A force of nature, Australian cricketer always left us wanting more

All you really need to know about what made Shane Warne who he was and why his shocking and premature death is being mourned globally could be read into the single delivery that launched him, the so-called “ball of the century” at Old Trafford in 1993.

It was sublimely skilful. A seeming innocent in flight, it drifted to leg, pitched in the batter’s blind spot, but rounded on him and knocked askew off stump. Mike Gatting, a renowned player of spin, could not believe it. He thought it must have rebounded off wicketkeeper Ian Healy’s pads. Warne married prodigious spin to laser-like accuracy, two qualities that had always been thought irreconcilable. A third would emerge, the capacity to bowl long spells without tiring or losing heart. Rather, the sniff of battle energised him.

Shane Warne bows to the crowd at the end of a day’s play during the 2007 Ashes series.

Shane Warne bows to the crowd at the end of a day’s play during the 2007 Ashes series.Credit:Getty

It was different. For 20 years, the West Indies fast bowlers had ruled cricket with an iron fist. Wrist-spin was practically obsolete; it was too hard to master. For half the Australian population, it would be hard now to grasp just how defunct it was as a craft. Yet, suddenly, here it was reborn, in a form that would conquer the world and repopularise the art. Warne was 23 and playing just his 11th Test. In time, captain Mark Taylor would say, only partly in jest, that Australia’s gameplan was to get 600 in front, then throw the ball to Warne. Thus, Australia usurped the Windies as the No.1 team for two decades.

The third unique element was showmanship. It was not that the Gatting ball was early in his spell, but that it was his first delivery in the match, in the series, in Ashes cricket. This innate sense of theatre would become a recurring theme. Victorian teammates Damien Fleming and Merv Hughes both took Test hat-tricks that included accomplished Test batsmen. Warne’s was a set of demoralised England tail-enders. But it was in an Ashes Test at his beloved MCG, and so is remembered best and cherished most.

It was not just that Warne put on a show – with his feints, flourishes and intrigues, that he certainly did – but that he became the show in a way that was very nearly mystical. He could not explain it. For the duration of what might be called the Warne era, all that happened in Australian cricket – the overwhelming good, the occasional bad, the exotic, the splendid, the sordid – revolved around him. It meant that his whole career was a triumph of the rarest kind, of both style and substance at once. You could also add longevity.

You might say that he never grew up. You might also say that he didn’t have to. The world clamoured for him as and for who he was.

When he was named one of Wisden’s five cricketers of the 20th century, I wrote for the almanac: “At his best, he has the ruthlessness of a clinician and the flourish of a performer, and his bowling is simultaneously a technical and dramatic masterpiece.” That was mid-way through his career. If anything that sense had redoubled by the time he retired. The year after he retired, art and life became one with the staging of Eddie Perfect’s mildly satirical Shane Warne: The Musical. Warne was in the front row for the premiere.

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