Today, a legend bows out of the game for all time. All-time great bowler, larger than life character and, in an age that tends to produce cricketers from a singular mould, one of the game's pitifully few rock stars. An attempt to capture the key ingredients of the Warne mystique:
When his captain waves him over to the bowling crease, he bustles up, brisk to the point of impatience. He snatches the ball with one hand; with the other he hands his trademark floppy hat off to the umpire often without even looking at that official. His manner speaks louder than words – and what it says is, 'About time you gave me the damn ball – what took you so long? Now get out of my way and let me go to work!'
He grabs the ball and almost in the same motion, he spins it, whirring, from left hand to right, and then again, and again, the action a bit more emphatic, urgent, with each iteration.
He seems abstracted, almost uninvolved, as his captain discusses his field with him – almost as if it is irrelevant, like bureaucratic paperwork the management types waste their time with. It's not about the field and where you put whom, his manner suggests – it's about him; it's about how he pits his genius against the poor mortal whose fate it is to play victim. When he takes center stage, it is Warne against the world, not Australia against the Other XI.
He walks off to his bowling mark, his focus inwards, his gaze on the ground. He turns, looks up to make sure the batsman is ready for him, then sets off on that little walk that rapidly turns into a bull-rush through the crease, accelerating to that moment of supreme effort when everything comes together – when his hips drive through the delivery stride, the pivot puts his massive shoulders and blacksmith right arm in play, and the ball whirrs out of his hand and heads down-pitch, humming, on its mission of preordained destruction.
And the magic begins, as Warne turns yet another game on its axis in defiance of the odds.
The 708 Test wickets he harvested in 145 Tests, and the 293 wickets he winkled out in 194 ODIs, are replete with examples of this special skill to buck the trend, change the game, defy the odds and cricketing gods. My personal favorite – the moment that, in my mind, epitomizes all that Warne has stood for – dates back to June 17, 1999, the semi-final game against South Africa in the World Cup, played at Edgbaston.
Warne came into that World Cup on the back of an injury layoff; his form was ordinary, his confidence down the toilet; his best friends were wondering whether he was past it and his critics were comparing him unfavorably to Stuart McGill; the sports pages were filled with stories of his declining form and lackluster performances and the front pages were filled with his sexual exploits with a porn star while wife Simone was heavily pregnant with the couple's second child.
He figured he was done. He wanted to quit, he told the team. Like a wannabe suicide, he was looking for support and encouragement; what he got was angst from mates who thought he was allowing his personal drama to drag down a team already on the skids.
Heading into that semi-final, he was showing signs of recovery, but was still bowling way below his peak. In the do or die game at Edgbaston, Pollock and Donald wrecked Australia, taking 9 of the 10 wickets as the Aussies crumbled to 213. In response, Herschelle Gibbs took off at breathless pace, cracking six fours in a 30-ball 34 that powered SA to 48/0 after 12. Steve Waugh whistled Warne up in the 13th – and with the second ball of his first over, the magic began.
Bowling from over the wicket, Warne tossed one up and across the right-hander, the ball angling from off to a foot outside leg, swerving in through the air with the amount of over-spin on it, hitting the deck outside the line of leg and then darting back in to slide past the batsman's body and his bat to hit top of off. (Watch from 5:47 on the video).
In his autobiography, Gibbs spoke of that moment: "Then, with my score on 30, Shane warne let rip with probably the best ball I've ever faced from a spinner. He was getting a lot of in-drift and turn from the ball, and the length of this delivery was just perfect. I couldn't go 'back to' and I couldn't go 'forward to'. I didn't want to sweep the ball either, because I didn't think it was full enough. The ball was right on the money and caught me playing from the crease. It hit the deck outside leg, spin past my bat and knocked the bail off my off-stump.
"I heard their wicketkeeper, Adam Gilchrist, go up, and I remember thinking, 'What the hell's he going on about?' I didn't think there was any way Warne could've bowled me. I mean, I didn't ever hear the bails come off! But I turned around and saw that one of the bails had come off. The perfect ball – perfect!"
Perfection, in Warne's hand, is a double-edged sword – it takes wickets at both ends. Gibbs was bowled; non-striker Kirsten, watching at the other end, was mentally destroyed. "Deliveries like that cause batsmen to do strange things," Kirsten later said.
Kirsten did "strange things" in the very next Warne over. He was batting 18 off 41, patiently anchoring a potentially easy chase of a small target. But the Gibbs dismissal preyed on his mind and, when Warne bowled the first ball of his second over across the left-hander, hitting roughly the same spot as the one that had taken Gibbs out, Kirsten lost his head and played a sweep at it, his panic causing him to pick perhaps the one shot you cannot play to a ball outside your off stump bowled by a big turner of the ball. He missed; the ball curved in and hit top of off. One ball later, Hansie Cronje was walking back – another big turning leg break held this time in slip, possibly off the edge of the bat, possibly not.
Warne's reaction to the Gibbs' dismissal epitomized the man. "Come on," he yelled as Gibbs stood there in disbelief. "Come on!", he screamed as he pulled his mates into his slipstream. It was the reaction of a man who thought no game was lost when he still could bowl; the feral snarl of one who believed he had the skill to turn games single-handed – and more often than not, his belief made it so.
A leg spinner's art is a difficult one at the best of times; when he is attacking, the degree of difficulty intensifies, and the chances of getting taken for runs exponentially increases. Here, he was bowling after the opposition had built up a head of steam; he had to check runs, because there wasn't much to play with, and he had to take wickets, because SA merely had to bat 50 overs to win. Keep that in mind and read his bowling figures at the end of his first six overs: 6-4-5-3.
You survive – by some skill, some luck, the grace of some gods – that first salvo, and look up to find Warne mid-pitch, his brilliant green eyes fixed on you in the basilisk stare of a Dusty Fog who can't believe he missed with his first bullet.
He wheels half-about and begins making the most minute adjustments, in the most theatrical way. He moves his square leg a half foot to the right and kicks the turf because the fielder is not millimeter precise in his adjustment; he gazes around the field, whistles up his wicket-keeper for a chat, then moves the fielder a half foot in the other direction.
All this, while you, already overwhelmed by the man's presence and the close encounter with that first ball, wonder what fresh horrors lie in store.
"Great players have huge auras about them," Rahul Dravid, now Warne's colleague at Rajasthan Royals after a cricketing lifetime in opposition, said in course of a chat two days ago. "Sachin, Warne, players like that. The difference is, the batsman doesn't have to do anything – his role is largely reactive. It is the bowler who has to create the play."
And that is where Warne's 'aura' comes in handy. When he stands mid-pitch and glares at you, he semaphores the fact that he has repeatedly beaten the best in the business, and who are you to hold him up? That is in fact one of his favorite taunts: 'You're wasting my time and yours,' he snarls at a batsman who has managed to somehow survive by the skin of his fairy godmother's teeth.
A magician's flamboyant gesture with his right hand conceals what the left is doing; his patter with the leggy assistant serves the same purpose – and the 'reveal' is all the more devastating for the fact that our attention was temporarily diverted. That's Warne, at the bowling crease. Again, examples abound. Here's one I treasure, from the 1995 series against Pakistan – a series that pitted an Australian attack not yet in its pomp, against a Pakistan attack that boasted Wasim, Waqar, Mushtaq and Saqlain.
Pakistan made 299; Warne was instrumental in restricting them, with 4/55. Australia were limited to 257, with Mushtaq taking 5/95 and Wasim 4/50. Pakistan, looking to build the lead and give the all-star bowling lineup the cushion of runs, lost 3/82, but then Basit Ali, whose obduracy had proved a headache for the Aussies through that series, began playing a trademark supporting role to Salim Malik, the one Pakistan batsman to thoroughly master Warne.
It's the last ball of the day, Ali on strike, Pakistan looking to go in on 3/101, 143 ahead and with a set pair at the crease. Warne prepares to bowl, then suddenly whistles Ian Healy up for a very lengthy chat – while Ali stood at his post, and stewed.
Watch the video (from 4.44) to know what Warne discussed with Healy – their dinner preferences for the night, as it turned out.
Magicians master two things: dexterity and psychology. Warne's explanation of the need for such impromptu drama is revelatory: Basit had been a stumbling block; the game had been extended past normal hours; Basit was keen to get back in the hut, so he could start fresh the next day – ergo, it made sense to hold him up.
Finally, Warne wheeled away to the start of his run. Came bustling in. And put the ball a foot and a half outside leg – his G-spot.
Its length and direction open Basit up. His front foot goes forward and sideways, to cover the probable line of the turning ball, but his back foot cannot follow, he cannot maintain his shape, because of the need to stay anchored within his crease. The result is the opening up of a gap in what was otherwise a well organized defense, and Ali is a horrified spectator as the ball rips back in, slides past his front leg, slips through the gap, and hits leg and middle.
There is something particularly humiliating in being bowled between your legs (just as you look particularly foolish when you let the ball go through between your legs in the field). And Basit is not the first to experience that most humiliating of dismissals at the hands of Warne. That particular delivery, from a position somewhat closer to the stumps, angling across the pitch to land a foot and more outside leg and just short of driving length (with overspin adding indrift if the recipient is a right-hander), then reversing direction to hit the top of the stumps, is as old as Warne's career.
It was the first ball he bowled on his Ashes debut - a ball so new and magical at the time that it acquired a halo all its own and reduced its victim, Mike Gatting, to a trivia question. Think also of the ball that did Shivnaraine Chanderpaul in the final over before lunch at the Sydney Cricket Ground circa 1996 – a magic ball to a batsman who had earlier in the morning driven Warne out of the attack, a batsman who threatened to give his team a decisive advantage, a delivery that turned far and swung the game further. Or the last ball dismissal of Andrew Strauss at Edgbaston, 2005 (and rarely, even in a long list of batsmen made to look foolish by Warne, has any batsman been so thoroughly humiliated) that turned him into the answer to a quiz question: Who was Warne's 100th Test victim in England?
Same hat, same rabbit, over and over again – and yet, when 'Hollywood' turns up at the bowling crease you pay your money and you pack the galleries, and you watch in a kind of knowing fascination. 'Ah,' you think, 'here it comes.' It surely does – and as surely, you gasp in renewed wonder and awe.
And you realize that with Warne, as with all master magicians, it's all about the set up, not the rabbit.
PS: Australia lost the match by 74 runs, but not for want of skill and effort on Warne's (8/121 for the match) part.
A deep down grasp of psychology is a key weapon in the Warne arsenal. It is what marks him out as a brilliant reader of the game; as the best captain Australia never had; as the unquantifiable blip in Australian cricket development.
Allan Border took a team that was down and out (his predecessor resigned in a shower of tears) and created out of bits and disparate pieces a hard-nosed, hard-driving machine that was fuelled by hunger and driven to succeed. Mark Taylor took Border's team and taught it to take risks; to go out on the edge in its pursuit of success; he taught the side that you have to embrace the prospect of failure before you can succeed. Steve Waugh took the side built by Border and sandpapered by Taylor and created a team that never let up, not even in dead games; a team that played at a pace so breakneck it left adversaries gasping in its wake.
You have to pause and wonder what Warne, had he taken over from Waugh, would have brought to this story of progression.
If that remains one of the unanswered questions, the role Warne's grasp of human nature, his instinctive understanding of pressure points, played in his mastery of the opposition is no secret.
Here's a favorite moment:
What you see is Sourav Ganguly, an acknowledged master of playing spin, go down the wicket at Adelaide, December 1999, get foxed by a straight one bowled quicker and flatter, and get stumped.
What the video does not show you is what went before. Ganguly and Tendulkar were mounting a recovery; both batsmen mixed studied defense with intelligent offense, rotated strike well, and were looking to be turning it around. That's when Warne began inserting the needle with the practiced skill of an acupuncturist. He was bowling outside off with a packed field, denying Ganguly length to drive or space to cut; Sourav responded by letting deliveries be bowled between Warne and Gilchrist while he watched and Gilchrist while he played patience in a bid to force Warne to shift his line. Warne then began his patter: Dude, these guys didn't pay money to watch you leave the ball, he nattered on, they are here to watch this other fella play shots.
The 'other fella' was non-striker Tendulkar. And that patter, which Warne kept up ceaselessly, was shrewdly aimed. While the rest of the Indian team, then and now, cedes to Sachin his space as the best of the best, Ganguly has always been keenly aware of his own accomplishments, and competitive enough to not want to yield space to anyone. Warne's comparison of his passivity to Tendulkar's strokeplay was a shrewd thrust at the young Sourav's amour propre – and it paid dividends soon enough. Tendulkar had fallen (ending a 108-run partnership) and when the run of play brought Ganguly vis a vis Warne again, the batsman decided to teach his tormenter a lesson. And ended up learning one.
Or think of Darryl Cullinan, whom Warne took out for fun in the 1997 Australian tour of South Africa. The batsman was so traumatized, he had to seek psychiatric help at the end of that series. The next time they met, in a one day series in Australia, Warne with pointed solicitude inquired into Cullinan's state of mind, asked how the treatment was getting along, asked him if there was anything he could do to help – and took him out for yet another duck.
Warne's patter, his surgical use of the needle, is the best practical application you could find for the 'mental disintegration' theory. It was Border who first institutionalized the no holds barred mindset in Australian cricket; Waugh merely expanded on it and gave what started as a street-fighter's natural impulse the cloak of a philosophy.
At various times, and in various of his books, Waugh argued that there really is very little, skills-wise, separating the top teams; the real battle, he postulated, had therefore to be fought in the mind. Ergo, the way to go was to rigorously test the opponent's mental strength by any and all means available (Waugh was always quick to add that bit about remaining within the spirit of the game – but good luck with that).
Waugh articulated it, Warne executed it with surgical precision and calculated cruelty.
PS: When Cullinan locked horns with Warne the next time after that 1997 series, he had been told that one way out of his troubles was to torment his tormentor. So he kicked things off by calling Warne a balloon and asking him to go off and deflate himself. The next time he came out to bat was when Warne went after him with the 'Hey, mate, how's the head these days' riff.
Moral of the story: All the venom in the world is no good if you don't have the skill to back it up.