Prem Panicker

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Prem has been writing about cricket since 1996 -- and sometimes wishes he hadn't.

Shane Warne: Over And Out [Part II]

Click here for Part I

 

Ball Four:

 

 

What strikes you, as you watch this master class in leg spin, is how limited Warne's range really was (and that is allowing for the fact that this is a basic lesson, and Warne is not about to reveal all his secrets).

 

There is a leg break (with variations including the one with overspin, and the one with sidespin), a googly, a top spinner, a flipper, and a slider, which Warne rechristened the zooter.

 

After his shoulder injury and corrective surgery in the late 90s, though, Warne dropped the flipper almost entirely from his repertoire; and his googly, always easy to pick when compared with say an Abdul Qadir or a Mushtaq Ahmed, was mostly wheeled out against relative novices or when nothing else was working.

 

So Warne's arsenal, in fact, was a leg break, a top spinner, and a slider – very little, you'd think, to base a career on that resulted in 708 Test wickets and 293 one day wickets, besides a boatload of victims at the first class level.

 

Another factor to consider is this: Warne couldn't hide his tradecraft even if he wanted to, not in these days of intensive video analysis. Also, way back in the mid-90s, Australian television introduced Spin Vision, a technology whereby cameras captured images at the rate of 76 frames per second, slowed the whole thing down, and revealed every minute detail of every ball being bowled: the grip, the position of the fingers, the wrist, the variations, everything was captured and thrown up on there on the large screen for crowds to savor, for kids to learn from, for potential opponents to analyze and deconstruct.

 

And yet he continued to weave his magic – because the cornerstone of his craft is built on a rock solid basis. Back in 1992, shortly after Warne had made his debut, he went to his predecessor in the Australian leg-spinning tradition, Richie Benaud, asking for advice. Benaud gave him just one: "Find a leg break you can turn as far as you possibly can, and then keep putting it on the same spot."

 

Since then, that's been the cornerstone of Warne's craft: a leg break that turns so much it's almost in danger of reversing direction and heading back down the pitch, and a phenomenal, almost freakish, control that allows him to pick out a dime on the pitch, at the optimal length the conditions dictate, and then keep landing it there at will.

 

The consequences have been devastating. Watch:

 

 

To that basic ball he added variations – largely in the amount of turn he would impart, while his action remained the same. And he broke up the sequence of leg breaks with the slider/zooter, a ball that floated through on fullish length, then scurried through with relatively low bounce.

 

Warne let out his real secret when he said 'Most people think of where they want to land the ball; I think of what I want the batsman to do.' Exactly. First, and with microscopic precision, he picks apart their carefully constructed defenses and moves them around the crease; then, he slides the knife in with that perfect delivery designed to penetrate those shattered defenses. Warne, who lived life in broad, flamboyant brush-strokes, was with ball in hand the master of the millimeter.

 

Noticeably, as injury shrunk his arsenal, Warne used misdirection, constantly talking up a succession of mystery balls he had developed or was developing, and would imminently deploy. Initially, journalists and players alike spent entire Tests and even series trying to spot the latest UFO, with no success. Finally, ahead of one Ashes series, and exasperated by Warne's claims of having discovered a mystery ball that could knock over an entire team in one delivery or some such, a British tabloid reporter came up with something on the lines of 'Warne's new mystery ball goes whizzing down the pitch, stops in mid air, sings Advance Australia Fair, goes around shaking hands with each member of the visiting team, then suddenly darts forward and knocks over all three stumps.'

 

Over time, even crowds bought into the fun. When fielding near the boundary, Warne was apt to be asked about his latest mystery ball. And he would solemnly pull the waistband of his trousers open and pantomime peaking down.

 

Now read Michael Atherton's masterly dissection of Warne's craft

 

Ball Five:

 

Every Achilles has his heel – and Warne's was India.

 

Back in 1998, when Mark Taylor brought his team over to India on tour, pre-match press conferences focused on the question of how the home batsmen would cope with Warne. Asked the question for the nth time, skipper Mohammad Azharuddin shrugged in response. "I've got six batsmen who can handle Warne," was his response – and subsequent events proved him right, as the likes of Sidhu, Sachin and Azhar himself took Warne on and made him wilt.

 

The stories from back then are still fresh in memory: stories of Tendulkar traveling down to Chennai, creating a rough outside his leg stump and getting Sivaramakrishnan and a host of Tamil Nadu-bred club spinners to bowl into that rough, hour after hour, while he practiced both defense and offense. Of Sachin, again, telling the Mumbai Ranji team, the evening before they were to take on the Aussies in a warm up game: 'Warne is their main weapon, I want you guys to blast him out of the park.' It doesn't matter if we win or lose, but we must destroy Warne, he told them – and then led them in the execution.

 

Numbers speak for themselves: In 14 Tests against India, Warne managed 43 wickets at 47.2. Compare that with his record against the other sub-continental masters of playing spin: against Pakistan, he took 90 wickets in 15 Tests at 20.2; against Sri Lanka, his returns were 59 wickets in 13 Tests at 25.5.

 

Warne's worst moment in India was Calcutta 2001. When Steve Waugh famously imposed the follow on, it was Warne he was looking to, to bundle out an India absolutely devoid of confidence after the three day rout in the first Test and the battering in the first innings. (A measure of how much depended on Warne is the fact that when India pulled off its sensational walk-on-water act, coach John Buchanan's first – and unprecedented – reaction was to publicly question Warne's fitness and commitment, an act that led to much angst in the Australian camp and, finally, an apology from the coach).

 

Warne's problem on that occasion was that he came face to face with two batsmen who, between them, exemplified the two methods of playing the leg spinner. VVS Laxman was all dancing feet and revolving door wrists, capable of taking a leg break pitched outside leg stump and driving it through the gap between midwicket and long on, and then skipping around an identical ball and driving inside out through the covers.

 

At the other end, Dravid was a master of using the width and depth of the crease to counter Warne's lines, lengths and variations, playing late with the softest of hands, nudging and nurdling the bowler to exasperation and cashing in when Warne tried something different.

 

A decade and more after that epic encounter, the respect remains, as is evident whenever Dravid speaks of Warne. And it is mutual – Warne, famously, respects only those opponents who can handle him, meet him on equal terms, give him a contest.

 

 

We talk of that encounter and others, Dravid says in that video clip. Including, perhaps, the unnoticed curtain-raiser to Calcutta 2001, which was played out on a dusty English wicket in the 2000 county season when Warne debuted for Hampshire and Dravid did duty for Kent. In a game Warne was desperate to win for his new home, Dravid produced a masterful display, scoring 137 and 73 not out, the latter knock anchoring a winning chase.

 

"The thing about Warne that strikes me most," Dravid told us two days ago, "is how much, even at this stage in his career, he enjoys bowling – in the way that even today, after all these years, Sachin enjoys batting. The enthusiasm, wanting to get the ball in his hand, has been the same all these years that I've known him and played against him.

 

"People like Sachin, they know from when they are young that playing cricket is what they want to do, but Warne actually came to the game quite late, almost accidentally – so it is remarkable the passion he brings to it. He just loves his craft, he has this knack of bowling the right ball at the right time, and he is one of the best readers of the game I know."

 

Ball Six:

 

Dravid's words have a valedictory feel to them – appropriately so, as Warne prepares to bowl the last ball he will ever bowl in anger.

 

This is the time to find the words to write the fitting tribute – but the best possible epitaph on Warne was written 20 years ago, before he had even made it to the world stage.

 

In 'Shane Warne: Portrait of a Flawed Genius' (arguably the best book by or about Warne that has ever been written), Simon Wilde recounts an anecdote, the gist of which is this:

 

In 1991 Warne, then an alum of the Australian cricket academy who had already gotten into hot water for flashing and propositioning three Asian girls while once billeted in a college dorm, and into even deeper hot water for abusing academy officials who asked him to cut out the pies and beer and get serious about his weight, was picked for a development squad to tour Zimbabwe.

 

As was the way of Australian cricket development then, the squad had three senior players – Taylor, Waugh and Moody – who could check out how the prospects were doing, and report back on their fitness for the big time.

 

When Waugh returned, he was full of the wonders he had seen, and told his New South Wales mate Mike Whitney: 'Man, you should see this sucker from Victoria. He is tubby, he's got a mullet, he smokes a shitload of cigarettes and he likes a drink but f@$*, he can spin a ball.'

 

That's it. That's the line that sums up all those wickets, all those bamboozled batsmen, all those sports page headlines of triumphs and tabloid banner headlines of scandals both sporting and sexual:

 

F@$*, he can spin a ball.

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