The phrase “larger than life” could have been coined for Shane Warne, a man whose prodigious cricketing skills, mega-watt star power and ability to draw a crowd allowed him to transcend his career and his craft.
When he spun the ball it was big, almost impossibly so. When he hung up his boots his numbers were staggering – the second highest wicket-taker of all time and one of only two to boast over 1,000 international scalps. Even when he crossed the line or courted controversy, as he did more than once in a colourful professional and private life, he did so with a mighty stride rather than a gentle step.
Little wonder, then, that the outpouring of grief that followed his death at the age of just 52 was so huge. With Shane Warne there were never any half measures. He was destined for stardom from the moment he delivered what was subsequently known, by unanimous consent, as “the ball of the century”.
The date was June 4 1993 and the opponents were Ashes rivals England. Warne, a novice at 23 years old, was preparing to bowl his first ever delivery against the old enemy. Tossing the ball up well outside leg stump, it briefly looked as if he had lost his nerve, but former England captain Mike Gatting was left dumbstruck as it ragged off the Old Trafford pitch, spinning outrageously until it flicked the off stump. Gatting briefly wondered if he had been the victim of an attempted stumping, so improbable was the degree of turn. Even watching it now, almost 30 years later, it barely makes sense.
Commentating for the BBC was Richie Benaud, another great Australian leg-spinner. “He's started off with the most beautiful delivery,” he purred. “Gatting has absolutely no idea what happened to it. He still doesn't know.”
Cricket instantly had a new leading man. With his blond hair, a gold chain around his neck and with zinc sunscreen smeared over his nose and lips he could have walked straight off the beach, the stage or the bar. He enjoyed all three over the years, but his truest home was on the field with a ball between his fingers and a batter to get the better of. More often than not, he did exactly that. When he became the first bowler in history to reach 700 Test wickets – another Englishman, Sir Andrew Strauss his landmark victim – he simply noted: “Whoever writes my scripts is doing an unbelievable job.”
In the main, he was his own author. He frequently touted his latest mystery delivery, adding to his army of leg-breaks, flippers and googlies such innovations as the zooter and the slider. Most really did exist, but some were mischievous inventions that left his opponents fighting shadows. That boyish cheekiness never quite subsided.
It was there again only a week ago when he tossed his hat into the ring for England's vacant coaching job. The man whose very vocation had been tormenting Poms was offering to lift them off the canvas after their last drubbing Down Under. “I'd like to do it,” he told Sky Sports' Cricket Podcast. “I think I'd do a pretty good job.”
Born in the Victorian suburb of Upper Ferntree Gully in 1969, Warne suffered a serious injury while still at kindergarten which saw him break both legs. He was forced to wheel himself around in a trolley for up to a year, the kind of setback which could have forced him away from sport but instead may have proved a blessing in disguise as he relied on his arms to move himself around. Later, he would wonder if the workload was responsible for his unprecedented ability to rip the ball with his wrist.
As a keen and talented Australian Rules football player as well as cricketer, he was offered a sports scholarship at Mentone Grammar School. By 1991 he had settled on his path, making a first-class debut for Victoria and ultimately earning his Baggy Green against India the following year. It was a chastening debut, with bruising figures of one for 150 as Ravi Shastri taught him some hard lessons. By the time he arrived to face Gatting in Manchester, he had learned all of them and more.
The wickets and the wins kept coming, with a star-studded Australia team establishing themselves as the sport's dominant force.
There was World Cup glory in 1999, with Warne's four for 33 a key pillar, but a sharp fall from grace that prevented him defending the trophy four years later. He tested positive for a banned diuretic on the eve of the tournament and was hit with a year-long ban, later claiming he had been taking his mother's diet pills in a bid to win a lengthy battle with his waistline.
He was back in the saddle to play a leading role in the unforgettable 2005 Ashes campaign, remembered by many as the best ever. For the only time he came out on the losing side against a rejuvenated England, but still managed to excel, harvesting an incredible 40 wickets in five Tests.
That he did so against the backdrop of a crumbling marriage, brought on by revelations of infidelity that saw his wife Simone leave the country with their three children Brooke, Summer and Jackson, was all the more remarkable.
He made sure to reclaim the urn before bowing out, retiring from international cricket on a high after the 5-0 whitewash of 2006/07, while his flamboyant love life included an engagement to actress Liz Hurley. When county cricket came calling, he captained Hampshire with verve and panache, when Twenty20 blew up won the first Indian Premier League with Rajasthan Royals and when he moved to the commentary box he never lacked an opinion.
Many of his highs and lows were covered in Shane, a recent documentary on his life, during which he concluded: "I wasn't perfect. I love loud music. I smoked. I drank. I bowled a bit of leg-spin. That was me."
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