A mind reader

Published : Oct 30, 2004 00:00 IST

No bowler of Shane Warne's pace has ever produced that shiver of excitement in the crowd and that trembling terror in the batsman simply by standing at his mark and walking, oh so slowly, for half a dozen paces towards the wicket, writes TED CORBETT.

THERE is no doubt that Shane Warne is the greatest leg spin bowler in history; but take the argument a bit further and questions begin to arise.

Is he the greatest spin bowler? There are others to consider. The iconic England slow left-arm bowler Wilfred Rhodes took 4,187 first class wickets; Colin Blythe, Rhodes' arch-rival at the start of the 20th century, conceded only 18.63 runs for each of his 100 wickets in 19 Tests before he was killed in the first World War, and Anil Kumble grabs his victims at a rate none of his peers can match.

But when Warne reached 537 wickets by the end of the second Test in Chennai it was more than any other bowler had ever taken. So, is Warne the greatest bowler in any category? Maybe.

Among the spinners, only Muttiah Muralitharan's dervish dance has produced more than 500 wickets, and there are those who think that his dubious action rules him out of the competition. I am not one of those purists but they have an argument.

Courtney Walsh is the only other bowler of any sort to pass the 500 mark — and at the moment no other bowler appears likely to join the 500 club in the near future — but was this gentlest of giants a striker in his own right or mostly a support bowler for Curtly Ambrose? Or a bowler who owed more to persistence and stamina and determination than skill.

I don't want to be the man who puts that point of view to Walsh — he is proud as well as gentle! — and a host of West Indies voices will no doubt tell me that Walsh is an outstanding fast medium bowler and therefore entitled to his place on the pantheon.

Besides, would you say that Walsh was a finer bowler than Dennis Lillee, Fred Trueman, Malcolm Marshall, Wasim Akram or Richard Hadlee? I think not, but that is not to decry his effect on a hot day in Kingston or Chennai, or any of his achievements at home and abroad.

At various times in his career he was in effect the only West Indies bowler and when you rate consistency, persistence and effort he is right at the top of the tree. I remember a story told me by Dennis Waight, the West Indies physio. "We were playing a Test in Pakistan. Walsh came off for treatment after bowling a dozen overs and when I looked at his knee I wondered if he would be fit for the next Test or if we might have to send him home.

"But he would have none of that. `Just give me an injection and I'll get back out there' he said. `We can still win this match.' By implication Walsh meant he could still win the match.'

"Don't tell me what a fine potential our opponents have," said the great football manager Joe Mercer. "Ask them to show me their medals."

For all the competition, for all the debate, for all the experts' views, Warne has one fact no one can dispute. He has plenty of medals. He sits at the top of the pile, with his 537 trophies, his huge variety of deliveries and the factor only the best bowlers inspire. Fear.

It all begins when, with slow deliberation, Warne finishes setting his field, ends his chat with his captain and turns his attention to the batsman. It is a technique based on mesmerism, honed by long hours of practice and thousands of overs and the guidance of Terry Jenner, a rough diamond of a specialist coach, who, if he has no other claim to fame can always say he put the finishing touches to the genius within Shane Warne.

No bowler of Shane Warne's pace has ever produced that shiver of excitement in the crowd and that trembling terror in the batsman simply by standing at his mark and walking, oh so slowly, for half a dozen paces towards the wicket. Much of it is in the mind; and Warne wastes no opportunity to say to the batsman: "Hey, look out, I'm on your case."

Walking is not quite right, of course. Warne walks as a crouching tiger walks. Using the verb to walk implies there is no menace, no rhythm, no threat. It is a walk, but the walk of a murderer in a Hitchcock movie, the casual stroll of Mac the Knife, of a lioness stalking her prey.

Few hypnotists have had the same effect. The batsman cannot take his eyes off the slow stride to the crease, the spectator holds his breath. In the last two strides Warne increases his pace with the same ease that Ella FitzGerald changes her tempo and his arm comes over at speed. Now we have the great moment although to the untrained eye it is not yet clear what sort of delivery is about to loop down the pitch.

Will it be the leg break, fast or slow; the googly, less common now but still a rare lethal weapon; or the top spinner skidding straight on; or one of the real or imaginary deliveries concocted by the Warne-Jenner publicity machine?

(No wonder the politicians talk about exaggerated claims as "spin." All I can say is that no government publicity officer ever used "spin" more effectively than these two).

Logic tells us that the ball can head in only one of three directions — straight on as the top spinner of flipper does, from leg to off or from off to leg.

So what's the problem? Ask 537 hapless batsmen and don't expect a sensible answer. There is, for a start, the little matter of flight, which often contains an element of swerve in the last few feet. Variations of pace. The effect of the previous ball, the state of the match, the condition of the pitch, the skill of the batsman, the size of his score, his team's score, the position in the series, the mind set of the captain, the pressure of previous failure... all the ideas that flip through a batsman's mind as the ball travels the length of the pitch, plus the subtle or clear signals sent by this bowler who is a master not just of control and spin and changes of direction but a mind reader.

Warne is perhaps the finest captain Australia never had, with a street level degree in psychology too, an equal to Mike Brearley with his degree in people.

Add all these factors together and it is easy to understand why Warne leads the world. Study them for an eternity and you will still not with any certainty be able to put bat to his many varieties of balls, allied to his strategies, his temptations and his lateral thinking.

For all his qualities Warne is not a perfect human being. How many of us are? He had to serve a year's suspension because he took a banned substance, the tabloids have fun with his habit of sending texts to ladies he barely knows and his earring, his streaked hair and his weight have all caused controversy in a conservative sport.

He led a campaign against smoking, forswore the weed and was then photographed with a cigarette in his mouth; it all adds up to an Australian larrikin, a Jack the lad, a naughty boy at the back of the bus.

Perhaps it even endears him to an Australian public ready to worship his unorthodox spin, especially as cricket seemed to be a fast bowler's world when he first appeared, beach boy fat, wearing an unmatched white and cream uniform and with hair on the wild side of uncombed, in 1992 against India.

The signs of his genius were already present. Bobby Simpson sent him away to lose weight, to learn his trade, to learn the true meaning of discipline and Jenner swung into place to not so much to teach as to encourage the skills that were already there. A year later Warne was a major force in Test cricket, a maverick wanting success, a key player in an Australian team searching for greatness. Under Allan Border's gruff leadership, Mark Taylor's clever captaincy and Steve Waugh's tough directions he became the bowler he is today.

He first produced the wonder ball that bowled Mike Gatting, then piled up the victims as if he might be a prince sacking a Medieval town, was named one of the five cricketers of the 20th century by Wisden and finally got into a head to head confrontation with Murali for the world crown.

Some will say he was lucky but in my opinion that is only because he had such gifted close fielders as Ian Healy, Taylor, Mark Waugh and David Boon to turn his minor triumphs into major victims. History will judge him more calmly, weigh his skill as a spinner against the men of pace and see where he finishes in the all-time list.

At the moment he is the leader of the pack, indisputably on top of the world and with Murali to chase him down, at the centre of one of the most fascinating duels the game has ever seen.

Shane Warne factfile

Shane Keith WARNE. Known as: Shane Warne. Born: Upper Ferntree Gully, Melbourne, 13-9-1969. Type: Right-hand lower-order batsman and right-arm leg-break googly bowler. Teams: Victoria (from 1990-91) & Hampshire (from 2000 to 2004).

First-class debut: 1990-91.Test debut: v India at Sydney, 1991-92.

Best Test bowling (in an innings): 8-71 v West Indies at Brisbane, 1994-95.

Best Test bowling (in a match): 12-128 (7-56 + 5-72) v South Africa at Sydney, 1993-94.

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