Mozart of a marvellous art

NIRMAL SHEKAR

ABOUT the time Shane Warne was picking up his 10th wicket in Colombo in the first Test against Pakistan, browsing aimlessly through a Sunday afternoon at a swanky bookshop in Chennai, one came across a Sunday Times (London) book on great sporting moments.

V. V. KRISHNAN

Few of the entries were a surprise. Muhammad Ali versus George Foreman, in Zaire. Bjorn Borg beating John McEnroe in that unforgettable Wimbledon final - one that featured an epic fourth set tiebreak which the American won 18-16 - in 1980. Ian Botham's believe-it-or-not century at Headingley.

You did not have to be a career sportswriter to agree with the choices. For, each chapter sought to recapture the magic of some of sport's greatest moments in the 20th century. Each was about a great match or a great innings or a giant leap or an epic ring battle.

Then, tucked in towards the end of the book, and offered as much space as any other memorable event/moment was a single ball bowled by an Australian in a Test match in England.

How does a single ball become an event in itself, how does a single ball delivered in a Test match become the stuff of sporting folklore so it can rank alongside the 20th century's most memorable sporting events?

Yes, a single ball will do, if it was released from the right arm - one that looks good enough to win an arm-wrestling contest with Hulk Hogan - of Shane Warne.

And yes, you have perhaps guessed it. It is THAT ball, the ball that consigned conventional cricketing wisdom to the trash bin outside Old Trafford and forced the then (1993) England captain Mike Gatting to first seek help in the dressing room to close his jaw and then call up his psychiatrist for a quick session on the couch!

Since that day nine years ago, when a ball pitched wide outside the leg stump turned square, hissed like a cobra and unsettled Gatting's off-stump, the legend of Shane Warne has grown and grown and grown like vegetation in the Brazilian rain forest, all but obscuring the bleached blond folk hero of Australian sport from our view.

The following day, as Warne picked up his 11th wicket in the Colombo Test before Glenn McGrath and Jason Gillespie cleaned up the second half of the Pakistan batting line-up to bring up an exciting victory for Australia, I was once again amazed - for the 100th time perhaps - by Warne's success.

The only bowler in Wisden's Top Five cricketers of the 20th century - the others were Don Bradman, Jack Hobbs, Garfield Sobers and Viv Richards - Warne, inarguably the greatest leg spinner of all time and, arguably, the greatest slow bowler in the history of cricket, would not have surprised many by his consistent triumphs on the Test and one-day stage.

But, to me, the Aussie spin wizard's longevity as a match-winner, his enduring skills and successes in many parts of the world on vastly different playing surfaces, were indeed matters of surprise time and again.

The reason is simple: Warne has always had too much going for him. Matinee idol good looks. Million dollar contracts. Pop idol fan following. The sort of natural talent many would die for.

Other megastars of our times, several in the times past, have been quite as blessed too. But a vast majority of them did not share Warne's personality traits. The Bradmans and the Tendulkars and the Samprases have had few flaws in their character and have always shown the discipline and the native intelligence to steer clear of troubled waters.

But what of Warne, a man with the sort of personality that is a combination of John McEnroe, Sean Penn and Sourav Ganguly?

Athletic talent is a rather fragile thing, not the least in an era when the media churns out instant superstars and the top sportsmen are never out of the public eye - or mind. When the mass media turns every talented young man into a hero at a time when heroes are in short supply in most societies, celebrity can reach levels of intensity that can be suffocating.

It takes a special kind of sportsman to stay level headed amidst all the hoopla and concentrate on putting his talent to the best use possible on the sporting stage.

This is why a Sachin Tendulkar or a Pete Sampras or a Tiger Woods is special. They are special precisely because they shut themselves out from everything around them and retain their tunnel-visioned focus and concentrate all their energies on building on their legends as performing athletes.

On the other hand, the reason why a Tendulkar or a Sampras or a Woods is special is because, as individuals, they are as ordinary as they are extraordinary as athletes. It is this ordinariness, it is the absence of personality flaws, the lack of flamboyance, the instinctive ability to stay away from controversies, that has equipped them with the talent to manage their rare talents.

In Warne's case, this virtue is absent. He can never be a boy-next-door megastar like Tendulkar, never let the ball alone do all the talking as Sampras does with his racquet. It's simply not him.

Sinned against and sinning, genius and rogue, great team-man and a lovable rascal, born winner and a tightrope walker with a tendency to self-destruct, Warne will not be Warne if he quietly went about his business of moving up the bar like a Tendulkar or a Sampras.

Whether it is picking up a few quid from an Indian bookmaker for authentic weather report or letting go a stream of four letter words not far from the TV microphone on the pitch, whether it is a scuffle with an amateur photographer who caught him puffing away beyond the boundary of a ground or explaining away the lurid details of mobile phone calls to an English nurse looking for a fast buck from the tabloids, Warne has made as many headlines off the pitch as he has on it, making the ball spin like a tumble drier with his magic fingers.

And, with Warne, as in the case of John McEnroe in the world of tennis in the 1980s, the flaws have been almost as compelling as the on-field talents. Little wonder that he continues to be one of the biggest draw cards in the sport today in an era when charismatic personalities are as scarce in cricket as wooden racquets in the world of tennis.

Then again, if, for all the character flaws, Warne has rebounded with courage and success time and again in the face of adversity, it is because the great Aussie is one of those rare champions who have the innate ability to rise to a challenge, whether on the field or off the field.

Deeply self-absorbed, driven by an almost inhuman will to win, absolutely - almost outrageously - filled with self-belief, Warne has resurfaced a winner each time he's been written off as a has-been.

When he came back from a shoulder surgery - as well as one on his ring finger - Warne suffered a dramatic slump in form. In the first 15 Tests since coming back, he picked up 43 wickets at 34 apiece. He was even dropped for one match.

But those who saw him in the semifinals and finals of the last World Cup realised yet again the stuff Warne was made of as he picked up successive Man of the Match awards to help Australia win the Cup that matters.

"People were writing him off. But for me he is still the best leg spinner in the world," said Pakistan's Wasim Akram after the World Cup final.

Since then he's been stripped of the Vice-captaincy following the revelations vis a vis the mobile phone messaging scandal involving the English nurse, pilloried for this and that, but through all that Warne has continued to be the aggressive, gifted match-winner that he has always been.

What is more, he has time and again proved too that it would be unwise to typecast him as a mean, foul-mouthed, all-aggro, spoilt megastar. On and off the field, he can be a wonderfully charming man and one that has tremendous respect for his opponents.

This was obvious from the glowing tributes that Warne has paid in his autobiography to Sachin Tendulkar, his greatest tormentor. It would have been tempting to offer excuses, and say that he was off-form when Tendulkar plundered him. Instead, Warne has singled out the Mumbai maestro as the greatest - and most difficult batsman - he has bowled to. This takes courage, to say the least.

And at Colombo, where he picked up 11 wickets and the Man of the Match award in the first Test against Pakistan, Warne once again established himself as an extraordinary big occasion player who revels in challenges.

The Aussie spin wizard now (after the first Test of the ongoing series) has 461 wickets in 102 Tests, 58-odd short of Courtney Walsh's world record. On current form, Warne should be able to get to the ultimate Test bowling mark in two seasons. He has the lean, mean look of a man who is keen on going the distance and the hunger was very much in evidence in Colombo.

The other great spinner of our times, Sri Lanka's Muttiah Muralitharan, is younger, has played fewer Tests and already has 430 wickets in his bag. Whenever Warne retires, and wherever the Aussie great leaves the bar, Murali should be backed to go beyond it and set a record that may be virtually unbeatable.

But the best of sport is seldom reflected by records alone. And whatever Murali goes on to achieve in terms of numbers, purists would never rank him alongside Warne. While it is not Murali's fault that he was born with a birth defect in his arm which turned out to be a blessing as an off-spinner, and the genial Sri Lankan is one of the best loved cricketers today, the point is, the angle of his bowling arm leaves a lot of questions unanswered, no matter what the ICC might have had to say on the subject.

And in a classic comparison with Warne, the Sri Lankan will always finish second best. For, if Warne is the Mozart of spin bowling, then Murali is no more than a hip hop superstar.