The champion bowler

In the fifty years that I have been involved in first class cricket, I have never seen a bowler with as much talent as Shane Warne. He is the greatest leg-spinner of all time.

Bill O'Riley and Richie Benaud may have been as accurate, but Shane spun the ball twice as much as they did.

What is amazing about Shane is that he started his career at a time when there were plenty of people wondering if cricket would ever see another good, let alone great, practitioner of spin. It's when you view Shane's achievement in that context that you realise how phenomenal and important he has been.

As Australia's coach I was lucky enough to get a close view of Shane's first five years in international cricket. I first saw him as an under-19 cricketer when Australia's youth team spent a few days with me when I was coaching Leicestershire in 1990-91. And the boys were on their way to the West Indies.

My first sighting of the tubby, bleached hair youth had me enthusing to Steve Barnard, the then manager of the youth team and now manager of Australia, "we have a beauty here."

Just how good we didn't appreciate until a couple of years later. Warne was fast tracked into the Australian team and had a disastrous start against India with Ravi Shastri and Sachin Tendulkar doing a demolition job of his bowling.

Before that, and well before Rod Marsh came in, Shane had a disastrous time at the Australian Cricket Academy. He was sent home to Melbourne during the Academy's tour to Darwin for an off-field indiscretion. His punishment was to make the journey by bus, which took over two days.

When Shane was first picked for Australia he was frankly overweight, unfit and knew little about leg-spin, except that he could spin the ball like a top and had a great flipper. Training was something that other people did. His natural gifts were all that he needed, or so he thought.

Fortunately, Shane was a young man who readily took advice and in the months before the tour of Sri Lanka in 1992 he accepted that he was fat and unfit. Consequently, he turned up in Sri Lanka 10 kilos lighter.

Before the Sri Lankan tour, Shane bowled more with hope than any planning. His length was erratic and he bowled the wrong line on or outside the off-stump with advice from former leg-spinners. It wasn't until he accepted that bowling outside the off stump was wrong that we began to reconstruct his bowling action and tactics.

Strange as it may seem, in those days Shane bowled with little aggression or intensity. He felt that when he let the ball go his bowling was complete. Little wonder then that this coupled with the wrong line he bowled caused him to offer easy pickings. To remedy this, I drew a line, about three metres, from the popping crease which he had to reach on his follow-through. In addition, I convinced him of the advantage of bowling on or just outside the leg stump and into that "blind spot" which all batsmen dislike.

By bowling the leg stump line, Shane immediately became more side-on and his accuracy improved as he used a much stronger body action. Further, the extra zip, stronger action and a different line enabled him to obtain the wonderful drift that became the hallmark of his bowling.

To enable him to gain even more body action I suggested that he go around the wicket, for from this position he would be forced to bowl more side-on, which is the ideal action for a leg-spinner.

Interestingly, in the early days of his career, Shane wouldn't go around the wicket. He didn't see it as attacking bowling, though he was quite happy to bowl around the wicket at nets if he wanted to fine tune his action. Eventually, in frustration, in Perth in 1992-93, I challenged him to face my mediocre leg-spinners. At that time I was 57, but still fairly fit and accurate, for I used to bowl most days in the nets to lighten the bowlers' load.

After the day's play, Shane, who was the 12th man at the time, put his pads on and out we went to the nets. We certainly were the odd couple and the more I bowled around the wicket the greater problems he had.

Eventually, after the second night, he conceded the tactic was worth it. Such was Shane's genius that a few months later in England, in 1993, it became one of his most successful tactics.

During the training for the tour of Sri Lanka, Shane basically relied on his big spinning leg breaks and flippers. He didn't bowl the googly, and his normal top-spinner was only fair. When I asked him if he knew how to bowl a top-spinner through the front of his fingers he seemed surprised. He seemed even more bemused when I said Peter Philpott, the respected Australian leg-spinner of the 1960s, called it his "back spinning toppie". I could never understand why either. Perhaps my aerodynamics weren't as good as Peter's. I showed Shane how it was done and while I thought it would probably take him six months to master it, he was bowling it in a Test match three weeks later.

A terrible irony of his life is that the media have sometimes come down hard on him, exploiting those moments when he let himself down off the field. I say `irony' because, being a clever bluffer on the field, he didn't mind using the media to his advantage, especially at the start of each season when he'd announce the discovery of his latest "mystery ball".

His opponents would see the headlines everywhere about something that didn't exist. In reality, there was never a new trick, only a revamping of the name for Peter Philpott's "back spinning toppie".

Shane originally called it his zooter, now he calls it his slider and over. The last decade or so the ball has brought him numerous lbw decisions. What there was, though, was a further improvement in his accuracy and flight. He was always fine-tuning his bowling and increasing his arsenal.

Then, perhaps as the number of overs he bowled caught up with him, we saw less variety (these days he hardly bowled the flipper) but even more guile. He always possessed an extraordinary ability to seize the moment.

Over the years I have seen countless examples of his unique ability to play mind games with opponents and home in on their weakness that perhaps only he could have spotted. Shane is brilliant at knowing when to go around the wicket and which batsman is susceptible to being bowled around his pads.

The way he taunted South Africa's Daryll Cullinan was almost unprecedented, reducing a good player against every other team to a cheap wicket for Australia. This self-confidence coupled with a sharp brain, beautiful bowling action, amazing physical and mental strength and the will to win made him the champion that he is.

Shane's record is amazing and only India could lay claim to playing him well. His overall bowling average as I write this column is 25.49 runs per wicket. In 14 Tests against India, he has taken 43 wickets at an average of 47.19 per wicket.