The wizard bids adieu

Shane Warne was priceless to Australia. Never was his place in the team questioned. An Australian attack without the leg spinner was unthinkable, writes Vijay Lokapally.

Every team, every manager and every coach has a special player; every nation has a special sporting hero. Shane Warne has been special all through his career that his retirement has evoked emotional and stirring reactions from past masters, contemporaries and the young stars of the future.

Former England captain Nasser Hussain paid the most glowing tribute to the great spinner from Australian. "For me, he was the reason you played cricket," he said.

Like Hussain, thousands of youngsters around the cricketing world have taken to the sport because of performers such as Warne. "He was a special and quality player, a great advertisement for spin bowling," remarked Anil Kumble, a close friend of the Australian great.

A special player is known by his value to the team. Warne was priceless. Never was his place in the team questioned. An Australian attack without Warne was unthinkable in any form of cricket. True, he opted out of one-day cricket to concentrate on extending his Test career, but Warne continued to command respect in international cricket for his ability to dictate terms to the batsmen.

Warne, in the true tradition of leg-spin in Australia, realised early that there was nothing better than the business of slow bowling. From Charlie Grimmett, Bill O'Reilly, Richie Benaud to Warne, Australia has had exceptionally classy leg-spinners. They all made a big impact on the game during their time, but none was like Warne, a destroyer with the ability to bemuse the best of batsmen in the game. He also used his strong shoulders to propel the ball with great accuracy.

Warne was a complete bowler, an intriguing one at that. A fascinating character, the zinc cream, blond hair, and controversies that followed him constantly, matched his destructive googlies and flippers. Batsmen simply dreaded facing him.

Mike Gatting still has nightmares of that vicious delivery that spun from outside the leg stump to hit the off bail. It was hailed as the "Ball of the Century". But for Warne it was normal business.

England's Kevin Pietersen, the modern image of an attacking batsman, would testify to how he was foxed by quite a similar delivery in the ongoing Ashes series. Or even Basit Ali, the Pakistan batsman who was embarrassed by the ball that snaked in, between his legs. One remembers how Benaud went on television: "He has done him between the legs!"

With Warne bowling, a batsman could never be sure. Amazing how this wily Australian continued to take wickets in a pile despite the opposition studying his delivery thoroughly, right from his run-up. No amount of video analysis helped a batsman understand the phenomenon that was Warne. He remained an enigma.

In a game where the batting deeds are celebrated more than bowling feats, Warne was perhaps the first ever bowling superstar. Bowlers are known to toil since the focus always was on the batsmen, from W. G. Grace, Victor Trumper, Jack Hobbs, Don Bradman and a rare all-rounder superstar like Garry Sobers to Sunil Gavaskar, Viv Richards, Brian Lara and Sachin Tendulkar. But Warne was different. He had a great following of his own, as he revolutionised the art of wicket-taking.

Quite fittingly, the man who was nicknamed `Hollywood' for his striking good looks early in his career, has ended his tenure on a high note as a truly superstar bowler.

An aggressive spinner, Warne signified the essence of progress cricket has made in the last two decades. The support staff and the character of Australian cricket worked as a perfect cushion for Warne, who never bowled a defensive line. "Have to bowl to win," was his simple philosophy. And he never shed this approach even in times of distress when things did not work his way.

Such situations were rare unless he was playing against India. It was one team that was rarely troubled by this wizard, as Navjot Singh Sidhu, Sachin Tendulkar and V. V. S. Laxman showed the way to tackle Warne. Fighting fire with fire as it were.

Warne's grip was firm and the ball nestled nicely. It came out of the palm at the most mysterious angles. The batsman's footwork hardly counted as the leg-spinner found new ways of breaching the defence.

He induced mistakes and found the edges of a batsman even when he was well set. Warne was a captain's delight, for he could spin on glass and force a win even from hopeless situations.

It is well known that Warne revived the art of leg-spin. What was striking about Warne was his spirit for winning. "He never gives up," Tendulkar had once said of the bowler.

The World Cup semi-final at Edgbaston in 1999 gives ample proof of this character of Warne. Defending a mere 213 runs, Australia was battling against South Africa with Jacques Kallis going strong. Warne, who already had three victims, began his final over with four wickets left. He was aware of the expectations. He had to get Kallis if Australia had to win. South Africa needed just 39 when Warne struck. Australia then forced a tie, moved into the final and went on to win the World Cup.

For a bowler who had a modest, or a rather forgettable debut, Warne, 36, rose to be acknowledged as a great match-winner. His first Test, in Sydney, against India saw him being smashed for 150 runs in 45 overs and his only victim was Ravi Shastri, who made 206.

Interestingly, it is the same venue where he will play his last Test. When he walks away for the last time from a Test ground, he would bring to an end a glorious chapter in the game of cricket.

TIMELINE

Following are some of the important events in Shane Warne's career, listed chronologically.

Born on Sept. 13 in Victoria State, near Melbourne.

1992: Makes his Test debut against India at the age of 22, finishing with overall figures of one for 228.

1993: Dismisses Mike Gatting in the Old Trafford Ashes Test with the `Ball of the Century', one that pitches outside the leg-stump and goes on to clip the off-bail.

1994: Along with Mark Waugh, admits to providing match information to an Indian bookmaker. The ACB subsequently fines both.

1998: Undergoes a near career-threatening shoulder surgery.

1999: Takes Australia to a World Cup win, after his Man-of-the-Match performance in the final against Pakistan.

2000: Upstages Dennis Lillee as Australia's highest wicket-taker in Tests, bettering his record of 355 wickets. He is also named as one of Wisden's `Five Cricketers of the Century'.

2003: After announcing that he would retire from ODIs after the World Cup, he fails a drug test and is banned for 12 months on the eve of the tournament, for taking a banned diuretic.

2004: Becomes the highest wicket-taker in Tests, overtaking Muttiah Muralitharan, in India.

2006: With 699 Test victims, he announces his retirement from Test cricket after the end of the Ashes series, with Australia having regained the Ashes at Perth.

What they said about Warne

Australian Prime Minister John Howard joined international cricket fraternity in showering praise on Shane Warne as the legendary leg-spinner announced his decision to quit after the Ashes series. Following are excerpts from the quotes.

John Howard: I thank him for the massive contribution he's made to Australian cricket. He's the greatest slow bowler this country has had and the greatest slow bowler the world has seen and he's done amazing things for the art of leg-spin bowling.

Sir Richard Hadlee: A lot of batsmen in world cricket will be delighted to learn he's leaving the game but I think the game will be poorer without him. He has been a match-winner, flamboyant and just incredible to watch. I've admired his skills over a long period of time.

Richie Benaud: Warne was without doubt the finest leg-spinner the world has ever seen. You would certainly have Warne right up there as one of the greatest Australians to ever step on the field. In the space of a short time, he's turned the game upside down, changed it in concept. I think his greatest single achievement is not necessarily the number of wickets, but the fact that when Wisden chose the five cricketers of the century, they chose Donald Bradman, Garry Sobers, Jack Hobbs, and Viv Richards _ and Shane Warne who had only been playing since 1991. That's quite remarkable.

Steve Waugh: He was a resilient, courageous and tough opponent. Warnie was always a match-winner because he had a great repertoire and a sense for the occasion. The greater the stakes the better the performance.

Adam Gilchrist: As a wicketkeeper there's no better spot to be than standing behind the stumps to Shane Warne at any time really. But when he's on song it's quite mesmerising, so he brings a great deal of joy to me, just like everyone else sitting around watching. He makes us look good because he's so brilliant.

Stephen Fleming: Warne was the greatest bowler to have played cricket and his retirement was a Christmas present to all batsmen. On and off the field there's been areas of controversy sure, but statistically he's the greatest bowler that ever played. He was tough, very, very competitive but he had a cheeky streak about him.

Mike Gatting: He'll be hard to replace _ not just by Australia but by cricket in general.

Stuart MacGill: I was completely stunned and didn't believe the news when I first saw it, because I was always under the impression that I would be out before Shane. He's still very, very able to compete at whatever level he chooses, but professional sport is about setting goals and achieving goals.

Nasser Hussain: For me, he was the reason you played cricket. To be a in a Test against him, you knew you were in a battle with Warne, verbally, physically, mentally and technically.

Allan Donald: I don't think I've seen a competitor as determined and focussed as Warne. He was just amazing, mentally. I've not seen anyone as strong as he is.

Bishan Singh Bedi: He's the greatest thing that's happened to spin bowling _ one of the greatest things that's happened to cricket.

Javed Miandad: Warne was the bowler who could bowl leg-spin, flippers and googlies with utmost perfection. Warne could have easily played a year or two (more), but it's Australian history that a player retires when he's at his peak form.

Sarfraz Nawaz: Warne is the bowler's Bradman. He always made batsmen think with his variety of deliveries. The cricketing world would miss him a lot. I wish he could have continued to play on.

Paul Collingwood: In cricketing terms he is the ultimate legend. He's probably the best bowler there has ever been on this planet.

Merv Hughes: Whatever you say about Shane Warne it isn't enough. His performances have not only shaped cricket in Australia but worldwide. Most people go through a purple patch and Shane Warne has had a purple patch for 15 of 16 years.