A man of miracles

Shane Warne has taken the Indian Premier League seriously. In so doing, the great leg-spinner has conferred on it a sort of legitimacy.-R. V. MOORTHY

More than a year after he retired from international cricket, Shane Warne continues to show he has few equals in making things happen — in trapping lightning in a bottle, with a knowing smirk, writes S. Ram Mahesh.

A line in a Guy de Maupassant story sketches a character thus: “He was a gentleman with red whiskers who always went first through a doorway”. It might have been written for Shane Warne. More than a year after he retired from international cricket, Warne continues to show he has few equals in making things happen — in trapping lightning in a bottle, with a knowing smirk.

The Indian Premier League (IPL) might be dismissed as cricket’s silly season — and that’s the charitable view — but Warne has taken it seriously. In so doing, the great leg-spinner has conferred on it a sort of legitimacy. If so devoted an advocate of Test cricket, the game’s richest, most fulfilling format, can see good in Twenty20 maybe it can be tolerated after all; the instant format has compromised cricket’s essence, but perhaps it has redeeming features that will make themselves apparent presently.

But Warne’s success with Rajasthan Royals has a greater significance: it has trained the focus, however briefly, away from the cheerleaders and the juvenile slapping, and on one of sport’s most intriguing questions. Why is it that only some can spark from nothing moments that are defining and transcendental? Or more simply, why can some get it done and not others?

Shane Warne with Deccan Chargers’ skipper V. V. S. Laxman. Warne pulled off an incredible victory for Rajasthan Royals in the final over, hoisting Andrew Symonds for two sixes.-G. KRISHNASWAMY

This is an ancient question, one that has given both athletes and sportswriters much grief. About the formidable England all-rounder Wilfred Rhodes, one of cricket’s greatest ever left-arm spinners, a patron is reported to have said: “Ah, he was a good ’un Wilfred. Tha’ could walk thirty miles and reckon on him doing summat.” Similar emotions have been expressed at different times about Botham and Bradman, Court and Comaneci, Pele and Popov, Lara and Laver, Miller and Maradona, Sobers and Sampras, about Dhyan Chand, Jesse Owens, Kapil Dev, Michael Jordan — and the list is by no means comprehensive.

Despite the subjectivity inherent in such assessments, it is clear athletes who make things happen have the following qualities in varying degrees: vision, creative skill, and an elusive facility for natural expression under severe pressure. Just as importantly, they must be identified as making things happen — the act must be tangible, even if beyond comprehension.

It is immediately obvious why Warne is perceived as a man of miracles. Bowling is cricket’s only act of creation, and leg-spin, with its deviant set of motions involving arm and wrist, is the game’s most cryptic. An exceptional purveyor stands apart at once. Warne’s mix of technical virtuosity and imagination has rarely been seen. Moreover, cricket, because it is a series of distinct events interrupted by pauses, lends itself to awareness. It’s easier to identify and describe. The audience recognises that trickery is afoot, as do the writers and commentators describing it, furthering the process of legend building.

Warne willingly indulges the legend building. He exaggerates the subtleties of spin and angle of attack, playing the wheedling snake-oil salesman to perfection. Spinners more than any other sort seem to recognise the power of suggestion. “Batsmen used to say about me that I could drop the ball on a sixpence,” Wilfred Rhodes once said. “Now that’s impossible, no one can do it. I could probably hit a newspaper, spread out at that, but the point is they used to think I could hit a sixpence and I used to let them keep on thinking and that way they were mine.”

What isn’t obvious is how Warne elevates his game under pressure. His drive and ambition are expressed plainly. He is reportedly learning basic Hindi so he can communicate better with his young charges. After defeat in the first game, he sat late into the night reconfiguring his plans. “We’ve had different plans for different games,” Warne said after Rajasthan Royals’ third successive win. “The young side has bought into it, and with them being very skilful, they are executing well.”

His captaincy has been inventive and vivid — the sight of Warne counting on his fingers the overs his bowlers had left will remain one of the moments of the tournament. Clearly, he relishes the opportunity Australia grudged him.

Rajasthan Royals’ captain Shane Warne (centre) and his team-mates rejoice the fall of Irfan Pathan of Kings XI Punjab. The Aussie has breathed life into the IPL contests.-PTI

But neither his ambition nor involvement explains his success in breathing life into contests. What about Warne allows him to strike Andrew Symonds for two sixes in a final over? Typically, he said he wasn’t thinking during that over; he had allowed his excellent instincts to take over, but what makes his instincts excellent?

Steve Waugh, in his autobiography ‘Out of My Comfort Zone’, offers this insight: “Knowing Shane well, I believed he would lift in the definitive games because of who he was: a champion competitor who loves everything being on the line and the result being dependent on him. Shane needs constant support, encouragement and reassurance that he is the man, and at the 1999 World Cup that played a big part in getting him going. He loves to be loved. For the rest of us it was in a way comforting to know that even a legend needs to battle the dark forces occasionally, that no one is exempt from self-doubt.”

Waugh unfortunately reveals and occludes in equal measure — a strain that runs through the autobiography. Just as he appears poised to lay bare the inner working of an athlete’s mind under high pressure, he withdraws. Bill Tilden, the iconic tennis player, and Ayrton Senna, the luminous racer, went further than most in describing their thoughts. Yet that moment of piercing honesty, that moment that tells all, that shows how it’s done, remains obscure. And perhaps that is the point: perhaps it isn’t for us to ever know, to ever see a thing as it really is, so we may continue to glory and despair.