Archive for December, 2006

Having a ball and spinning it

Saturday, December 23rd, 2006

There are great players, and there are geniuses, and then there are geniuses who are also characters. It has always been glaringly obvious to the world to which of these categories Shane Warne belonged. He looked and behaved — most of the time — like an adult, but there was always a naughty little boy hiding inside his tubby body. And it popped out often enough over the years to make cricket a much more exciting and enjoyable sport. It’s quite possible that had Warne chosen to be a banker, he would have thought nothing of sending his top clients Santa Claus-hatted Jacks-in-the-boxes as Christmas gifts.

Maybe it’s the greater and greater sums of money riding on the game, but the fact is that in the last two decades, cricketers have become an increasingly boring lot. An Ian Chappell dropping his pants and adjusting his guard with a packed stadium watching would probably be fined his full match fee today. A Botham laughing his head off and shaking his head in delighted disbelief every time Viv Richards stepped out and hit him for a six would be seen today as a man who didn’t have enough hunger to win. No David Gower will ever again fly a Tiger Moth low over a stadium where England was playing an Australian state side and wave at his mates. Shaved heads seem to be the most interesting mode of expression for cricketers now.

Of course there’s Inzamam, the sloppy sleepy genius, long may he play and live. But Warnie is gone.

Warnie, who couldn’t keep his hands off women, who was a devil at the gambling table, fond of Ferraris, and throughout his career, just three lunches away from obesity. The man who was paid a king’s ransom for not smoking for three months by a chewing gum that helped addicts quit, and a day before the three months were over, was photographed enjoying a cigarette. A man who was banned from cricket for 12 months for taking forbidden diuretics for which his explanation was that he was only doing what his mum had told him to. This man was larger than life, a flawed hedonist, a cheerful risk-taker, child-like and heroic. He made the front page headlines of the broadsheets for his cricketing feats, and of the tabloids for his various wild extra-currics.

The world, I think, is still in shock, still trying to come to grips with the idea that that blonde-haired tubby figure would not ever appear on the cricket field again. That Warne will not any more be working his own personal brand of magic that left in its wake more defeated test batsmen than any other bowler in cricket history. But more than the numbers, perhaps no other bowler in history has left batsmen so mystified by their dismissals. After a typical Warne bowled-out, one could actually see batsmen walking back to the pavilion completely puzzled by what had happened: Where did that ball come from? How the hell did it turn like that? How could this man do stuff like this? One can easily imagine the most talented and experienced batsmen watching replays of their Warne-Waterloos over and over again and scratching their heads bald.

Consider the first ball Warne ever bowled against England, in 1993, what was immediately designated as “the ball of the century”. Here’s a description: “No cricket lover could ever forget it. The ball swerving in the air and then deviating sharply when it hit the Old Trafford pitch, sharply enough to avoid the considerable girth of Gatting and hit his off stump.

“The nonplussed look on Gatting’s face, mouth contorted into an ‘O’ of bemusement as he stood motionless for several seconds before accepting his fate, is one of sport’s iconic images. So much so that England captain Graham Gooch observed: “He looked as though someone had just nicked his lunch. No one had spun a cricket ball quite like that before.”

A legend had been born. A ball had been bowled at Old Trafford, and the world’s batsmen did a double-take and cursed their luck to be playing the game in the same era as this weirdo. And Warne just kept getting better. In a few years time, like that other great bowler Wasim Akram, he was bowling six different types of balls in an over. He seemed to be able to turn a ball as much as he wanted, at any speed, in any direction he wanted. Or not turn it at all, just keep it low and slip it through fast onto the stumps, as the batsman tripped in his desperation to bring his bat down to save his honour.

Late in his career, he even turned into a bit of an all-rounder. In fact, no other batsman in history has made more test runs than Warne without ever scoring a century. He has two scores in the 90s. Once at 99, just one sober thought away from three figures, Warne went for an exuberant shot and lost his wicket. He wasn’t regretful. Hey, I got to 99, wasn’t that bonzer, mate? Anyways, I needed a beer and a smoke.

I will miss him. I will miss his wizardry, but most of all I will miss the sheer zest and sense of fun he brought onto the field every time he walked out to play. Whether bowling, batting, fielding or cheering his team mates along, he was always a man who hungered for victory, while threatening a big belly-laugh all the time. It was his enormous appetite for life, which got him into trouble and tabloids, and also made him such a special and unique cricketer to watch. There won’t be another one like Warnie.