He’s not interested in making a comeback

Published : Mar 14, 2009 00:00 IST

Shane Warne may only roll his arm in the IPL nowadays, but as he prepares to swap ball for microphone the capacity for the unexpected remains. By Kevin Mitchell.

Kevin Pietersen is “one weird cat” whose best is yet to come. If it were not for coaches and their “absolute crap” computers and training regimes, he would still be playing. Allen Stanford was “good for the game”. And, no, he never contemplated making a comeback for Australia in the Ashes this summer. Not really.

An hour in the company of Shane Warne reinforces the impression that he will be as stimulating in the Sky Sports commentary box as he was for the 15 years in which he mastered more completely than anyone in the history of the game the mysteries and craft of propelling a cricket ball out of the back of the hand.

The scandal-scarred, never-dull carnival ride finished two years ago. Once The Blond had helped dispatch England’s limp Ashes effort 5-0, once he had taken a look around the dressing room and realised that being the best had become a chore, he decided a career in poker and six weeks of leading Rajasthan Royals in the Indian Premier League each year would do him nicely.

Yet, as Australia’s transitional team have slid from the mountain top the past year or so, faint hopes that Warne might return for the defence of the urn were regularly spun at either end of cricket’s world. England supporters wanted him to play again in 2009 as much as Australia did — perhaps more so, such is his hold on the imagination here.

“Mate, it’s pretty hard to bowl a leg-break with a microphone in your hand,” he observes helpfully as he stretches his tanned frame across a chair in the green room of a TV production site in west London. “So I don’t think I’ll be playing any part in the Ashes series on the field, that’s for sure.”

Only by two and a half months is the wild guy from Upper Ferntree Gully a child of the 60s and, bleached and blinged-up, he talks with anarchic freedom. While his word selection is random, like his zooters and flippers nearly all of them land where he intends. But not quite all.

Wasn’t he asked if he were interested in playing Test cricket again? “No,” he says, shifting a bit. “Not really.” The same with the England coaching job. Not really. Only a poker player could say it with a straight face.

In his homeland, where, depending on the prevailing headlines, opinions about the finest spin bowler there ever was swing between adoration and hostile indifference, they will not care much. In this country, cricket’s tormentor-in-chief is cherished like a waif left on the doorstep. He is England’s motherless child, Australia’s larrikin “two-bob mug lair”. Warne might have taken longer than some of his contemporaries to grow up but, as he approaches 40 (looking trim for someone who earns part of his considerable income bent over a card table deep into the night), he can just about be trusted with the keys to the family car.

The interview comes with a familiar caveat: no questions about his private life. Fair enough, although this means I don’t get to tell him that when you type “Shane” in predictive text on your mobile phone, say to a new friend, it comes up “shame”, and that’s a bit of a duckes.

Consider his take on his one-time running mate, some-time rival. He does not call him KP, or Kevin even, and certainly not Pietersen. It is the full Kevin Pietersen, each time. It is Warne’s concession to journalistic orthodoxy, perhaps.

“Kevin Pietersen’s ego would have copped a bit of a bruising,” he says of his sacking as England captain, “but he would have woken up the next day and he would have been fine. Deep down, it’ll inspire him to try to be better. He’ll want to let his bat do the talking.”

Nor, says Warne, have we seen the best of him. “No, there’s still a lot more to come from Kevin Pietersen — and a lot more weird stuff, too. Reverse slogging, whatever. He’ll be lying in bed thinking of things no one else has ever thought of... cricket-related, I’m talking about!

“He’ll be thinking of some weird strokes, I promise you. And you’ll see them soon. We haven’t even touched the surface of what he thinks about. He’s one weird cat. He’s a weirdo. As long as he’s making runs and he’s the centre of attention, he’ll be fine. He likes to be the man — and he’s driven. He wants to be the best in the world. And he just about is. Ricky Ponting’s maybe just ahead of him at the moment, but it’s a pretty close match.”

Which is what the Ashes should be, says Warne — with a proviso. “If they don’t have Andrew Flintoff, I think Australia will win easily. At the moment Australia are in fractionally better shape than England. Australia got in a position to win all three Tests against South Africa, but they lacked experience at how to win. They might play the odd bad innings here or there, but the batting will be fine. Both sides have the same concern, that is the ability to take 20 wickets, and who’s the spinner in the side.”

Monty Panesar or Graeme Swann? “I like Monty. I would pick him, unless (Adil) Rashid bowls the house down in the couple of months leading up to the first Test.” For Australia, he wants the “new” leg-spinner, 36-year-old Bryce McGain.

What of rumours of rifts, in both teams?

“You’re always going to have incidents in a team. Before, it was never a big deal. Some people just didn’t like each other. But, as soon as you cross that white line, you’re all in it together. You spend eight or nine months with the same people, living in the same bus, same planes, same rooms, dressing rooms, speaking to them every day, you sit around all the time together, you’re in each other’s pockets, so there are always going to be little things that go on. It never affected a result, in my experience, maybe a few performances over time. But not really.”

Not really. It is Warne’s legal out.

On the issue of the day — money, greed, according to taste — he is more direct.

He admits to being vague on the detail of Stanford’s fraud problems, but says, “It’s a shame England never embraced the Stanford thing, the actual game. To watch that sort of stuff, to see someone’s life change in an hour, is pretty amazing. It’s entertainment. It’s a shame it hasn’t worked out, because I think Stanford was good for the game.

“Playing for your country has to be number one. But, if common sense prevailed, the IPL would run for four weeks in April, with a week either side when there was no international cricket. Every player in the world would be available. Instead of everyone trying to copy the IPL, because it worked, they should support it and say, you know what, this is a great advertisement for this brand of cricket, worldwide. Twenty-four million viewers watched the final. Now there aren’t many sporting events where 24 million people watch it.”

Warne’s Royals won the inaugural competition, and he led them in his laid-back, inspiring way. Their match-day preparation entailed hanging out in the hotel swimming pool until 45 minutes before the 2.30 pm start, getting to the ground at 2 pm, tossing up and playing. Easy.

“The IPL is just pure, intense. You don’t need all the other stuff. I don’t believe in coaches in international cricket. When I finished, I had nothing else to prove. The enjoyment (wasn’t there). I was whinging about a lot of little things. If you could just turn up the night before and play, then I’d still probably be playing. But there’s too much other rubbish they carry on with these days, jump tests, fitness things, all this absolute crap. To me, cricket is a simple game. Keep it simple and just go out and play. None of these team meetings and dissecting players on computers.

“The captain should run the show. In the England set-up, you want Andrew Strauss to stand up and say, ‘Guys, we’re going to put ourselves in a position to win the game. If we lose, we lose.’ No more of this safety-first. Because, then what happens is the players learn how to win, which is a very hard thing to learn, how to win when you’re under pressure.”

Great players need peers — and the only one who comes close to Warne is Muttiah Muralitharan.

“It’s irrelevant whether you think he throws, or doesn’t throw. What he can actually do with the ball is fascinating, pretty amazing. I said about nine years ago that he would take a thousand Test wickets. He must be up to seven-hundred and something (769), and he reckons he wants to keep playing. He bowled 75-80 overs in an innings the other day. If he stays injury-free he’ll play for another five years and he’ll hopefully take a thousand wickets.”

And you would hope The Blond will be there to tell us about it when Murali decides that, he too, has had enough.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009

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