Elegy for a Leggie
Nobody called him Warne. He was always either Warnie or Shane, perhaps partly because of what we heard through stump mics but largely because we all felt we knew him. It was this same relatable quality that saw people leaving cans of beer, meat pies and packets of fags outside the MCG over the weekend. Whatever country you came from, whoever you supported, however much you cared about cricket, he was your mate. The Ashes were dominated by Australia throughout his time and we loathed the majority of their players but I don’t know a single English supporter who didn’t love Warnie. He was serenaded with “We only wish you were English” at the end of the final test of the greatest series in 2005 and it was from the heart.
For an entire generation, he wasn’t just the reason we got into cricket — he was cricket. Since the Gatting ball, I cannot remember a time I’ve played cricket in any context in which a decent spin delivery hasn’t been greeted with the inevitable, “Bowled, Warnie” or “Bowling, Shane”. The overweight lad who wanted to play Aussie Rules and didn’t care about fitness regimes took the dying art of leg spin and made it the coolest thing in sport. Elton John is on record as saying if he could be anyone in the world, he’d be Warnie. Mick Jagger said the same. He was referred to as a rock star but the rock stars knew he was on another plane entirely.
He had the aggression of a fast bowler and the tactical brain of a chess grandmaster. If it wasn’t turning, he’d bamboozle batsmen into thinking it was and get them with a straight ball. His genius lay not only in the balls you’ve seen replayed hundreds of times but in plans spanning entire overs and whole sessions. He could bend games to his will by sheer force of personality and convince teammates a lost cause was anything but.
And what a personality. The reason people attached the rock star label was not because of the cigarettes and alcohol but the attitude. There was always the sense that Warnie, like Brian Clough or Larry David or Humphrey Bogart, was absolutely himself and fuck the consequences. Indeed, few sportspeople in history would have been self-aware enough to open their autobiography with these words:
“I have lived in the moment and ignored the consequences. This has served me both well and painfully, depending on which moment. I’ve tried to live up to the legend, or the myth in my view, which has been a mistake because I’ve let life off the field become as public as life on it but then again, in my defence, I’ve never pretended to be someone that I’m not.”
Ultimately, we instinctively grasped this was why we loved him even if we couldn’t put it into words. He was one of the few true greats in any field that somehow seemed completely relatable. He was not a robot or a machine programmed just to eat, sleep and play sport. He was flawed and fascinating and oozed personality on and off the pitch. Who else could have won that Adelaide test in 2006 and who else could have got off with Liz Hurley using an opening gambit on Twitter inviting her for a McDonald’s? In both instances, he believed even if nobody else did. There was only one Shane Warne.
I am only writing these words now because I spent the weekend in Scotland playing football and giving a public reading but mainly feeling anxious about playing football and giving a public reading. My aim is always to simply not humiliate myself in any public setting but how it must have felt to live in the moment like Warnie without a trace of self-consciousness.
But this isn’t about The King and I. He was a true showman and a man who understood the basic truth that sport is supposed to be fun. Warnie was the favourite cricketer of basically anybody who saw him play. He’ll live on, in any sportsman where natural talent far outweighs commitment to training, in any public figure who you know for sure would be a laugh on a night out, and in Mike Gatting’s nightmares. Most of all, his legacy will be all those clips of his bowling that can be understood by anybody with two eyes and a heart. They display a greatness that goes far beyond sport and should be considered a vital part of the human experience on a par with Roger Federer’s forehand, Gene Kelly dancing and Frank Sinatra belting out a tune.
Warnie was the most entertaining sportsman in every conceivable way, a man who loved to laugh and make others laugh. Laughter, as the fella says, is the shortest distance between two people and maybe that’s why we all thought of him as our friend. He might be gone but it’s hard to think of another person in the public sphere who actively enjoyed life quite so much while also enriching ours.