Leg-spinner par excellence

IT is not easy to figure where exactly Shane Warne will fit into the constellation of famous Aussie leg-spinners.

IT is not easy to figure where exactly Shane Warne will fit into the constellation of famous Aussie leg-spinners. As the world record holder with 537 wickets, after the conclusion of the second Test against India at Chennai, Warne is a legend not only among the Aussies, but of the game itself. The race he ran for the world record with the Sri Lankan stalwart, Muttiah Muralitharan, constitutes a fascinating aspect of sporting excellence, notwithstanding the controversies and debate about the two irrepressible heroes.

What gives Shane Warne an honoured place is the acceptance of chroniclers that he was the principal factor in revitalising the art of leg spin bowling. After Richie Benaud there was no significant leg-spinner in Australia till Shane Warne came on the scene against India in 1992 at Sydney. The ebb and flow of his illustrious career has enough material for a fiction writer. At 35, Warne is basking in the twilight zone.

Since Australia puts so much trust in leg spin in spite of possessing a battery of pace bowlers at any given point of time, it is no surprise that Warne has won the adulation of the public. "Leg spin is both an art and science and art and science are international," retorted the legendary Arthur Mailey, when chided by the skipper for sharing knowledge with an English bowler in 1926. "He bowled like a millionaire," wrote one critic of Arthur Mailey, whom Robertson Glasgow described as "A King without a crown."

Down the decades came such outstanding exponents as Clarrie Grimmet and Bill O'Reilly; but the spinner who elevated the art into an effective demolition machine was the astute leader, Benaud. A tally of 248 Test wickets is a testimony to Benaud's proficiency as a wrist spinner. One of his best performances was in 1961 against England when he bagged five wickets for 12 runs in a 25-ball spell at Old Trafford to demolish the opposition, which had in its ranks classic batsmen such as Peter May and Ted Dexter.

Small wonder, Shane Warne went to Benaud for guidance. The former Aussie captain said, "I told him first to try and perfect the really big leg break that he could deliver at will. I thought it would take four years but he did it in two." That underscores the grasp of the niceties of leg spin bowling that Warne revealed as a rookie.

Any appreciation of Warne is incomplete without a recall of that magnificent delivery which terminated the first innings of England's captain, Mike Gatting, in 1993 at Old Trafford. In the words of Kevin Mitchell in The Guardian, "It is the most famous ball in cricket. There were others among the millions sent down in thousands of great matches that were more significant in affecting a result, but no single delivery lives so starkly in the mind and so sharply defines an era as the leg break Shane Warne inflicted on Gatting at Old Trafford in 1993."

So illuminating were Warne's performances that the Victorian at one stage was the only contemporary Test player in the top 20 picked by the renowned critic of The Times, John Woodcock. "Were he never to bowl another ball, his light would not go out; so salutary has been the effect on the game that it never will," commented Woodcock, and Wisden, the legendary publication devoted to cricket, named Warne as one of its Five Cricketers of the 20th century.

When Warne broke the world record in Chennai, his mentor, Terry Jenner, hailed it as a "reward for magnificent service to spin bowling." Always an avid listener and learner, Warne's quest for perfection has been insatiable. Even while serving a one-year ban for doping, Warne approached the former spinner John Gleeson to study the effiacy of the flicker. Bobby Simpson, another admirer of Warne, commented, "Myth is very much a part of cricket and Shane, in the past, has used it to great effect. Whether he tries this new delivery or not, it will get people thinking."

Inarguably, there have been dark spots in the life and times of Shane Warne. Let off lightly by the Australian Cricket Board even after he gave information about pitches to bookies, Warne's misdemeanour in England really dented his image. But the worst was the doping episode before the last World Cup. His explanation for taking diuretic pills as a means to shedding flab was unacceptable to the authorities. Though the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) recommends a two-year ban for such doping violations for Olympic disciplines, the ACB settled finally for a year's suspension.

Such aberrations, however, cannot be held against the exemplary proficiency that Shane Warne demonstrates on the field. He is a master craftsman who has deserved each one of his 537 wickets. Without dispute, Warne has enriched the aura of competitive cricket. He has proved to be a good captain, too, leading Hampshire to promotion in the English County championship.