July 29, 2021
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Sultan Of Spin

Shane Warne has always been his worst enemy. His flawed genius lost him the chance to lead Australia. And now, it's dented his reputation.

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Sultan Of Spin

W-w-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-r-r-r-r-n-n-e-e-e-e-y, W-w-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-r-r-r-r-n-n-e-e-e-e-y, W-w-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-r-r-r-r-n-n-e-e-e-e-y. Probably, after the dry and painfully monotonous ‘Barmy Army, Barmy Army’ war cry, this slow, slanting, laidback, infectious drawl was the most famous chant heard in cricket grounds across the world.

By itself, it was appealing and worth joining in, kind of like gently exercising your vocal chords the way you would stretch your body after a deep slumber. The underlying message it heralded was even more powerful, making lover-like promises to pump up the excitement or break the lull in proceedings, as the case might be. Word was out: Shane Warne was due next to roll his arm over.

And, what an arm that was. Seemingly constructed of oodles of baby fat with a little muscle thrown in, it looked benign and harmless, inviting kids to hang on and pretend to be Tarzan. But when the same right arm tactfully concealed and gripped a small, hard, round object to be delivered from 22 paces, it could weave magic.

It was sleight of hand at its best. You knew you were in for a master-class in the art of deceit and deception, with the weapons being assorted variations in turn, flight, speed, line, length, vocabulary and expression. It was leg-spin bowling -- and cricket and sport -- at its riveting best.

It’s indeed a shame that all this is being said in the past tense, but then that’s how the cookie crumbles. Given the damning evidence on hand and the circumstances, it’s only fair game. Shane Warne won’t be seen rolling his arm over and preying on men with willows in their hands for the next year. Perhaps, never again.

Warne has been temporarily shunted out of cricket, but the patented cry, serving gentle reminders of his legacy, still fills the air in South African stadiums. As it probably will in other countries where the viewing public is inclined to such lyricism.

Warne leaves behind a powerful legacy, if one might be permitted to say so. It’s hard not to miss his presence in the field, be it striding in to bowl one of the many kind of deliveries in his awesome armoury, standing at first slip invariably engaging his teammates around in an animated conversation about who knows what, or giving the ball an ol’ fashioned thump on the leg side.

Warne was one of the game’s few genuine characters, a breed that is losing numbers more briskly than it is admitting members. In this day and age, young men, bred to be cricketers, thrill with their skills and athleticism, but they are sucking the human element out of the game. Little playful banter or intermingling with the opposition, few exchanges of words, fewer testy conversations. When they do exercise their vocal chords, it’s usually to hurl expletives, delivered with a complete lack of imagination.

Warne was different, perhaps because he belonged to another time and because he was the quintessential Aussie. His attraction lay not just in his mastery of his art form, but also the manner in which he went about his business on the field. Along with searching deliveries, batsmen, standing a pitch length away, were subjected to piercing glares, quizzical looks, teasing questions and brazen ripostes that many a time went over the top and strayed into sledging territory. It was a performance that could easily earn him a place in a theatre troupe, and the latest turn of events has only confirmed that.

Love him or hate him, you just couldn’t ignore him. Not as a player, not as a performer.

There are players and there are players. In a game played out over seven hours in a day, some times over five consecutive days, few players can hold your attention, time after time. Few players can draw the fans back to a match that is trundling along. Among the current crop, Tendulkar has this special quality. As do Lara, Lee, Gilchrist and Akhtar. When these guys are in the thick of the action, you know something’s going to give.

Warne too could hold spectators in thrall, with more than just his bowling skills. In late-1998, when the then one-day captain Steve Waugh was laid low by injury, Warne led the side. He led the way he played: from the front, bristling with ideas, scheming and plotting, involving his other teammates, not afraid to show his cards. He was daring, aggressive and imaginative.

Not since Martin Crowe in the 1992 World Cup had a captain brought so much to the job tactically and made such a difference to the way a side looked and performed. Of the 11 one-dayers Australia played under Warne’s captaincy, they won 10, including a run of nine wins in a triangular against Sri Lanka and England.

Mark Taylor had just retired from cricket, and Australia was divided on whom to anoint as his successor: cricket’s elderly statesman Steve Waugh or the mercurial Warne. With this performance, Warne had given a stunning exhibition of his captaincy credentials. The selectors, though, plumped for continuity and image, and gave Waugh their vote. This was just around the time when Australia were putting in place the pieces that would see them win the World Cup and establish themselves at the summit of world cricket.

Warne’s naked aggression and outgoing persona, which was such a boon on the field, was also his bane. Over the years, he would be caught hobnobbing with bookies and violating commercial contracts. It would cost him a possible captaincy stint, not once but twice. Another off-field embarrassment, this time dirty talk over the phone with an English woman, saw him lose the vice-captaincy to Gilchrist. Had it not been for that episode, he would surely have taken over from Waugh in the one-day side.

The Australian team is doing fine without him at the World Cup. Their juggernaut continues to roll on, which is sterling testimony to the country’s cricketing abilities and ethos. Warne wasn’t as crucial a cog in the one-day set-up, as he was in the Test side. And that’s where Australia might miss him when they go to the Caribbean after the World Cup. Stuart MacGill can spin the ball square, but doesn’t possess the same subtleties, variations or psychological edge over batsmen as Warne did. Brad Hogg and Nathan Hauritz are still unknown quantities at the Test level.

Undoubtedly, Warne will follow the performance and progress of his fellow spinners with much interest. The Australian selectors have told him that, if he’s inclined to resume playing after serving his year-long ban, he will have to earn his place back in the national squad. That depends as much on his doing well as it does on the others not filling his shoes ably. And those are big shoes to fill. If none among MacGill, Hogg and Hauritz is able to establish themselves, it will be that much easier for Warne to make a comeback.

Warne is sitting on 491 Test wickets, within striking distance of Courtney Walsh’s summit of 519 wickets. At the time of announcing his retirement from one-day cricket, Warne indicated playing on for three to four years. A year down the line, he’ll be 34. Going by the general ageing patterns of cricketers and spinners, and keeping in mind Warne’s perpetual battle with weight and fitness, that still leaves Warne with a couple of years, or around 20 tests, of good top-flight cricket.

There’s a bigger reason than cricket and money for Warne to come back: to restore lost pride. For a true athlete, pride is a huge thing. More so when you come from a country that has a rich sporting ethos and has made a name for itself for breeding waves of rugged, doughty, spirited athletes. Australians dote on their athletes. But this respect has to be earned, by embodying and standing tall for these very qualities.

It’s not the first time that Warne faces a comeback situation. Previously, in 1998, surgery to his shoulder kept him out of the game for around nine months. Even back then, in the lead-up to his recovery, questions were raised on whether he would be the same bowler again. He lost little of his edge. In his inimitable style, he collected wickets, along with courting controversy.

This is a different situation than his previous injury-enforced sit-out, though. Warne is 33 now, five years older. As the body grows older, it becomes that much harder to dictate terms to it. Also, this forced sabbatical is due to non-cricketing reasons.

The evidence on hand doesn’t conclusively tell whether Warne took steroids and was therefore trying to mask the use of such performance-enhancing drugs. It also hard to conclude that he took the prohibited tablet only once, or twice, as he later claimed. Because of this ambiguity, in some minds, he has been branded a cheat. It’s something he will have to live with and deal with objectively through the process of coming back.

He’s done it before. Will he do it again? Warne and time will whether the cries of "W-w-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-r-r-r-r-n-n-e-e-e-e-y, W-w-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-r-r-r-r-n-n-e-e-e-e-y, W-w-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-r-r-r-r-n-n-e-e-e-e-y" will occasionally ring out as shards of memory from the past or as an alive moment from the present.

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