From WG Grace to Ian Botham, the greatest cricketers have been men with huge, unrestrained appetites. That’s how it was with Shane Warne.
A lover of competitions, women, and huge margarita pizzas, Warne couldn’t get enough of anything. He took more wickets than James Anderson, enjoyed more big nights than Oliver Reed, and exuded more happy, contagious energy than anyone I’ve ever known. When news of his death broke on Friday afternoon, it felt like someone turned off the light.
As cricket fans, we should be grateful that Warne caught up when he did. In the early 1990s, he stormed into friendly matches – the dawn of the satellite age that offered viewers around the world a glimpse of his skills. As recently as 1987, the BBC only used one camera at one end of the site. Back then, much of his escape and cunning would have been rendered invisible by the batsman’s butt.
However, had Warne arrived even 10 years later, his free spirit might have been crushed by the stifling conformity of modern sport. There would have been skinfold tests, team culture meetings, and examination of the cigarette ash in his blazer pocket. In 2013, Australia’s then-coach Mickey Arthur famously sent a player home for failing to turn in a homework assignment. What fate could have befallen Warnie in such a climate? time in jail?
Back in the early 2000s, Warne encountered what he described as the ‘hocus pocus’ of another schoolmasterly Australian coach: John Buchanan. During Ashes 2001 I witnessed their excitement backstage first hand. This summer, Warne signed on to appear on BBC Radio 5 Live for nine episodes of Jamie Theakston’s Cricket Show. He came 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 emerged from the dressing room together, looking stern. Buchanan was clearly concerned that Warne – who never ducked a question or gave a boring answer – would let something private slip through his fingers. He didn’t want to let Warne out of his sight either, offering to say goodbye that he should “stick to the diet.”
As soon as Warne got in the car, he immediately asked the producer to order him a pizza, some chocolate and a can of Coke. He continued to consume them with great relish throughout the broadcast, while simultaneously assuring Theakston on the air that he was scrupulously following all of Buchanan’s rules. Every time he mentioned Buchanan’s name, he waved two fingers in a silent V-sign.
Spiritually, Warne was an amateur-era figure who happened to land in one of the strongest eras in professional cricket. His contemporaries were giants: Curtly Ambrose, Wasim Akram, Allan Donald. On unhelpful pitches, Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara were good enough to beat Warne like he was a regular nutcase. However, when Wisden selected his five 20th Century Cricket Players, Warne stood above them all.
Much of this stems from Warne’s natural instinct for showmanship. Like Usain Bolt or Roger Federer, he was visibly happy about his own gifts.
To prove it, here’s an anecdote from Andrew Strauss from the 2005 Edgbaston test. Nearby, Strauss offered a typically polite sledge: “Come on, Gilo, he’s really fighting you here.” Warne growled something unprintable in response , before adding, “Listen, mate, you say one more word to me and I’ll hit the next ball for six.” When Strauss repeated his original comment, Warne kept his promise and slog-swept a massive six-over-square -leg He followed up with the kicker: “You say it again mate?”
Warne’s words were legendary and displayed the same psychological acuity that would later make him a practical poker player. When bowling Mark Ramprakash at Trent Bridge in 2001, Warne feigned support. “Come on Ramps, you know you want it!” he said. “So Ramps, keep coming down the wicket!” Finally, Ramprakash took the bait, launched a massive boost, and was stumped.
Others were bullied into the silent victim role. There was feline cruelty in the way Warne played with South Africa’s hapless Daryll Cullinan. He once foolishly told an Australian newspaper that he had seen a psychiatrist to break the mental hold. Warne’s response to their next meeting? “Daryll, I’m sending you straight back to that leather couch.” Eight balls later, Cullinan left the field, his stumps in disarray.
“There are no comrades on the cricket field,” Warne once said. That aside, however, he was the epitome of goodness — a point underscored by the conclusion of 2005’s Ashes. England would never have won that series if England’s centurion on the final day, Kevin Pietersen, hadn’t been pardoned by Warne’s own drop catch in the slips. And yet, as the players walked away, Warne was big enough to walk up to Pietersen and say: “This is a special, special moment. Just enjoy these innings.”
That athleticism was recognized by the Oval crowd on that glorious afternoon, who chanted “We wish you were English” while he took off his signature white slouch cap.
Sport was just sport for Warne. As long as the game lasted, his absorption was total. But then, as soon as the umpires called the time, he parked the game of the day and moved on to another challenge.
Unlike so many butt-faced athletes, Warne never forgot that exercise should be fun. He didn’t lose contact with the fans either. Here was a man who never turned down an autograph hunter, missed a few more words while signing.
Warne was Cricket’s answer to Elton John: the great performer who would put on a show for any audience. To paraphrase Ian Botham, the fuel gauge never seemed to flash red even though he lived his life full throttle.
In fact, Warne’s bowling was the only slow thing about him. And although his death has deprived us, we should try to remember the good times. Because it is a privilege to have witnessed its comet trail: a sporty supernova that burned out far too early.
© Telegraph Media Group Ltd (2022)
https://www.independent.ie/sport/other-sports/cricket/free-spirit-who-lived-his-life-at-full-throttle-41416009.html A free spirit who lived his life at full throttle