A leg spinner from Olympus

Published : Sep 08, 2001 00:00 IST

Like a stage magician Shane Warne, blond close crop gleaming in the sunshine, builds his act to a climax through every over, writes TED CORBETT.

SHANE WARNE is the greatest. The youngest bowler to have 400 Test wickets, second quickest behind the immortal Richard Hadlee, the only spinner. The figures don't lie. Since 1992 Warne has brought the most difficult of bowling arts to perfection and twice risen to a peak of Himalayan proportions.

Wisden told the world he was special by making him one of the Five Cricketers of the Century. His selection was so right that there was not a word of protest.

He has more wickets than his country's most vaunted leg break bowlers - Bill O'Reilly who took 144 in 27 Tests and Clarrie Grimmett, who reached 216 in 37. Both found their way into the Bradman World XI but Bradman picked men he played with and it is difficult to believe he thought they were finer exponents of this art than Warne.

Muttiah Muralitharan's sparkling eyes have gleamed 329 times in 64 Tests as he has won the umpire's approval for his screaming appeals and one day he may go beyond Warne. When he does we will judge the rankings again as we will if Harbhajan Singh moves his 63 wickets in 15 Tests into the realms inhabited by the gods or Anil Kumble progresses beyond 276 wickets in 61 Tests.

Derek Underwood with 297 wickets and Lance Gibbs with 309 are undoubtedly the best of their kind but they did not bring the buzz of excitement, the roar of approval, the sheer intensity of crowd participation that Warne has always added to Test cricket.

He is bowling as I write, with three men short on the offside crouching in a semi-circle, with his captain Steve Waugh at short leg edging ever closer having just snaffled a catch. Even the umpires seem caught up in the drama as the ball curls through a slow arc, hits the turf, bites and climbs towards the batsman's wrists.

Elderly spectators grip their umbrellas more tightly, Australian fans show their relish for each success with a burst of patriotic praise for their goddess Matilda and the schoolboy grasps his autograph book and wonders if one day he will ever bowl spin as Warne bowls it.

For everyone watching knows we are in the presence of a deity, one descended from Olympus to show us how leg spin can be woven into cricket's ancient tapestry.

Like a stage magician Warne, blond close crop gleaming in the sunshine, builds his act to a climax through every over. Mostly over the wicket, sometimes round by way of a change, often thinking to himself "if you play like that it won't be long before you're out."

He thought that all the way through V. V. S. Laxman's innings last winter and still wonders - and he is not alone - how a batsman could hit against the spin so often, make so many runs and survive so long. Incidentally, according to his autobiography, he rates Rahul Dravid as the finest modern player of spin.

I trust Dravid will cut the page from the book and have it framed for an honoured place in his home. It is a tribute to be treasured. "He never says a word without weighing its meaning and consequence beforehand and he looks over everything that he writes with a determination that he will say just what he means. He will not have words put into his mouth," says a journalist who meets him regularly.

Once again this searcher after perfection is not the common portrait of Warne. We prefer the beach bum image but that is our loss.

Of course, it is Warne the bowler we admire most. The ten-pace walk to the crease remains the same but each ball is different as it wobbles and dips from his round arm to a constantly varying length. Warne has shown he can dominate by bowling slowly, stealthily changing the tempo, diverting the anxious batsman's attention by altering his field, signalling each new delivery with a motion only his wicket-keeper understands, celebrating each success with a punch in the air and a roar and sometimes a rock star's gesture of anarchic defiance.

In a rock age what else would you expect?

In other times O'Reilly, a schoolmaster and a thinking man's medium-paced leggie, was quicker, and Grimmett, the signwriter, more cunning. Both were more publicly polite. From another part of the planet Murali is so different and so destructive that eyebrows raise every day he bowls. None of them have the combinations Warne brings to each party.

He began as the real ripper, the leg spinner who bowled Mike Gatting, a genuinely clever batsman, with a ball that turned from a yard outside the leg stump to hit the top of the off. If you believe the hype. Eight years on it is television's favourite piece of video, to be played every time England and Australia get near one another.

There was always hype, of course. Remember the zooter, a flipper, the top-spinner, three different googlies, his dependence on tricks learnt from his coach Terry Jenner, his infinite variations. Much of that was hyperbole, driven upwards and onwards by a doting media following his every move, desperate for a spin bowling hero to replace the dozen or so West Indian giants of pace, always ready to add 10 per cent to his flamboyance.

In truth he was always a real bowler even in that unreal world since he relied on accuracy, line and length, flight and change of pace, the primary needs of any Test bowler from Spofforth to Srinath.

The spin mix was just another part of the Warne armoury although at his best - taking a hat-trick to end England's Ashes hopes in Melbourne in 1994-5, for instance - his mastery of the mixture was so consistent that batsmen were transfixed, like rabbits facing their last moments in the gaze of a cobra.

As the years went by Warne learned to enhance the fears. The brisk trot of 1993 was transformed into the menacing stroll of 2001; cricket's version of the boxer who delivers a painful blow and steps back so that the pain can work its way through your body. Cruel people, sportsmen.

After his troubled years, with accusations of bookmaker dealings and a shoulder injury that needed a major operation and a difficult time in English county cricket, Warne has reinvented himself as a cleverer, more patient, more cerebral bowler.

Now he is far removed from the beach boy turned blond bombshell who turned up against India for two Tests in 1992-3, bowled some fairly ordinary overs and was sent away to learn his trade.

Even that was part of the myth.

Shortly after this article was commissioned, four days into the fifth and final Test between England and Australia at the Oval when Warne went beyond 400 wickets, I had the good luck to share a car journey with a man who knows him better than most.

"So what manner of man is Warne?" I asked.

"Like a good many Australians, he is a tough, outspoken, take-me-as-you-find-me guy on the outside, but peel away the first layer and underneath there is a shy, sensitive man only too keen to find a bit of privacy beyond the limelight.

"As a cricketer he has gone through all the highs and lows. He is bitter about what he sees as the way the captaincy was torn from his hands when the Australian Cricket Board gave way to a media campaign but that has not stopped him being a fully committed member of the inner sanctum which decides Australian tactics before they are presented to the rest of the team.

"There is a part of Warne which few people see; let's call it the paternal or avuncular side. When Ricky Ponting came back after a suspension under Warne's captaincy, Warne felt it was necessary to make him feel part of his plans and asked him to bowl early in the match. Just to get him to feel part of things again. That is a very sensitive man at work.

"We have also heard recently from Brett Lee, the fast bowler who has replaced Warne with the hero-worshipping Australian crowds, that it has been Warne who has given him the most guidance not just on his cricket but on his personal life, on how to conduct himself on and off the field.

"That's not a mindless beach bum at work; that is a man who might have made a remarkable Australian captain." Those of us who saw his imaginative work as leader in the one-day series in 1998-9 thought so too.

Warne began as a teenager wanting to play Australian Rules football but found he was the wrong man at the wrong time. Only then did he switch to cricket, go to the Academy in Adelaide and meet Jenner.

No doubt he roistered, drank a can too many more than once, behaved like a fair dinkum Aussie teenager. One night he turned up at Jenner's home, six-pack of beer in hand and told the former Australian spinner they ought to celebrate.

"You can take that lot away for a start," said Jenner. "That is not going to make you into a great Australian bowler and it is time you gave it away, mate." And slammed the door in his face and left Warne to think his own way out of a lifestyle that was threatening to end a career before it began.

After those first two Tests, Bob Simpson, the Australian coach, told Warne to go away and get fit or he would never make it at the top level. And somewhere along the way he has acquired a knowledge and an understanding of cricket that may still stand him in good stead.

As we reached the Oval for the final day of the Ashes series my friend spoke sadly of the decisions that mean Warne will probably never captain Australia on a regular basis. "I think he has an exceptional cricket brain but after his indiscretions and the removal of his status as vice-captain and the appointment of Adam Gilchrist in his place there is now no chance he will lead Australia as he wanted to.

"It will all be useful later because he will leave the game for the commentary box at some stage and be the best of pundits. He has already tried his hand at that job and did it well."

I remember the Warne of six years ago finishing his pitch report Down Under with that ringing phrase: "This is Shane Warne for Channel Nine" and you knew then that he had always wanted to say that, probably since he was a nine-year-old schoolboy watching Richie Benaud, Tony Greig and Ian Chappell.

Before he goes let us enjoy the greatest spinner who at the Oval snared his 400th victim and showed us that he still has the energy, the spin power and the enthusiasm to boldly go beyond Courtney Walsh's 519 wickets into the outer space where 1000 trembling batsmen await dismissal by 1000 zinging zooters.

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