People who don’t like cricket —most people, that is — know about Shane Warne in the same way they know about Pete Doherty, the early noughties musician-turned-gossip-column-bad-boy. Warne’s peroxide hair, larger-than-life personality and famous one-time girlfriend travelled further than even his most iconic leg break.
But whatever he was outside a cricket field, Warne was no Pete Doherty on one. He was more like the best bits of Paul McCartney and John Lennon combined. With a bit of Jimi Hendrix mixed in. To be honest, you could probably add a bit of every great rock star that’s ever been. To cricket fans like me, Warne was everything that was good about the greatest game. The single greatest entertainer of my lifetime.
I didn’t realise I felt this way about Shane Warne until a few hours after I learnt of his death. My early reaction was to browse the YouTube highlight reels with an open mouth, to debate with friends whether the flippers or the rippers were better. But after the appreciation, something more mournful came over me. I realised I wouldn’t get to hear the voice of cricket — the man who to me was cricket — again.
Warne was, in my view, the greatest cricketer to play the game in my lifetime. He could do a physically ridiculous thing: flick a ball out of the back of his hand for 22 yards, and make it go exactly where he wanted it to. But that bit wasn’t really important. His real gift was that he was almost literally a magician.
His sense of theatre, his ability to pre-empt what the batter was thinking, his knowing exactly what to do and in what order. All of them were worth more than his prodigious leg spinners. The time he psyched Craig McMillan out by bowling a string of bad balls. The time he bounced Brian Lara first ball. The time he made Gary Kirsten wait for the last ball of the day and prised him out with it.
Elite sport today is a finely tuned game. The players are all thoroughbred physical specimens. Their minds and bodies are primed for each contest. They are fed reams of data to know what to do and when to do it. Shane Warne was overweight, drank, smoked, did not have access to any modern data techniques and yet was better than all of them. He seemed to defy the laws of physics. He just knew what to do.
None of this is to suggest his gifts came to him without hard work. He had a seemingly endless enthusiasm for the game – much like his fellow great Muttiah Muralitharan – and clearly worked as hard to master his art as anyone ever has. He was an outstanding slip catcher, a doughty lower order batsman and a genuine team player.
But you can’t explain his bowling just as a result of his dedication, or by any ordinary logic. He was like a real-life Melquiades, the Gabriel Garcia-Marquez character who presented all the wonders of the universe as if he had dreamt them up rather than found them through scientific process.
And what more do those of us who watch sport want than to be persuaded we are witnessing magic? The latter part of Warne’s career coincided with the rise of machine sport. As Arsene Wenger revolutionised football, Duncan Fletcher and Nasser Hussain were beginning to do the same to cricket. It worked, so well that the new England finally beat the great Australia side in 2005, even with Warne at his peakiest peak. As cricket became more professional, Warne somehow got even better.
I fell out of love with cricket around the time Shane Warne stopped playing it. Partly because I had other things to do — professional and family-oriented pursuits — but partly (I now realise) because it had lost something. Whenever I saw my Grandad, he would ask me hopefully if I was playing any sport, and turn mournfully silent at my response. Unsurprisingly, he understood something about the joys of life that I had misplaced.
It was only when I had children of my own that I discovered my mistake and reconciled with cricket. No doubt I had rediscovered a small sense of childish joy, the joy that Shane Warne embodied more than any other person on my television. And of course, as I tuned back in, there was the voice of Warne there to remind me what I had missed.
I cannot believe I’ll not hear that voice again. Farewell Shane Warne, the last magician.