The retirement extravaganza

It remains to be seen as to whether Warne will be able to explain his intuitive gifts from the remoteness of the commentary box — as clearly as he demonstrated them to his opponents.

Dateline December 22nd, 2006. Shane Warne, Australia's Merlin of leg-spin, and Glenn McGrath its pace-bowling stalwart for more than a decade, declare their joint intention of quitting the cricket arena at the conclusion of Ponting's vengeful, if anti-climactic, drive to re-possess the Ashes lost to Vaughan's England side in 2005. A few days later, in England's second innings of the Boxing Day Test, and against the backdrop of the refurbished Melbourne Cricket Ground, 70,000 adoring Aussies — reinforced by a few regiments of England's Barmy Army — were witnesses as `Warney' cracked Mach One: the 700 wicket-sound barrier of Test cricket. And immediately the hyperbolic content of the cricket world's media shot upwards into orbit like the shuttle leaving Cape Canaveral! In the space of just a few days it seemed that more column inches of newspaper space: more air time on television: and more hours of radio commentary were devoted to the Warne-McGrath duet than to the reportage of an Iraq insurgency or the national budget!

It was all very reminiscent of India, that country's obsession with cricket, and its worship of sporting stars like Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar. It is said that in Melbourne's sports-mad pocket of Australia, if two teams of monkeys contested a game of tiddly-winks at "G", 30,000 spectators would turn out to watch the match! The news about Warne and McGrath's retirement from all levels of the game, however, gave little cause for local celebration. The lavish praise of their past performances was larded with pessimism on the score of how to replace two such invaluable bowlers. At the end of the festive season, there was more cause for optimism — engendered by timely match performances of six and five wickets from Brett Lee and Stuart Clark respectively. Clark in particular impressed with his wicket-to-wicket line and his ability to swing the ball away from the bat: talents which stamped him as having the ability to compensate for the loss of McGrath.

Warne is an infinitely more precious quantity to replace. To describe him as a master of his leg-spinning craft would be to grossly understate his genius and his unparalleled achievements. And how does one substitute for a genius? There is no doubt that Warne's statistics have been substantially improved by more numerous opportunities on the world stage of cricket, the expansion of the Test family of nations, the dilution of the collective strength of competing teams and a clear-cut reduction in the technical skills of individual opponents. Warne's triumphs place him at the head of the table of international wicket-takers, but not too comfortably ahead. Now that Sri Lanka's Muttiah Muralitharan' s action has been provisionally approved by the ICC, he is breathing down the Australian's neck. Moreover the off-spinner has youth and five more years of bowling up his sleeve. But in spite of the fact that statistically it seems inevitable that the inventor of the `doosra' will surpass Warne's career figures, the Australian's dominance of the master class of spinners clearly makes him the outstanding composite of the spin bowlers' craft.

Here I must exercise a little caution. For, whilst, I acknowledge Warne as the master holistic exponent of spin, I must question his superiority in every aspect of the skill bowled by a myriad of slow bowlers in the course of the ages. Did he, for instance, spin the ball more than Arthur Mailey, the Aussie leg-spinner of the twenties: a former butcher, cartoonist and journalist, who, by his own confession, "sold, wrote and bowled tripe" — and of whom it was said that he had such scant regard for accuracy that he bowled `like a millionaire'. Can it also be said of Warne that he was imbued with the same aggression and hostility as Bill `Tiger' O'Reilly, the `leggie' acclaimed by Don Bradman as the best bowler ever and the man who attacked batsmen at medium-pace, over-spinning the ball so that it kept climbing into the body of the batsman, denying him the room to make shots.

Aussie `Clarrie' Grimmett had the flexible wrists and small hands which brought him accuracy, flight, wide spin — and an Aussie record of 216 victims for many years. Anil Kumble has similar quality to that possessed by Chandrasekhar: the ability to impart fast top-spin and the talent to make the ball skid and `hurry on' to the batsman. One of the most difficult wrist spinners to handle was the totally unrecognised Australian Services player of the 1940s and 1950s, Cecil Pepper, a bowler sometimes accredited with the invention of a `flipper' which shot on to the bat with the low speed of a `shooter.'

Warne was endowed — in various degrees — with most of the attributes of Mailey, Grimmett, O'Reilly, Gupte, Chandrasekhar and Kumble: skills which enabled him to roll out an endless succession of `zooters', `flippers', `wrong 'uns, and `leggies'. But he had more. He possessed an astute cricketing brain which dictated when to use specific deliveries for specific purposes — and an accuracy which perfectly matched the tactic to its execution. It was an immense tribute to the batsmen, India's Sachin Tendulkar and West Indian Brian Lara, that they were singled out as the most outstanding batsmen to whom Warne had bowled. We must respect Warne's judgement, based as it is on the premise that the most outstanding bowler of his era should be able to distinguish his most doughty opponent.

Warne and his instinctive skill will remain in the `inner eye' of all who saw him. It remains to be seen as to whether he will be able to explain his intuitive gifts from the remoteness of the commentary box — as clearly as he demonstrated them to his opponents. Personally I doubt it. For him the `doing' was easier than the describing and analysing.