Shane Warne was one of Wisden Cricket Almanack’s five best cricketers of the 20th century, but also one of the great sporting characters. The hedonistic Australian, who has died aged 52, revived the nearly extinct art of leg-spin bowling, while embodying an unapologetic bad-boy version of masculinity that was itself going out of date.
Raised in the Melbourne suburbs, Warne dreamt of playing Australian rules football, but wasn’t good enough. Cricket was his second choice. On his first visit to England in 1993, he became an instant superstar. Leg-spin bowling, which bounces and then spins away from a right-handed batsman, is so difficult to execute that few 1990s batsmen had encountered it. Australia deliberately didn’t use Warne much in warm-up matches and he concealed his full repertoire, so when he bowled his first ball in Test cricket in England to Mike Gatting, the veteran was unprepared.
The “ball of the century” bounced outside Gatting’s leg stump, then turned well over 2ft to hit the off stump. The Englishman walked off, eyebrows raised, before glancing back uncomprehending.
“Warney”, as everyone in cricket called him, was soon being followed down streets by flocks of photographers. By his own admission he became “a bit big-headed”. The tabloid newspapers, then in their heyday, kept catching him having affairs, to the distress of his wife, Simone Callahan. There were cricketing scandals, too: in 1994, a bookmaker paid him $5,000 (which he immediately lost in a casino) for passing on information about the pitch and the weather, and in 2003 he was banned for taking a forbidden diuretic. His mantra, “always shoot the messenger”, seldom worked. He and Australia’s captain Steve Waugh irritated each other.
Much as Warne resembled an ordinary punter who had wandered out of the pub on to the field, he was an obsessive professional in his own way. He wished he could prepare for matches with a smoke and cup of tea in the pavilion while he thought through each batsman’s dismissal, but Australia made him do boring fielding drills.
He strolled rather than ran in to bowl and imparted spin with his middle finger, while simultaneously making the ball drift against the spin. His precision transformed what had been the riskiest form of bowling into a nailed-on certainty. He planned each six-ball over ball by ball, imagining the shot he wanted the batsman to play, then bowling to induce it. “I wanted to make every ball an event,” he said.
He loved being Shane Warne, humiliating batsmen with his rich verbal repertoire. “There are no mates on a cricket field,” he said, and international sport wasn’t the village green. His favourite “bunny”, or easy victim, was South Africa’s Daryll Cullinan, whom he always welcomed to the wicket with glee. “I’ve been waiting 10 months to bowl at you again, Daryll,” he is once said to have called out, to which Cullinan replied, in possibly his sole victory over Warne: “You look as if you’ve spent all that time eating.” Larger than life, Warne was also large in life.
After his great Australian team had won six straight Ashes series against England, Simone finally left him during the seventh, in 2005, flying home from England with their three children. He played a brilliant series, even if Australia lost. He must have decimated British economic productivity: millions spent weekday afternoons glued to the screen for just one more over of Warne. England’s fans chanted, “Where’s your missus gone?”, but also, “We wish you were English”. In 2007, Australia won his last Ashes series 5-0 and he took his 700th Test wicket, a first in Test history.
Cricket author Simon Lister calls Warne the complete sporting hero: the technical perfection of racing driver Michael Schumacher, the strategic brilliance of chess player Bobby Fischer, and the lifestyle of driver James Hunt.
Warne also incarnated an aspect of the Australian national spirit: he was a “larrikin”, a misbehaving young man with a heart of gold. Though judged unfit for the Test captaincy (arguably the most hallowed role in Australian life), he showed himself an astute leader. His two-year engagement to British actress Elizabeth Hurley didn’t make it to the altar. He inspired at least 15 books about his life, the recent documentary Shane, and a musical. “The overriding thing,” he said, “is that I put a big smile on a lot of people’s faces.”
By a fluke of fate, Warne died on Cullinan’s birthday. His final tweet was for Australian cricketer and coach Rod Marsh, who predeceased him by hours: “RIP mate ♥️.”