Standing out forever

Warne's take on the Don, whose 90th birthday celebrations he attended along with Sachin Tendulkar, has been far removed from awe and appreciation at least on one occasion.

N. U. ABILASH

EARLY last summer, a few months before England whipped Australia in the semifinal of the ICC Champions Trophy — the day English script writers actually got to work drawing up the hype about the ongoing Ashes series — a best-selling author of children's history books, an Englishman at that, claimed the boomerang was invented in England. Grievously hurt at the imperial spin given to what is commonly known as an Aborigine invention, an organisation representing Australian Aborigines in Europe had this to say on their Website: "Soon the British will be claiming they invented Shane Warne."

Five hundred something wickets — it has crossed the magic 600 mark now — would not have been reason enough for one of the most wronged groups in the world to be hailing a high-profile member of the Australian Anglo-Saxon community, their oppressors, as a `national' symbol. But, the reinvention of a craft, which was fast threatening to become obsolete in the Great White Cricketing World, certainly was a good enough cause. There is also a grand subversion at work here. After all, it is not everyday that Warne — warts, transgressions and all — is positioned as occupying central ground in Australian culture, of which Sir Don Bradman is God and Steve Waugh the high priest.

Though Warne has tried to conceal his views on the two presiding deities of Australian sport, who are also global symbols of the `Australian' identity, he has not always been as clever as when he bemuses the batsmen by successfully hiding his grip in going for the "mystery ball". Sometimes, the truth has popped out, though quite inadvertently. He has admitted he "is closer to Mark (Waugh)" and his take on the Don, whose 90th birthday celebrations he attended along with Sachin Tendulkar, has been far removed from awe and appreciation at least on one occasion. When asked about being left out of Bradman's all-time team in a book published in 2001 after his death, Warne, then making English batsmen dance to his tune in yet another Ashes winning effort, said: "I don't know if it is actually Bradman's team. He was the greatest cricketer ever, and he picked Don Tallon in the so-called team batting at six, with an average of 18. With four specialist batsmen! Also he is on record saying Jack Hobbs is the best batsman he has ever seen. Yet he didn't pick him."

In a society, which is getting more and more anglicised (in 2003, the proportion of immigrants from the United Kingdom was 57 per cent of Australia's total immigration that year), sport, and more recently popular culture, have been the keys to unlock nationalist and Republican sentiments, which today seeks fulfilment in the symbolic need to `give `em back' Australia Day (January 26), the day the English landed on the continent, and replace it with the Anzac Day (April 25), the day commonly known as the arrival of Australia into modern nationhood because of the masculinity and bravery of Anzac soldiers who landed in Gallipoli in modern Turkey on that day during the First World War and fought a war marked by huge sacrifices in the wake of bad planning by English military officials in London.

Before the 2001 Ashes campaign, Steve Waugh and John Buchanan took the Australian side to Gallipoli as part of the preparation for the Ashes defence. Warne, who made the trip, was to unequivocally state that before the trip he was anywhere but in the centre of Australian nationalist consciousness: "I didn't know much about Gallipoli. I knew the basics from school, but I was never a good listener at school. I never really understood."

A personal history of beaches, blondes, beer, junk food (Warne was thrown out of the Australian Academy a year before his Test debut because of all these), ear-studs, Ferraris, losses in roulette, bookies (he never got the captaincy because of this), banned diuretics in a slimming pill to look good on television (and now hair replacement), having a fag when under a no-smoking contract, adultery and a disposition to combine fun with play on the field marks the great leg-spinner as a clear outsider to the Australian sporting culture and work ethic. Australian sporting nationalism, as academic W. F. Mandle has argued, was the medium through which a country, which is perceived in Europe as being on the other side of the world, sought to achieve centrality in world affairs. It was not just practice or leisure, but also an ideology.

Sportsmen and women from the country in high-performance team sport, therefore, have had a messianic quality — a programmatic, single-minded, ascetic trait — in their pursuit of success and excellence. From former all-rounder and captain Warwick Armstrong — to whom in the early years of the 20th century the source of this nationalism is traced by Australian academic and cricket writer Gideon Haigh — to Steve Waugh, there has been a thread of continuity binding sporting greats and teams of the country (which was acknowledged by Steve Waugh in Australia's first Test of the millennium — against India in Mumbai in 2001 — when he asked his team to come to the field wearing replicas of the skull caps worn by Joe Darling's side in 1901). It extends to rugby as well, and now to football. When the Australian football team scored an upset win against England in a friendly in 2003 in London, thanks to the dazzling show by Liverpool winger Harry Kewell, team manager Frank Farina described the moment as "Australia's coming of age in football" and stated his team had "amazing discipline and focus unlike the distractions before some England players."

Warne may certainly not have his place in cricket history as a Bradman or a Waugh — he might have worked just as hard to fit into the established structures but the `image' will come back to haunt the `man'. But, he certainly will be another Keith Miller. A sporting great to represent Australia, but inhabiting the edges of the country's sporting culture. He will be seen as a symbol of human genius, creativity and skill by people across sporting Australia and the world who test the margins of human conventions. If in doubt whether one can become a popular hero without being a `national' hero, check up Shane Keith Warne.