A charmer and a champion

The sheer joy his leg-spin provides to the spectators, the enormous effort he puts into each of his deliveries as he rips the ball, and the manner in which he throws down the gauntlet at the batsmen make Shane Warne a compelling sight on the field, writes S. DINAKAR.

PERFECT scripts are rare in sports. You just do not find them, but then, imperfect stories can prove engrossing too.

His career has been anything but a straight arrow. His leg-spin is a thing of beauty though...timeless, sublime, ethereal...and right on target.

In the theatre that world cricket surely is, he has donned several roles — hero, villain, conqueror, king of tragedy, a smiling assassin, a magician with a bagful of tricks...

There is no dearth of passion as he chases wickets on the field, bamboozling batsmen and winning duels with those fizzy and delicious leg-spinners laced with tantalising flight and turn, those lethal top-spinners and flippers, and the odd wrong 'un, delivered with astonishing control.

Through the dizzying highs and the depressing lows, he has endured and survived, often against the odds, often at the cost of his hapless victims.

Injuries and scandals — bookies, women and banned substances — have haunted him, yet those lovely green eyes have never ever lost their glint, and that infectious smile has continued to find its way into people's hearts.

Muttiah Muralitharan bowls to Shane Warne shortly after claiming his 500th Test wicket on the first day of the second Test between Sri Lanka and Australia in Kandy on March 16, earlier this year. Warne has now equalled Murali's world record of 527 wickets and the race between the two will be fascinating to watch in the next few years. — Pic. HAMISH BLAIR/GETTY IMAGES-

Beneath those layers meant for public consumption though, he must have anguished and cried, when under all that scrutiny in the worst of times. It's not easy being Shane Warne.

The burdens of celebrity status — with its pressures and expectations — are huge, and truth to tell, he has, on occasions, made things harder for himself.

Same time last year, he was in a deep, dark hole with light nowhere in sight. He had been forced to leave South Africa under humiliating circumstances, just ahead of the World Cup, with traces of a banned diuretic found in his blood.

The one-year ban imposed by the International Cricket Council meant there was a question mark over his future, and fresh allegations of misconduct with women could not have surfaced at a worse phase.

All these appeared a distant memory when his team-mates converged on him after he had sold the dummy to Sri Lanka's Upul Chandana for 'keeper Adam Gilchirst to complete the dismissal in the dramatic final moments of the recent second Test at Cairns. Keeping the fire burning, he had held on to his lifeline — cricket.

It was Warne's 527th Test scalp, bringing him level with Lanka's Muttiah Muralitharan. The first spinner to reach the daunting 500 mark was now the joint leading wicket-taker in Test cricket.

Sri Lanka hung on to save the Test, and Warne failed to surpass Muralitharan. However, it was a significant moment in Warne's eventful journey. Even if not alone, he was at the acme now.

It would be wrong to state that he revived classical leg-spin — Pakistan's Abdul Qadir was a formidable bowler in his own right and possessed a meaner googly — but Warne deserves much credit for keeping this rare art in the forefront.

At 34, he is not young. He underwent a major shoulder surgery in '98, but such was the freshness in his bowling during the three Test series in Sri Lanka — his comeback series after serving the ban — this season that he delighted with his cocktail of leg-spin, flippers and top-spinners.

And to think that he went into the tour with just one first class match behind him. Nowhere in sight was any form of rustiness; the Aussie did operate with remarkable control.

For an orthodox leg-spinner, he bowls with remarkable accuracy, landing the ball in the right area, sending down very few poor deliveries, even as the pressure builds on the batsman.

He could always get his leg-spinners to turn big, but it is where he pitches the ball — around the right-hander's leg and middle stumps — that makes those deliveries extremely effective as they spin away; this is reflected in the number of victims caught at slip where Warne and former Australian captain Mark Taylor formed a telling combination.

Warne imparts so much side-spin that he is invariably able to achieve bounce with turn; it can be suicidal to strike him against the break.

If the batsman is indecisive — pushing and prodding — then he becomes an easy prey for Warne, with the slip, short-leg, and silly point increasingly coming into the picture. The Indians have fared well against Warne because they used their feet and were firm in their shot-selection.

When he bowls the top-spinner, it sizzles with over-spin; again the extra bounce he extracts has often sounded the death-knell for the batsmen. His line for the top-spinner is just right too — the ball zeroes in around the right-hander's off-stump.

It is the flipper though which is his most potent weapon after leg-spin. The cleverly disguised ball, pitched short of a length, would skid off the surface and crash into the batsman's pads or stumps. If the batsman plays the length and shapes for a cut, he is invariably doomed.

Where Warne has evolved as a bowler is in bringing about subtle variations and flight, and in controlling the extent of his turn, which is absolutely crucial for a spinner in adapting to various pitches.

He is not such a destructive bowler against the southpaws, not quite possessing a stinging googly that would spin away from the left-hander, but his flipper — effective if the batsman chooses the flick as an option — and the top-spinner assume more importance here.

If a rough develops outside the right-hander's leg-stump, he can prove dangerous - from round the wicket — to the left-handers as well. They would now have to cope with deliveries jumping into them and would not quite have the right-hander's luxury of indulging in pad-play.

Let's not forget for a moment Warne's ability to shift his line adeptly without straying in either length or direction. He is constantly probing, looking out for chinks, and it is as much a contest of mind as skill. The Aussie can mouth occasional words to unsettle a batsman, a tactic he can do without.

Warne — one of Wisden's five cricketers of the 20th century — has reached the landmark in his 112th Test, while Muralitharan has taken 22 matches less. It is impossible to compare a leggie with an off-spinner. All we can say is both are attacking bowlers, and that the Aussie's action has never been under a cloud, for a leg-spinner cannot chuck.

It must be conceded that as Sri Lanka's premier strike bowler, Muralitharan has received far more opportunities to bowl for long periods than Warne, who has had to compete with the likes of Craig McDermott and Glenn McGrath ...match-winning bowlers.

The Aussie has done well to more than hold his own in a glittering attack.

This is the 13th year for Warne in international cricket, and the path is dotted with tales of triumphs and glory. There have been several rousing spells and deliveries, and the Victorian's monster leg-spinner that castled Mike Gatting in the '93 Ashes Test at Lord's has been immortalised.

There have been several other less documented but no less stirring dismissals, where he has forced the batsman into committing mistakes; he has so many caught and bowled scalps with flighted deliveries on the leg and middle stumps, the batsman tamely scooping an intended drive back to the bowler.

The sheer joy his leg-spin provides to the spectators, the enormous effort he puts into each of his deliveries as he rips the ball, and the manner in which he throws down the gauntlet at the batsmen make Warne a compelling sight on the field.

The Warne script may not be perfect, but for the cricketing world, he is both a charmer and a champion. And he travels way beyond numbers.