was not only gifted, but also an athlete par excellence. His front-on action was quite different compared to the traditional leg-spinners and “the Warne way” of walking in eight or nine steps before a gentle three pace run-up and a power-packed delivery stride was certainly unique.
His action didn’t involve extravagant movements like Abdul Qadir and Mushtaq Ahmed, neither did it have the roughness of Anil Kumble’s “jumping jack” rendition.
He walked, leapt and delivered. He had a lazy elegance about him and executed his bowling style with so much panache that it often appeared misleadingly lethargic.
However, Shane Warne, as a cricketer, goes beyond the realms of technical gibberish. Despite the heap of wickets that Warne sits atop, it will be complete injustice to his cricketing persona to talk about him in technical terms and numbers alone.
Shane Warne was all about the aura that he created around him. He had all the tricks in his bag – the big leggie that turned a square mile, the one that drifted away, the one that skidded and spit off a crack and the big wrong one. Yet, it wasn’t always about what he did with the ball.
According to his own admission, “the art of bowling spin is to make the batsman think that something special is happening, when it isn’t.”
Much like a magician, Shane Warne put on a grand show every time he was handed over the ball: the calm posture at the top of the bowling mark, tossing the red cherry from hand to hand, zinc cream across the nose, blond hair flowing in the wind while walking up to the crease, the innocuous jump, the delivery and the expression of complete disbelief of not picking up a wicket every ball.
Playing against Shane Warne was tougher because the batsman not only had to counter a turning ball, but they also had to play the master craftsman. Facing up to the presence of Warne was trickier than negotiating his turn-a-mile leg spinner.
As narrated by Damien Fleming, who played with Warne for almost a decade,
“There were times, when I used to watch England, New Zealand and South African batters just blocking half-volleys. You’d think he’s always going to get five-for; they should at least make him go for a hundred.”
Warne did that to most batsmen. He made the batsmen believe that every ball he delivered was unplayable and in the process, cast his spell around the likes of Daryll Cullinan and a number of English and South African batsmen.
‘I think about what shot I want the batsman to play … Do I want him to go back and defend? Do I want him to come forward and drive? Do I want him to sweep? … That allows me to bowl exactly where I want, rather than focusing in on a spot. I’ve got my plan, and then I just have to execute it to get the batsman out.’ – Shane Warne
Most batsmen lost their wickets to the aura of Shane Warne rather than their incompetence in handling the turning ball.
However, there was one breed of batsmen that he couldn’t conquer. His magic failed to work on a special few hailing from India. Right from his debut to his last IPL game, Shane Warne couldn’t master the fleet-footed Indian batsmen. They not only neutralized his threat as a wicket-taker, most of them treated his bowling as a run-scoring opportunity.
Ravi Shastri destroyed him during his debut Test, while Navjot Singh Sidhu shredded his skills during his first tour to India. VVS Laxman fancied him over the covers and Sachin Tendulkar danced down the track and launched Warne’s greatness over wide long on.
Despite his failures in India, Shane Warne has always been a crowd favourite. However, he made a permanent place in the hearts of the Indian cricket fans when he led a young and inexperienced Rajasthan Royals team to the first IPL title.
That’s the thing about Shane Warne. Even though his personal life resembles a soap opera, Shane Warne always manages to get millions glued to their TV sets with his on-field genius. Apart from the inarguable greatness, there is something about Warne that draws the fans towards this blonde bamboozler. There is an honesty and openness about Warne, a degree of warmth that ensures that he is genuinely liked by the crowds.
Though people love him all over the world, he certainly isn’t the perfect role model for any upcoming youngster. The cricket world already has a few pretenders and the last thing cricket needs is a bunch of texting (!), heavily botoxed, wax-like clones with scintillating white teeth.
But even if they try, it’s impossible to match him. Every cricketer wants to imbibe his persona but Shane Warne is the champion who cannot be cloned because it takes more just talent to be a complete character like Warnie.
He can pick a fight with his coach, swim through scandals in diverse fields, cozy up to bookmakers, use performance-enhancing drugs, fail endorsement contracts, cheat on his spouse but then come back on the field, give it a “real rip”, bowl the magic deliveries, rip apart oppositions and finally bow down, Houdini style, to the crowd with his white floppy hat in hand amidst the chants of “Bowling….Shane”!