Shane Warne, preternatural genius who played with a carefree spirit

The first thing I did was watch that clip. Shut your eyes and you can probably picture it. Shane Warne’s first ball in the Ashes, his choppy peroxide blond hair ruffling in the wind, the zinc cream smeared across his lips and the tip of his nose, his top button undone, his collar turned up, a flash of the gold chain bouncing around his neck. Seven steps, then he sweeps his arm over, sends the ball flying. It dips, hits the pitch, zips, spins the width of Mike Gatting, clips the off-stump. Bowled him! Warne roars, Gatting baffled, stares back down the pitch trying to figure out what’s just happened, umpire Dickie Bird tries to hide the ghost of a smile that’s crept across his face.

It was some introduction. And it turned into some story, too.

Warne took more wickets for Australia than anyone, took more wickets in Ashes cricket than anyone, and took more in Test matches than anyone too, except for his mate, and rival, Muttiah Muralitharan. But those achievements aren’t why people around the world are mourning him now, and it’s not why they’ll remember him, either. You could try to measure his greatness in statistics, but they wouldn’t ever really begin to capture it. Instead, it’s in the memories he left us with, like that indelible moment at Old Trafford. It’s in the way he competed, and how he carried himself, his combination of high skill and low cunning, and how he matched his almost preternatural genius as a cricketer with the genuine, carefree air of a kid at play.

Warne wasn’t just one of the very greatest cricketers ever to play the game, picked in 2000 by a panel of 100 expert judges as one of the five greatest players of the 20th century, he was one of its biggest, brightest and boldest characters, too. The two went hand in hand, his charisma became a part of his game, in a way that, you guess, must once have been true for WG Grace too. It also made him one of the very few cricketers in history who could go by a single name, who was known, and loved, by people who have no affection for or even real interest in the game.

It didn’t matter whether you knew his leg-break from his googly, or his flipper, top-spinner, slider, or zooter for that matter, or any of the other deliveries he claimed to have invented in the later years of his career, when he would bluff the opposition into thinking that he would come up with some new way to beat them. In fact, it meant you were in pretty good company, because the best batsmen of his generation couldn’t tell most of them apart either. Warne’s craft is the trickiest in cricket. And he mastered it to the point where he made it look easy. Writing that, another of those moments popped into my mind, the Big Bash match when he predicted live on air exactly how he was going to dismiss Brendon McCullum, then went and did it.

But you didn’t need to understand the subtleties to relish the way Warne played, didn’t even need to really follow the game to enjoy how he went about sport or life. And he did a lot of living in his 52 years. There was on-and-off-and-on again marriage with his wife, Simone, the celebrity relationship with Elizabeth Hurley and his unexpected reinvention as an elaborately manicured man about town, his second career in professional poker, all the stings and sex scandals, the dodgy deal with a man called “John the bookmaker”, who paid him for information about a game in 1994, the ban in 2003 for taking prohibited weight loss medication – given to him, he said, by his mother – all the bickering with his old captain Steve Waugh, the bust-ups with opposing players such as Arjuna Ranatunga and Marlon Samuels.

Warne made a couple of cameo appearances on Neighbours, and there were times it seemed like his life had been scripted by the the Australian soap’s writers. For all his art on the pitch, he could be entirely guileless off it. He made his mistakes, then made them all over again, again and again, as if he just couldn’t help himself. But they never really seemed to stop him, or slow him down too much. Because he was never anything other than himself.

He never allowed that there was any shame or humiliation in most of it. He wore his flaws untucked, out for everyone to see. There was an honesty to it all, and that made it hard to hold any of it against him for long.

It’s why they didn’t just publish books about him, or produce documentaries, they planned an entire mini-series, and wrote songs about him, too, even at one point an entire musical. He was angry about that at first, he always hated the way other people made money off his story without his permission, but it didn’t last (nor did the chatshow they gave him). “It’s a fantastic show,” Warne said when he finally saw Shane Warne: The Musical. Good as it was, it can’t have been a patch on the real thing.

Warne was so vivacious, so full of life, the news of his sudden death feels especially unreal, and when it broke, I found myself double- and triple- checking to see whether it was a hoax. But no. What a shame. What a Shane.

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