Shane Warne: The Man Who Breathed Life Into The Dying Art Of Leg-Spin Bowling

Shane Warne, born September 13, 1969, resurrected the art of leg-spin bowling, adding substance, style and glamour to the most intriguing of cricketing crafts, writing a new chapter big enough to merit a dedicated volume. Arunabha Sengupta looks at the career, wickets and transgressions of this living headline of the world of cricket.

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Shane Warne… magician par excellence © Getty Images

Shane Warne, born September 13, 1969, resurrected the art of leg-spin bowling, adding substance, style and glamour to the most intriguing of cricketing crafts, writing a new chapter big enough to merit a dedicated volume. Arunabha Sengupta looks at the career, wickets and transgressions of this living headline of the world of cricket.

A tale of two television clips

The most tantalising spell of Aussie bowling in the recent Anglo-Australian Tests was perhaps witnessed during a lunch interval.

The tale of woe of the visitors was obviously painful for the former colossus of the Ashes — the helpless surrenders perversely unlike anything Shane Warne had ever experienced during his playing days.

Ever since his first delivery in England had zipped across the entire expanse of Mike Gatting, the Warne phenomenon had clasped the hearts of the Englishmen with a cold leg-spinning grip. The teams of the nineties and early 21st century had never recovered from the much touted ball of the century that had pitched some miles outside the leg stump and hit the top of off. And even when Michael Vaughan’s men won that superb series of 2005, Kevin Pietersen’s death or glory assault thwarting the Aussie challenge on the final day at The Oval, Warne had remained an ever-present threat — picking up 40 wickets in the five Tests, almost clinching the series singlehandedly with his vicious spinning leg-breaks.

Soon after that he had striven for one last time to demonstrate that it had been a minor hiccup in a tale of relentless domination, by capturing 23 more in his farewell series as Australia had zoomed right back to their white-washing ways.

And here was the palest shadow of the erstwhile supreme team, trying their limping best to prevent a whitewash painted in the reverse. It was quite sad to watch Nathan Lyon, perhaps in a desperate bid to call on the spirit that had confounded the earlier Englishmen, proceeding to bowl round the wicket as Warne had done. Only neither did he break the ball the same way, nor nearly as much.

In between this tale of struggle, during the said lunch interval, the former leg-spinner popped up on the giant screen, demonstrating his esoteric art for a television channel. A few days shy of 44, he had played his last international match six years earlier, having restricted himself to a handful of matches in the Indian Premier League and the Big Bash League since then. And here he was, appearing in front of the camera to share the secrets of one of the most difficult crafts of the game.

He spoke briefly about a plan, where he would pitch each delivery of an over and how much he would turn each one of them. And casually taking his five walked and three trotted paces to the crease, he proceeded to do bowl his talk. Every ball landed exactly where he had promised, and ended precisely where he had predicted.

There have been very few spinners in world cricket who could have achieved that pin-pointed perfection at the very peaks of their careers. Even fewer in the realm of leg-spin, a profession that is almost synonymous with profligacy, the price the wrist spinner has to pay for variation and unnatural contortions that can combine to befuddle batsmen in more ways than any other type of bowling.

Yet, there was Warne, six years after he had spun his last ball for Australia, dazzling the world with his accuracy, control and prodigious turn. Michael Clarke perhaps wistfully wondered what might have been if even the middle-aged leggie had been there to carry the beleaguered side on his worn shoulders. The initial followed by five ominous letters in the team list would have been enough to send a few shivers down the spine of the England batting order, the fear of Warne passed from one generation of batsmen to the next, almost encoded into the batting DNA of the English team.

And some of the cricket lovers who caught the images were left rueing that never would the world see another of his kind. No one ever spun the ball as much, as viciously and with as much guile as Warne. Perhaps no one ever will.

Yet, the story of Warne the supreme leg-spinner is just a part of the entire phenomenon of the greatest Australian cricketing character of recent years. It takes another momentary image on television to capture the whole. There was a roving camera a few years ago that had caught Warne sitting in the dressing room, enjoying a chocolate ice-cream bar. Commentator Harsha Bhogle had remarked that ice-cream was perhaps the most harmless device in Warne’s hands.

Yes, his logic was irrefutable and let us build on what he had just hinted at. The chocolate ice-cream cannot grip, turn and hit the stumps after pitching on the loosened earth on the rough outside leg-stump. Neither can it be used to send obscene text messages, clandestine invitations that lay far beyond the realms of social acceptance. Neither can the ice-cream be smoked nor does it contain banned diuretics.  And it is not really the sort of incentive a bookmaker could use to glean information about the pitch, weather and team morale — although with Warne one cannot be too sure about that.

Of talent and transgressions

For this spinner from Victoria, cricket was an endless celebration of staggering talent, a decade and a half of good times punctuated by indiscretions at once unpardonable and puerile. He committed blunders that were plainly outrageous but curious gullibility somehow kept him hovering on the verge of innocence. Much of his tussles against the best of batsmen around the world were won easily enough. More crucial was the fight with his insatiable flair for self-destruction, a trait that often reached levels of ingenuity to rival his bowling.

Gatting left the crease shaking his head, looking in disbelief at the umpires to verify that the miracle had indeed taken place. Shivnarine Chanderpaul was left wondering about the laws of physics after a ball suddenly deviated more sideways than it went forward. Alec Stewart looked curiously at the wicket and his bat hanging a foot outside the line after a flipper went through and crashed into the stumps. Graham Gooch was bowled behind his legs playing no stroke. Andrew Strauss thrust his pad forward outside his off-stump and his jaw hung in incredulity as the ball struck leg.

Even batsmen from the subcontinent were not spared. Basit Ali was bowled between his legs, an attempt to pad up gone drastically wrong. Sourav Ganguly was left sprawling on the ground, bails whipped off as he misread one that came out of the back of the hand. Saeed Anwar shaped for the cut to have his leg-stump knocked out of the ground. Great, mediocre or bad they might have been, Warne made plenty of batsmen look as silly as the honest men under the spell of a magician’s wand and or his routine of léger de main.

But at the same time, there was the bulging packet of money accepted from ‘John’, the hairy-backed sheila and other winsome women, tearful confessions to the team after having taken Moduretic, an uncontrollable craving to smoke, to gorge on pizzas and sweetened drinks. Yes, on second thoughts the ice-cream was not entirely innocuous in his hands — for a large portion of his career Warne struggled with his weight and a build that could not have been called athletic even when concealed under most expensively tailored suits.

Sachin Tendulkar scored 1209 against Australia in 12 Tests while Warne bowled at him, at an average of 60.45 with five hundreds. Brian Lara played eight more Tests against Warne, scored 1837 at 54.02 with the same number of centuries. Kevin Pietersen scored 963 at 53.50 in 10 Tests with two identical scores of 158.No other batsmen came remotely close to matching their feats. Warne prevailed over almost all his opponents. But, he was often short-changed by his own flamboyant image under those blonde locks.  For much of his career as Shane Warne walked five steps and trotted the remaining three to the crease, it was Shane Warne who unknowingly plotted his temporary dismissals from the Australian side.
The run-up

Warne made his appearance in an era when spin was less of a weapon and more of a necessary evil in a side. The West Indians had ruled the world for long with their pace machinery. Other nations had tried to replicate the model with the same template but dubious material. John Emburey revealed the pitiable state of the tweakers when he named his autobiography Spinning in the Fast World. Leg-spin was almost passé, an archaic remnant of the game, with only Abdul Qadir managing to keep the flame flickering, and even then averaging on the wrong side of 30.

And suddenly, Warne emerged on the scene, rediscovering the most intriguing of cricketing crafts and re-writing the story of leg-spin with enough romance, adventure and wickets to merit an entirely new volume.

Australia, with wickets that encouraged grip and balls propelled with the whip of the wrist, did have a long history of leg-spin bowling. The swarthy complexioned Dr. HV ‘Ranji’ Horden being the first proponent of the style, who quickly picked up the nuances of googly just days after Bernard Bosanquet had unearthed its secrets. Arthur Mailey had spun the ball both ways, with a roguish smile and a millionaire’s speculative mind. Then there had been Clarrie Grimmett, the parsimonious gnome to Mailey’s impish extravagance, who had introduced the new weapon of the flipper to augment the many variations of the leggie. Bill O’Reilly had followed, with the complete artillery of the leg-spinner and the aggression of a fast bowler, whom even Don Bradman considered to be the greatest of them all. After the Second World War, the line had been continued by Richie Benaud, who in one memorable Test at Old Trafford had pitched on Fred Trueman’s footmarks from round the wicket and bowled Peter May round the legs for a duck — a technique that would soon become staple for Warne.

However, as Warne grew up, the leg-spinners were few, fickle and ephemeral. Jim Higgs, Peter Sleep, Trevor Hohns and Bob Holland were names that bloomed and perished like day lilies. And in these circumstances it was discovered that a chubby blonde boy, much too abhorrent of exertion to shine in football, could really give it a rip. The ball literally whirred loud enough for the close in fielders to hear, and when it landed it cut across half the pitch. What was more, this kid enjoyed turning balls. He would send tennis balls ripping across a corridor and spin billiard balls around the pool table.

After the Australian athletes had failed to win a gold medal at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, a lot of soul searching took place in the high echelons of sports administration. One of the results was the formation of Australian Institute of Sports (AIS) in 1980, which opened a scholarship programme for talented sportsmen. During the 1980s, after the Australians lost three out of four Ashes series and four out of five of the Frank Worrell Trophies, the Australian Cricket Board appended a cricket wing to the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) program in 1987. In 1990, a twenty-year old Warne was taken in as one of the ‘scholars’ — according  to Gideon Haigh, the only time such a term was tagged to this leg-spinner. Damien Martyn and Justin Langer first came across him as an overweight youth sitting by himself, tucking into a family-sized pizza and guzzling down a can of Victoria Bitter.

His misdemeanours at the Academy have become part of his folklore, an essential segment of the entire Shane Warne soap opera. His attitude remained casual. He often came close to being sent home, although he never was.  However, Jack Potter, one of the managers of the cricket programme, taught him the fiendishly difficult skill of the flipper. And Warne did pick it up.

The other influence on Warne’s game and life was one of those men whose transient fleeting leg-spinners turned a few times for Australia without really tracing a memorable path. In the 1970s Terry Jenner had played nine Test matches, turning a few deliveries but not enough heads. He had drifted along in life, changing jobs almost at the same frequency as he had hair-cuts. He was suspended from a job for fraud and after a second offence was sent on a long prison term.

Peter Spencer, another cricket manager at AIS, introduced the budding leggie to Jenner. Warne later wrote in his autobiography, “I think I immediately recognised a kindred spirit. At that time he had recently left prison after serving eighteen months for embezzlement.” It was perhaps not far from the truth. At that time Warne was on his final warning at the academy, after swearing at the instructor during a sand-hill run.

Warne and Jenner gelled, and soon the young spinner was chosen to tour Zimbabwe with Australia B and then made his Test debut against India at the Sydney Cricket Ground after just seven First-Class games.


Shane Warne at the point of unleashing his magic © Getty Images

In full flight

It was not quite the ideal baptism. In the only Test India did not lose in that series — in fact they came within inches of winning — Ravi Shastri amassed a double hundred and Tendulkar feasted on what would be his staple diet down the years by scoring 148.

But, Warne had impressed enough people to earn a ticket to Sri Lanka in April 1992. And it was when this was announced that Jenner supposedly spoke to Warne sternly about his fitness, his beer guzzling habits and smoking, his being a shameful 97 kilograms while bowling in a Test match for Australia. According to Warne, Jenner said all this while swigging beer and drawing massive puffs on his cigar. However, somehow or the other the message found its mark. By the time he was ready to play the first test in Sri Lanka, Warne was throwing himself on the abrasive outfields, bloodstains aplenty on the flannels.

The Test at Sinhalese Sports Club stadium was one of the strangest ever played. Australia’s 256 was a total propped up by some resolute batting by Warne from No 10. In response, Asanka Gurusinha, Arjuna Ranatunga and Romesh Kaluwitherna scored hundreds and Sri Lanka took a 291-run lead before declaring with eight wickets down. Prodded into producing a gutsy performance by captain Allan Border, every Australian batsman reached double-figures and Warne scored a battling 35 to haul the total to 471. Needing 181 to win, the Lankans were coasting at 127 for 2 when a casual hoick by Aravinda de Silva off Craig McDermott landed in Border’s hands. The inexperienced hosts panicked and Greg Matthews got into the act to pick up several wickets.

At 150 for 7, captain Border tossed the ball to his young leg-spinner — and at that juncture Wane had a Test bowling record of 1 for 346 runs from 93 overs. And he quickly finished the innings bagging the three remaining wickets. Australia won by 16 runs. They were not great scalps. None of the batsmen he dismissed that day ended his Test career with an average more than 6.00. However, this faith or hunch or simply a decision that could easily have gone horribly wrong — whatever it was for Border —gave Warne the foothold from which he climbed to the highest of peaks.

Warne was left out of the side at Gabba when Australia had the West Indies struggling at 128 for 8 on the last day and desperately needed an encore of the leg-breaks seen in distant Sri Lanka. The management learnt their lesson and soon the youthful leggie was destroying the Caribbean batting line up at Melbourne, taking 7 for 52, bowling Richie Richardson with a flipper that needed a spade to be shovelled out.

This was followed by the miracle that announced the magician on the world stage and also heralded the revival of leg-spin. Warne was used sparingly by Border in the tour matches that led up to the first Test at Old Trafford. The astute captain advised him not to reveal his entire artillery as he bowled in his only warm-up game against Worcestershire. He did not play in the Texaco Trophy One-Day Internationals. And suddenly he was in the fray at Manchester. And he was unfurled as England stood at 80 for 1 in response to 289. The rest, as oft repeated, is history.

Bowling his first ball in Ashes, Warne walked up and broke into his three-step run. The right arm went through a jerky circle, the ball was tossed up, with apparent harmlessness towards somewhere far outside the leg stump. Mike Gatting stretched forward, perhaps lulled by the apparent innocuousness of the ball, not quite getting to the pitch. It drifted away even further down the leg-side, prompting scorers to raise their pencils to mark off another dot ball. And then it hit the turf. With an almost electric whizz, it turned across the face of the bat, across the voluminous dimensions of Gatting, and travelled an enormous distance to clip the top of the off-stump. That was the first of 34 wickets he captured in the series. He did not look back.

The methods of the man

Yes, Warne could turn the ball a huge, huge way from the leg. And then he could send down a flipper that would almost hug the surface of the pitch. Late in life, after being banned for using banned substance, he came back to encounter shorter boundaries and exponentially improved bats and in response developed the slider — a ball that followed all the routine preparation and action of the big leg-break, but in the end either went straight or turned just a little.

But, did he really invent all those curious new deliveries that he announced almost every season?

The simple answer is no. Warne had plenty of variations. The balls pitched at the same spot after traversing different arcs, were bowled faster, slower, from close to the wicket, sometimes wide of the crease. Some bounced more, some shot through, some turned much, some turned less, and some not at all. Yet, his deliveries were limited to two major categories. The leg-breaks and the ones that went straight through. He mastered the flipper. But he did not really bowl a googly. Yes, he did unfurl it occasionally, for example when Jacques Kallis was bowled through the gate after three tossed up leg-spinners to give Warne his 300th wicket while demolishing South Africa with 6 for 34 at Sydney 1997. But, more often than not, his art was limited to balls that turned from the leg or went straight. It did not keep him from announcing breakthrough new deliveries, though. As he remarked often, “Part of the art of bowling spin is to make the batsman think something special is happening when it is not.” In another famous quote he revealed, “It is the batsmen who worry about combination, not the bowlers.”

Yes, often it was his image that got the wickets. The expectation of the diabolical that made the batsman commit mistakes. Then there were the subtle tricks of the trade. The movement of a fielder with elaborate motions and discussions, suggesting to the batsman that he had worked a devious plan to dismiss him. Aravinda de Silva called it the ‘honeytrap’. The winces, the facial expressions, the expectant appeals that started with the release of the delivery and stopped with a curious look and hint of smile if nothing happened. If there was an appeal turned down, the umpire was given a startled stare. Warne could sometimes cajole out a shocking decision, he did so from Steve Bucknor against Andrew Strauss at Adelaide in his final Ashes series in 2006-07.

And then there was the scientific art of sledging, customised for each batsman. He limped to mimic the injury prone Chris Cairns. He taunted Daryl Cullinan by asking him the ‘colour of the couch’ having learnt that the South African batsman had consulted a sports psychologist to deal with his terrors of facing Warne. He addressed Brian McMillan as Depardieu, greeted Nasser Hussain as Saddam and Graham Gooch as Mr. Gooch. For many less-significant batsmen it was just the odd query wondering at the puzzle that they were playing at this level. But he knew when not to needle as well. Ken Rutherford was a scrapper who relished exchanges and Warne determinedly uttered no word for him to savour. And hardly ever did he say anything to Tendulkar.

All this showman stuff was as much part of Warne’s persona as his methods. But behind all this was a plan built up with every delivery. As Strauss put it, Warne planned the whole over before he bowled a single ball. Even if a batsman survived the mind-games, there was a truly methodical strategy being concocted in the fertile brain to bring about his demise. Warne visualised not where the ball would pitch and which way it would turn. He started thinking about the type of strokes the batsman was expected to play, and how his ball would bait that stroke and get him out.

Gatting was an exception. His wickets were generally not the product of a single miracle ball but the result of a significantly longer plan, with subtle variations, often with spectacular final blows. The underlying method was constant. He bowled every delivery with the ultimate aim of taking wickets. When Alec Stewart cut a short delivery past point for four, it was part of a bigger picture visible only to Warne. Not the boundary, but the ploy of pushing him on the back-foot. And next came the flipper that slid through, crept underneath the bat of the confident England opener and rattled the stumps. Warne’s wickets were mostly tales that winded through a series of plots and subplots that ended in a breath-taking climax. Just seeing the end result seen is often a huge spoiler to the real aficionados of the game.

His approach to the wicket was simple. Never prone to excess effort, he walked up more than halfway and ran just the last three steps. The amount of torque he got off the shortest of run-ups was incredible. The ball was given a massive rip and side spin. The furious rotations gave rise to the drift against the direction in which the sphere rotated, explained in physics as the Magnus Effect. Often the batsman stretched their pads out but still the ball pitched wider and found its way around the legs because the excess drift carried it further down.

During the opening days of the Test, he came over the wicket, and when the soil loosened and the bowler’s boot-marks grew prominent as the game wore on, he switched to round. For many spinners who turned from leg to off, the ploy of pitching outside leg is defensive. Not so for Warne. Bowling defensively was never a consideration. Often the ball pitched way outside the leg-stump and ended in the gloves of Ian Healey or Adam Gilchrist outside off. Warne attacked from all angles.

Later, with the slider, he became more cunning. The bats had improved by then, but for every stroke hit off him, there was a price to pay down the line. He had averaged 25.71 for his 491 wickets with a strike rate of 60.8 when the drug controversy had forced a hiatus in Test cricket. When he returned it was with a rejuvenated body, spirit to recapture the honour, ingenuity enhanced even further.  The slider was a weapon of deception that confused the best of batsmen with the presence, absence and varying degrees of spin. The big leg-break was used off and on, mixed in beguiling proportion. The last 38 Test matches got him 217 wickets at 24.75 at a strike rate of 49.8. Warne would have been a legend with a murky end had he retired after the issues in 2003. From 2004 to 2007, he became almost mythical in his deeds. The murkiness will follow him throughout.
The second innings

The drug tests that came back with a positive result on the eve of Australia’s World Cup campaign of 2003 did not cause the only interruption in his career. Like every overused weapon, Warne did break down, occasionally misfired and needed periodic repairs.

Wickets came in bushels for the first few years, aided by the most supreme group of close catchers assembled by Australia. Mark Taylor, Mark Waugh, Justin Langer and Ricky Ponting waited for any weakness on the part of the batsman that sent the ball even slightly in the air. But all this took toll on his fingers and shoulder. In 1995-96, he had to bowl with anti-inflammatories and injections driven directly into the knuckle of the third finger of his right hand. Physiotherapy sessions had to be arranged to preserve his shoulder. Warne missed a fourth of Australia’s Test matches between excellent performances in the two World Cups of 1996 and 1999. And in between he ran into Sachin Tendulkar.

In the first innings of the Chennai Test of 1998, Warne had Tendulkar caught by Mark Taylor for four. He finished the innings with 4 for 85. It seemed his web would be spun in that land of batsmen bred on a heavy diet of spin from infancy. And naturally when Tendulkar walked out in the second innings, Taylor looked at Warne to win it for him. In the end Tendulkar got an unbeaten 155. After being smashed around for a couple of boundaries and a six, the ever scheming Warne informed Taylor between overs, “Tubs, we’re stuffed.”

India remained the only arena where Warne’s phenomenal success did not follow him. In 2001 at Eden Gardens, as India followed on, he kept bowling into the rough and VVS Laxman kept jumping out to hit him inside out through the covers or against the spin past mid-wicket. And it was back to Tendulkar magic in the final Test.

It was not till the 2001 Ashes that Warne balanced things with another 31-wicket haul at 18.70 against the arch rivals. He followed it up with 37 wickets in two series against South Africa and spun out 27 Pakistan batsmen in three Tests played in Colombo and Sharjah in late 2002. And he was coasting at the peak of his powers when he was banned.

And for someone considered a whimsical playboy with all the vices associated with stars, Warne’s phenomenal talent simmered in immense amounts of resilience as he came back in 2004.

By then he had virtually ended his ODI career, and played just one more — a Tsunami Appeal match between Asia XI and World XI in 2004-05. His ODI numbers finally stood at 293 wickets from 194 matches at 25.73 with an economy rate of 4.25.

In the Test fold, he returned on the turning tracks of Sri Lanka, in a supreme battle between the greatest of spinners. His closest rival Muttiah Muralitharan captured 28 wickets in the three Tests at 23.17. Yet, Australia triumphed 3-0. Warne took five wickets in each of the first four innings, and six more in the final Test. His 26 wickets came at 20.03, at 38.7 balls per scalp. He was back, improved and reinforced. Gideon Haigh argues that the forced break was the best thing that could have happened to him.

On his third tour to India, Warne did get six wickets in the one innings he bowled in the Chennai Test, but was not overly successful. But, he was indeed indulging in new experiences. Australia finally achieved the elusive triumph in India with an injured Tendulkar recovering from tennis-elbow and missing half the series.

Some more novel experiences also followed when he took charge of the Hampshire side, leading it from second division to within striking distance of the county title. And there he struck a close friendship with Kevin Pietersen, the explosive South Africa born batsman knocking on the English cricketing doors, with whom he would form a dashing debonair duo that rivalled the post-War legend of Keith Miller and Denis Compton.
Ashes to Ashes

But, by the time the 2005 Ashes tour took place, Warne was not really at his best. Except for a six-wicket haul against Warwickshire, he had done precious little to justify his enormous stature for his county. Terry Jenner, his old mentor, suggested that he bowl within himself and be happy with 20 wickets in the five Tests.

Warne started with 2 for 19 and 4 for 64 at Lord’s as Australia went one up at Lord’s, with his buddy Pietersen striking a valiant 64 not out on debut on the last day.

At Birmingham, Glenn McGrath missed the match after stepping on a ball on the morning of the Test. Warne captured 4 for 116 and 6 for 46. It was this match that saw Strauss lose his leg stump after padding up outside off. And as Australia fell to 137 for 7 chasing 282 to win, Warne clobbered four fours and a couple of sixes to make 42. The visitors heartbreakingly lost the game by two runs.

At Manchester Warne took 4 for 99, top scored with a battling 90 in the first innings and hit a resolute 34 in the second as Australia held on for a draw with nine wickets down.

At Nottingham, he captured 4 for 102, scored a 42-ball 45 as Australia followed on, and performed a near-miracle with 4 for 31 in the second innings with the hosts somehow managing the129 to win with just three wickets in hand.

With a win required to retain the Ashes at The Oval, Warne captured 6 for 122 and 6 for 124 in the second. Yet, it was his hands through which the Ashes finally slipped through. On the last day, with the score on 67 for 3, Pietersen walked in with Australia homing in for the kill. He pushed at Warne early in the innings and the edge ricocheted off Gilchrist’s gloves and fell just out of reach of Matthew Hayden. And then the dashing batsman drove at a ball from Brett Lee and it flew off the outside edge to Warne at first slip. It made for his face and Warne’s hands, normally two of the safest in business, managed to parry the ball. It went down in an agonising descent behind Adam Gilchrist. Pietersen, thriving on two missed chances, now struck out, hitting Warne against the spin into the deep midwicket stands. Warne kept snaring out batsmen at the other end, Andrew Flintoff, Paul Collingwood … and later Ashley Giles and Steve Harmison. But Pietersen became an overnight star with 158 runs to go with the blonde rock-star streak in his hair.

Warne ended with 40 wickets at 19.92 apiece, 249 runs at 27.66 and five catches in the series. It was perhaps the best of all his Ashes campaigns. Yet, the image that remains embossed in our minds is that edge from Pietersen that flew into his hands and out, that perhaps cost Australia the Ashes for the first time in nearly two decades.

It may be that Warne would have called it a day had the last day at The Oval ended in a memorable triumph. Perhaps because it did not, we were blessed to see him in action for another year and a half in the international arena. He ended with the Ashes regained, with another whitewash, his personal contribution 23 wickets in the five Tests.

More than anything, it was his zeal to win that was in view, especially in the second Test at Adelaide. Only 17 wickets had fallen in the first four days for 1,143 runs. England, leading by 38 runs in the first innings were 59 for 1 in the second. Yet, Warne believed Australia could win it. He got Strauss caught and bowled Pietersen. His friend from Hampshire had scored 158 again, but this time it was in the first innings. Warne finished with 4 for 49 and England crumbled to 129 all out. Australia knocked off the runs in a quick-fire chase, every batsman going out egged on by the veteran leg-spinner. The enthusiasm was infectious, the will to win almost epidemic. Australia won that Test and the three that followed.

The final analysis

Warne called it a day with 708 wickets from 145 Tests, the world record when he retired. Since then, he has been overtaken by Muralitharan. The Australia-Sri Lanka rubber is now rightly called Warne-Muralitharan Trophy after these two great exponents of slow bowling.

Warne’s 708 scalps came at 25.41 apiece, a wicket every 57.41 balls, with 37 five-fors and ten 10-wicket hauls. He also managed 3154 runs at 17.32 with his aggressive, gutsy batting, with 12 half centuries and it stands as the greatest collection of Test runs without a hundred. The closest he came to a century was the closest one can get without scoring one. Daniel Vettori snared him for a vital 99 at Perth in 2001. And standing close in for most of his career, he snapped up 125 catches, the 13th on the overall list and a good 53 ahead of the next non-batsman in the table.

Along with Warne, his long-time comrade-in-arms Glenn McGrath also bowed out after the Ashes series of 2006-07. Many famed bowling combinations exist in the annals of history — mostly pairings of great fast bowlers or sublime spin twins. However, McGrath and Warne collaborated in a partnership seldom witnessed in cricket. The fast bowler and leg spinner association was as lethal as it gets. Australia won 111 and lost 32 of the 177 Tests during Warne’s playing days. They won 71 and lost just 16 of the 104 in which both of them turned out. The only combination that comes close is perhaps Alan Davidson and Richie Benaud.
The sins of Warne

Warne was not quite done yet. Captaining Rajasthan Royals in the Indian Premier League (IPL) after having been acquired for a whopping $450,000, he spiced up the outfit both in terms of glamour and insight. The four overs he bowled in every match were impeccably planned, the strategies on the field threshed out to perfection, and when required he was not averse to hitting a couple of sixes to earn victories. Twelve wins resulted in 14 matches, and the Royals won the first edition of the tournament.

Although in the most pungent version of cricket, the results led many to voice the claim that Warne was the best captain Australia never had.

Why did he not get the captaincy?

The Keith Miller parallel is drawn here in broad strokes, considering the wild life, the playboy image, the lack of discipline. However, Gideon Haigh argues that while Miller was sidelined for rather questionable candidates Ian Craig and Ian Johnson, Warne had to make way for Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting. Potentially he might have been a better captain than both, but few can really argue against the claims of the men who took over.

Warne was the vice-captain in 2000, after his character had been purified through the fire of fixing.

In 1994, while playing in the Singer World Series in Sri Lanka, Warne and Mark Waugh had been at the casino beside Oberoi Hotel when the latter was approached by a friendly ‘John’ —an alias of the infamous bookmaker Mukesh Gupta. Waugh, whose carefree playing style often formed a halo effect concealing his fondness for money, accepted $4,000 for disclosing pitch and weather conditions before the games. And he introduced the bookie to Warne who accepted $5,000 as a token of appreciation from an insistent ‘John’. Of course, Warne promptly squandered the whole amount in the casino, and was fined an equivalent figure when the dalliance was revealed. Yet, the Australian Board made an effort not to make too big an issue about it, at least in public.

There was another attempt at more brazen bribery by Salim Malik during the Pakistan leg of the tour, trying to entice Warne and Tim May to bowl outside the off-stump during a tense final day. The two spinners conferred and decided to ask the Pakistan captain to get stuffed.

By 2000, Warne had come up through the ranks and was the deputy of Waugh. And at this juncture he sent drunken voice messages from the Leicester Holiday Inn to a 22-year-old nurse called Donna Wright. These found their way into the Daily Mirror under the glaring headlines SHAME WARNE.

The longevity of the gossip was obviously as short as public memory, but it was taken up by Cricket Australia in all seriousness. Warne pleaded that his affairs, extra-marital or otherwise, was not really linked to his performance or credibility on the field. But, sensing some full blown scandal down the line when the seat would be too hot not to catch fire, the decision makers of Australian cricket relieved him of his vice-captaincy.

Of course, the transgressions did not abate. There was the aforementioned hairy-backed Sheila, the exotic dancer, the blonde promotions model, the girl who had sex with him on the bonnet of a car and then engaged in a game of kiss and tell with a tabloid, more girls with sex toys with whom he was caught literally pants down on hidden cameras. Warne screamed himself hoarse, with genuine confusion on his innocent face, that these were his personal affairs. Well, a nation which witnessed a silently suffering Simone, the wife for 12 years and the mother of his three children, begged to differ quite often.

Warne did have the ability to feign innocence, almost literally like the adolescent kid led or laid astray by trusted people in his life. After swallowing Moduretic, he came up with the tale that he had been badgered into taking it by his mother Brigitte, a sterling lady of German descent. He confessed tearfully to his teammates, and Ricky Ponting later told the media that it was naivety, as also stupidity. When Gilchrist said in his reaction, “I think there’s no doubt that people don’t like being deceived,” Warne was bitter enough to proclaim to a mutual acquaintance that he would never speak to Gilchrist again.

When he bided his time in wilderness, with Australia playing in the Caribbean, Warne sent a text message to Victorian wicketkeeper Darren Berry, “I’m really missing it now, mate.”

Warne never really grew up. He was a kid who excelled at leg-spin bowling, and played truant all too often. He did not really sin; he just never quite developed the faculty of distinguishing between the right and the wrong.  He erred often, but did not have the deviousness of character to hide his traces. He bungled, he kept getting embarrassed. He felt sorry and made others feel sorry for him. And like a true child he forgot all when he got back in the playground.


Shane Warne and actress Liz Hurley during the third round of The Alfred Dunhill Links Championship at The Old Course on October 6, 2012 in St Andrews, Scotland © Getty Images

And so did his fans. He performed in the 2005 Ashes like a man possessed, and all the while he was on the verge of separation from Simone. He spent a major portion of his time off the field pouring his troubles in the ears of Michael Clarke. According to Haigh, “Warne bowled better and better with each passing Test. Barmy Army chants of ‘Where’s your missus gone?’ gave way to stupefied choruses of ‘We wish you were English.’”

Even now, years after his last competitive international match, Warne can dazzle us with an appearance on the television screen, demonstrating the mysterious methods of his craft. He can enchant us with his insights from the commentary box. And much in line with the way he has lived his entire public life, he has found solace in the very heart of the gossip pages, with his engagement to Elizabeth Hurley splashing cricket on the tabloids like never before.

And even in early 2013, Warne was fined $4,500 and banned for a match for using obscene language, making inappropriate physical contact with Marlon Samuels and showing serious dissent at an umpire’s decision during a Big Bash League Match. So, apparently, even as he turns 44, there is no sign of his not being the Shane Warne we are accustomed to.

The memories will continue to linger. Of that peerless leg-spinner walking up to bowl, running those last three steps and sending the ball fizzing through the air, in various tantalising loops. The ball landing outside the leg stump and suddenly changing direction, tracing a path of flagrant treachery. And then there will be the memories of the man behind the turn and bounce and appeal, an eternal child of outrageous capers, often beyond justification and redemption, but always curiously lovable. The most colourful character of cricket.

(Celebrating Shane Warne on his birthday – this article was written on September 13, 2013 and has been republished. Warne died at the age of 52 in Thailand due to a suspected heart attack but his larger than life character continues to grow. A flawed genius as many would often call him.)

In photos: Shane Warne’s cricketing career

In Photos: Memorable moments of Shane Warne’s career

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twiter.com/senantix)

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