Shane Keith Warne belongs to a generation when Australian cricket redefined passion and aggression on the field. In those times, the cricketers believed in ‘playing hard’ and never left any space for the opponent to breathe. But once the day’s play was over, you would see the Aussies having a good laugh with the members of the opposition side. These traits gave Australian cricket some really strong characters who went on to become superstars.
Now, times have changed. After the Sandpaper gate, which rocked the cricketing world last year, the Australian cricketers appear to have toned down on the field. But Warne believes that Australia needs to stick to its own style of cricket. “If they try to be something they are not, the performances won’t stack up and they’d lose respect from the rest of the world,” he said.
The 49-year-old spin great, who is now the brand ambassador of Indian Premier League (IPL) franchise Rajasthan Royals, was in Mumbai a few weeks ago and sat down for a free-wheeling chat.
From being the first captain of Rajasthan Royals to the team’s mentor last season — you have handled various roles in the franchise. As another season nears, you are back at Royals as the brand ambassador. How do you see this journey?
I suppose my role has evolved big time. In 2008, when I was the captain-coach, we won the title in the first year. It was pretty amazing. No one can take that away (from me). Everyone talks about the first year of the IPL and who won it. It is always pretty special. From there, I played four years. I was there as a consultant to the owners, talked about players and things. Then we were out for two years, which was disappointing. Then I came back as a mentor last season. So, I worked with the cricket department and dealt with the players last year. I helped out the players and enjoyed a lot working with them. We managed to make the play-offs. It is a great achievement we had.
Will you have a say in the team affairs this season?
This year, the squad is strengthened. Being one more year together after playing a good year of cricket — lovely young Indian boys and a few of international players having great form — getting into this year’s IPL, I expect them to go a step further. If we don’t make the play-offs, they will probably be underachieving, given the squad they have. They should make the play-offs. I have got nothing to do with the cricket department this year.
Then what will your role be?
Mine is a role that revolves around so many things that the Royals are trying to achieve off the field. I am trying to help them. Around the world, Royals are probably the most popular franchise. Everyone loves the Royals. We unearth young talents. The way we play the game, the things we do sort of enhance that and sort of capitalise on the popularity across UK, USA and Asia. A lot of my involvement through the IPL will be more or less about pushing the brand of Royals. Giving the sponsors an opportunity and experiences. I will probably watch a few games. There are academies that we are launching. We just launched one in Surrey, I am helping them on that. I am always available for the players. I speak to all of them, all the time. But this year, I will mainly focus on off-the-field things.
In 2008, you started a trend of picking rookie young Indian players and then giving them enough opportunities to prove their mettle. Now, most of the franchises across the globe are following the trend. How do you see it?
Most franchises try to unearth the next big thing. (It is about finding) a good young player or someone from international (teams), who is not a big star, but who has done well in T20s domestically, whether the Big Bash, England or the CPL (Caribbean Premier League). They are always looking for some sort of players. At the end of the day, the key thing that is important for the franchises is that everyone should know his role. They have to know their roles and that starts from the top, with the captain giving everybody a role. It is not about going and playing as per situation. It is bigger than that. In Royals, we keep unearthing talents and everyone is jealous of us. Everyone does a good job there.
This year, Paddy Upton is back as the head coach. How will it help the team?
The cricket department with Paddy Upton, (Royals’ head of cricket) Zubin Bharucha and (fast bowling coach) Steffan Jones has a different approach. The Rajasthan squad is good enough to make the final, so hopefully the cricket department will make it go all the way. Hopefully, players will enjoy their appointments and we will see how they play.
Ajinkya Rahane may continue as the skipper this season as well. And many in cricketing circles compare Rahane’s captaincy with that of Rahul Dravid. Having worked with both of them, do you think that Rahane has traits of Dravid the captain?
They have similarities but they are different. Both of them are quiet achievers, they just do their things. Both of them are respected in their group. I think Jinx is the best tactical captain in the IPL. Tactically, he is a very aggressive captain and I really like that. Rahul always wanted to try and test the boundaries too and always wanted to do something new and innovative. They are both quality players and are respected and are very good captains.
Last year the team missed out on its star recruit Steve Smith. This season, too, he appears doubtful. What does Smith’s absence mean for any team?
Oh, Smith is class! There are not too many class players like him around. There is only a handful. Kane Williamson, A. B. de Villiers, Virat Kohli. There are not too many more (who define) class. He is going to enhance any side he plays for. Let’s hope the elbow is okay and he can play the IPL, then the World Cup and the Ashes. It is a big time ahead for him. I think Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft will be very, very hungry for success (after returning from their ban following the ball-tampering scandal). They will have a point to prove. So, any team they play for will be very driven and very determined. I am looking forward to see how he (Smith) comes back. Fingers crossed. Hope he will be okay!
Do you see him in the World Cup? There were reports that Cricket Australia might rest him…
I don’t think so. If Steve Smith is available then he will be the best player Australia will be playing.
With the World Cup just a few months away, who do you think start as favourites?
I think England and India are the two best sides in one-day cricket at the moment. They will go in as favourites.
What are Australia’s chances in the World Cup?
I think if anyone wants to write Australia off just because they didn’t have a good season in the last one year, then he will be doing that at his own peril. Australia performs well in the big tournaments, history proves that. No matter what sort of team Australia has had in World Cups, we have won five times. It is a big thing. Australia has also played two other finals. I played in the 1996 final, where we lost to Sri Lanka. We are very, very good in the big tournaments. If you look at the team, Warner, D’Arcy Short, Steve Smith, Marcus Stoinis, Glenn Maxwell, Shaun Marsh, Aaron Finch, Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc — they are great players. If they all find form and gel together, I think they can win it. I feel Australia has got the team to win the World Cup. But it all depends on how they gel together and how they start the tournament. Also, if everyone is fit.
There was a time when every team feared the Aussies. But the script seems to have changed in the last couple of years. What do you think has gone wrong for the Australian team?
Before Sandpaper gate, Warner and Smith were so dominant and made so many runs that it sort of camouflaged a few weaknesses in some of the other players. They were around to also help the other players score runs. But now, the others have to stand up on their feet. The makings and talent are still there, but I don’t think we have got the right players in the park for all the three formats. If you take the two best players out, it is going to affect any team. Take India for instance, if you take out their two players, Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli, in ODIs, that will make a huge difference. Look at England, if you take out Jos Buttler and Ben Stokes, that makes a huge difference. It is same with Ross Taylor and Kane Williamson (for New Zealand). So, if you take out some of your best players, it does make a big difference. Having them (Warner and Smith) back will help the other players. Australia hasn’t performed well and that’s disappointing. But the talent is there. A few young batsmen have finally started stepping up and that’s pretty good. If you mix them with some of the seniors, Australia will be okay. They have just been through a rough patch over the last 12 months.
Now, Ricky Ponting joins Justin Langer as an assistant ahead of the World Cup. How do you see the development?
Ricky Ponting’s class and experience will help. He was obviously world class and one of the greatest batsmen of our era. He will have some great knowledge about the World Cup to pass on to some of the players. Hopefully, his positiveness will help the group. Of course, he was one of the best fielders ever, so it is going to be good having him around.
With the World Cup nearing, there are speculations over how Kuldeep Yadav would perform in the seam-friendly conditions in England. What are your thoughts on wrist spinners ahead of the tournament?
The World Cup is gonna have some terrific leg-spinners evolve. The sides need a leg-spinner to win the World Cup. My favourites are Kuldeep Yadav, Rashid Khan and Yasir Shah. These are my three and I am looking forward to watching them in the World Cup, especially Kuldeep because of the way he bowls. He deceives the batsman in the air. He does not bowl fast, he bowls slow and deceives the batsman. So, they are the three I am looking forward to watch in the World Cup.
Let’s talk a bit about Australia’s domestic cricket. What are your thoughts on the Sheffield Shield and its ‘diminishing’ importance in Australian cricket?
The Sheffield Shield can still be very strong. The high-performance department and Cricket Australia have devalued Shield cricket. A lot of international Australian players would play only one innings of Shield cricket and then they are pulled out of games. That has never happened in the history of Shield cricket. The best players always play so I hope it gets back to that and I’d prioritise Shield cricket because I think the talent is there in Australia. They just got to make sure that they are available all the time too rather than resting.
After Sandpaper gate, Australian players have tried cutting down on their aggression. But can Australian cricket survive if you take away that culture of aggression?
I disagree a little bit with the culture. I think Australia has to be true to itself and I think they have to play in a way that’s Australian. That has always been tough, uncompromising, aggressive cricket. But, above all, fair. I think that in all the years that I have played and watched the Australian side, they have always played tough and the opposition teams did not like them because they looked tough, they were aggressive and in your face. But above all, they would always shake your hand, they always played fair. They have never bent the rules, but played their way. But Australia has to play their way. If they try to be something they are not, the performances won’t stack and they’d lose respect from the rest of the world.
There is no spin superstar in international cricket any more. The void left by Muttiah Muralitharan and you is yet to be filled. What are your thoughts on this?
I suppose if you go through the history of the game, there haven’t been too many Anil Kumbles, Saqlains, Muralis or myself. There have been a few, but every now one and then one will pop up and we all love it because we all love watching spin bowling in all formats of the game. It’s great fun watching them. Overall, I am very happy with the spinners around the world at this moment. I think they are doing a very good job.
Lastly, with the World Cup ahead, many boards have called back their players early for camps. In that case, many will miss the IPL. How do you see it? Do you also feel that the Indian board should earmark certain players and not let them play the whole IPL season?
I think every country will be doing that. I think England will be doing that, India would be doing that straight after the (IPL). South Africa will be a little later but all the other teams will be having some sort of camps. New Zealand probably won’t. But England and Australia will have camps. So, each to their own. (It is) Unfortunate that those players will probably miss a little bit of the IPL, but I think they will be playing 10-plus games. (They will hopefully be there) for 10-11 games. So, they will still be able to make a significant impact.
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