Thursday, July 14, 2011

My Favourite Cricketer: Shane Warne by Murray Middleton

My Favourite Cricketer is a series of special features run simultaneously on World Cricket Watch and Balanced Sports where we invite the world's best cricket writers and bloggers to tell us why one player has become their favourite.  Today, it's another inevitability: an Australian writes on Shane Warne.  This week's contribution is from Murray Middleton of World Cricket Watch.

My favourite cricketer is the man whose face Stuart MacGill sees at the bottom of every bottle of Bordeaux wine; a man whose face is becoming increasingly distorted; a man who has committed more infidelities than Tiger Woods and Arnold Schwarzenegger combined; a man who plays a better balcony scene than a Montague and a Capulet; a man who never says ‘no’ to his mother; a man with a penchant for pizza, chips and toasted cheese sandwiches; a man who can always be counted on to deliver accurate information about pitches and weather conditions; a man who recently admitted, ‘I’d be sitting in a strait jacket in a padded cell if I started regretting everything that happened in my life.’

In the sixth season of Sopranos there is a pivotal scene when Tony’s wife, Carmela, confronts his psychiatrist, Dr. Melfi. Carmela reveals that she has always been aware of Tony’s means of subsistence. She forlornly admits, ‘I don’t know if I loved him in spite of it or because of it.’ I feel the same way about Shane Warne. I love him. I know this much. Yet I often find myself questioning the motives of my love. Is it because he is the greatest sportsman I have ever seen? Or is it because he is such a majestically-flawed human being?

I remember when Warne was selected to make his international debut in the third test against India in 1992. I wondered why the selectors had opted for a corpulent 22-year-old who looked as though he was better suited to breeding greyhounds. Yet I was also intrigued. In the preceding six months my father had spoken regularly about an up-and-coming leg-spinner who possessed a weapon which I had never heard of: a flipper. I was desperate to see this phenomenon in action. The only problem was that we didn’t have a television.

During the SCG test I was staying at my uncle’s macadamia-nut farm near Bangalow in northern New South Wales. Our family was sleeping in a caravan. We set up a makeshift cricket pitch in a corrugated iron shed and listened to the entire test on the radio. My cousin batted for hours on end while Ravi Shastri led the assault on the young Australian spinner. My cousin plundered my leg-spinners to all acres of the farm. It was ruthless. I felt as though Warne and I were in it together. He eventually dismissed Shastri for 206 to claim figures of 1/150 off 45 overs.

The first time I saw Warne in the flesh was at the MCG against the West Indies the next summer. He had been brought into the side after Australia failed to dismiss the Windies in the final innings of the first test. I was sitting in the Southern Stand with my father. When Warne was introduced into the attack, his statistics were displayed on the electronic scoreboard. His bowling average was in the 60’s. A derisive murmur spread around the ground. ‘I feel sorry for the poor kid,’ said my father. Warne didn’t need his sympathy for long.

In the second innings he collected 7/52 and bowled Australia to victory. He produced his first legendary flipper to remove Richie Richardson. The ball pitched on a good length, confusing Richardson as to whether to play forward or back. He ended up doing neither. The ball zipped off the turf and cannoned into Richardson’s off stump, halfway up. Richardson was stranded on the crease, unbalanced, and evidently perplexed. It is very rare that a champion sportsman is made to look like a fool. Usually when it occurs, it is at the hands of a champion-in-the-making.

In 1993 I went to a Shield match at the MCG to watch Warne play a rare game for Victoria. Five minutes before the lunch break I ran to the fence which adjoined the player’s race in a bid to secure his autograph. As the Victorian players walked towards the race I leant over the fence with a notepad in hand and asked Warne for an autograph. A great smirk flashed across his face. ‘I’ve already signed that one mate,’ he said, before placing his hand upon Matthew Elliott’s shoulder. Later that year, when he dismissed Mike Gatting with the ball of the century, I decided to forgive him.

Although the Gatting ball was an absolute peach, it isn’t my favourite Warne delivery. In 1996 at the SCG Warne was locked in an absorbing battle with the unorthodox Shivnarine Chanderpaul. He decided to bowl around the wicket to the left hander. Just prior to lunch he sent a wonderfully-flighted leg-break towards the footmarks outside Chanderpaul’s off stump. The West Indian star leant back to cut the ball. It pitched among the footmarks and turned prodigiously. The ball crashed into Chanderpaul’s pad before he had time to jam his bat down. It then ricocheted onto his middle stump.

My favourite Warne spell occurred in the World Cup semi-final in 1999. Australia posted a seemingly paltry 213. When Warne was introduced into the attack South Africa was cruising at 0-48. Within six overs they were 4-62. Warne dismissed Kirsten, Gibbs, Cronje and Kallis to finish with figures of 4-29 from 10 overs. The ball that removed Gibbs was almost a replica of the Gatting delivery. The ball that dismissed Cronje pitched on off stump and fizzed into the hands of Mark Waugh at first slip. Admittedly Cronje didn’t hit the ball (it glanced his shoe), but anyone who can turn a ball with such velocity deserves the devil’s wicket.

My favourite Warne series came in the Ashes in 2005. While the rest of his teammates floundered, Warne, whose personal life was in utter disarray, dug in for the fight of his life. He took an incredible 40 wickets in five tests at an average of 19.92. He also scored 249 runs, which was more than several of Australia’s top order batsmen. Warne’s protracted battle with his good friend Kevin Pietersen was a delight to watch. It cost me a semester at university. Warne played like a man possessed. It was Warne versus England. And he almost got them.

Warne played his final test series against England in the summer of 2006/07. He had a burning desire to regain the Ashes for his country. Like all true champions, he had one last trick up his sleeve. On the final morning of the Adelaide test, with the match seemingly trickling towards a banal draw, he bowled Kevin Pietersen around his legs. The ball changed the complexion of the match and the series. Australia went on to secure an unlikely victory in Adelaide and later won the series 5-0. It was a fitting end for one of the greats of the game.

Warne retired with every trophy in the ACB cabinet. It is rare that a sportsman possesses the foresight to retire at the perfect moment. It is also admirable to do so in a game where the temptation is for players to squeeze every last ounce (and dime) out of their ability, as Simon Katich had every intention of doing. Warne was never going to starve without international cricket, and he knew it. Anyone who has watched Muhammad Ali’s bout against Larry Holmes at Caesar’s Palace will understand the futility of ignoring the light.

Warne’s detractors seem to judge him on a humane level, not as a sportsman. It is difficult to defend Warne as a human. I don’t care whether he is a nice person, or a smart person. He is the smartest cricketer I have ever seen. He was a ferocious competitor. He wanted the moment. He wasn’t afraid of it. He had an innate belief that he was entitled to it. He possessed the perfect blend of raw ability, tactical nous and an insatiable appetite for the mental contest. Daryll Cullinan can attest to this. Warne got inside his blood. He transformed a quality batsman into a bunny rabbit. Since retiring, Cullinan has admitted, ‘Quite simply, Warne was too good for me.’

There have been countless other superb Warne deliveries over the years – Gooch, Kallis, Stewart, Anwar; enough to write a post-graduate thesis on. He is a marvel. Warne captured 708 test wickets at an average of 25.41 and 293 one day wickets at an average of 25.73. In 2000 he was selected as one of only five Wisden Cricketers of the Century. Not a bad effort for a common man with a pot belly. Perhaps he does look a little unsightly these days, but I forgive him. I’m glad he refused to give me his autograph 18 years ago. Who am I kidding? I love Shane Warne because of what he is.

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