Thursday, December 21, 2006

Shane Keith Warne: He scared batsmen and he scarred me

I want to add my own quiet voice to the chorus of tributes pouring in for Shane Warne, who has announced his retirement from cricket.

My first reaction (as an England fan) was thank God for that, he won't be tormenting our poor batsmen (and bowlers much of the time) any more after the end of this series.

Since he emerged on the Ashes scene in 1993 (follow the link on this page to "Warne's Wonder Ball to Gatting"), Warnie has consistently flummoxed and bamboozled English players - as if he were bowling hand grenades or sea urchins, rather than the familiar red leather cricket ball. Before Warne appeared, Australian cricketers were mainly of the big moustache variety (Merv Hughes, David Boon etc) and beat us by virtue of their outback spirit and strength derived from chasing kangaroos around the bush to grill on the barbie. They saw English cricketers mostly as effete ladymen whose public school educations were nothing compared to the grounding in life one gets from consuming 52 cans of beer on the flight from Sydney to London.

Warne added a new diabolical malevolence to their attack. Rather than just being tougher and grittier than us, they now had a player who could mesmerise and confuse us, something that only the mysterious spinners of the Orient had managed before. In fact England had been utterly confounded by Pakistan's Mushtaq Ahmed the previous summer and Anil Kumble of India in the winter (another disastrous tour). In order to prevent this happening again, we recalled the experienced Gatting, who despite a mediocre test record, was said to be good against spin. Well, Shane Warne debunked that particular myth by pitching one miles outside leg stump and hitting off. Making a ball turn past Gatt's bulky frame is no mean feat and the delivery later became dubbed the ball of the century (perhaps a touch hyperbolic, but incredible to watch nonetheless).

Warne's arrival that year was greeted gushingly by Richie Benaud, a former great leg-spinner, who happily demonstrated the different hand positions required to produce leg breaks, flippers, top-spinners and the devilish wrong'un, or googly. All this was fascinating to observe: I suspect most of the variations were as new to the England team as they were to a nation of callow youths watching the proceedings on television. Actually, Warne didn't bowl that many googlies, but the psychological effect he had on the England players was such that he could have bowled a beach ball underarm and they would have misread the line of the thing.

As a fifteen year old that year I imitated Warne's wizard-like sleight of hand as best I could and managed to bowl some legbreaks that turned square (an ability sadly lost due to a later broken finger). Unfortunately, a la Ian Salisbury, I'd only hit the mark with one in six, so could only claim a very weak association with the great Victorian. However, later that summer I was on holiday on France, staying in a gite with my family, when, while practising the whirling motion of Warne's greatest deliveries, my hand smashed into a low hanging glass light fitting, breaking it into a thousand shards, one of which lodged in the back of my hand. After the screams had died down and the cut been cleaned up and attended with a sturdy suture to keep it closed, a small but quite visible scar formed. I gaze at it fondly even now. Shane Warne is the only cricketer to have such an effect on my person and I imagine I am not the only fan he touched in this way.

Warne's great strength has been his consistency (at least on the field - he's wavered somewhat off it with various sex and drugs scandals, not to mention the hair commercials) and for 13 years he has plagued England teams (and the rest, he has great records againt South Africa and New Zealand too) with monotonous ease. He was written off in some quarters before the 2005 Ashes, but came up with 40 wickets (almost half the Australian total) and over 200 runs, enough to keep the series competitive when around him his teammates were floundering. This time around, England have played him a little more successfully but he still has the knack of tearing through us at the right moments.

I'm not that surprised that he's announced his retirement now: I think this will be the last test series for a few more of the Australian over 35s. Damien Martyn has already gone, and I suspect Glenn McGrath and probably Matthew Hayden will also call it quits after the Sydney test. Warne has done some commentary work already and is an intelligent and engaging observer of the game (more Mark Taylor than Bill Lawry) so I'm sure he'll have a great career ahead of him behind the mic. Australia will miss Shane Warne badly - he's such a massive part of their team - but so will cricket fans everywhere. I'm glad to have seen one of the all-time greats at his peak and will definitely try to catch him in the flesh at Hampshire over the next couple of seasons.

In the immortal words of Ian Healy:
"Bowling, Warnie"

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