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Shane Warne: King of the spinners

Ed Smith reviews a biography of Shane Warne, modern sport’s method actor.

On Warne
Gideon Haigh
Simon & Schuster, 224pp, £16.99

Facing Shane Warne was only incidentally about cricket. Sport was the medium but the substance was drama. He turned cricket into a show and appointed himself the leading man. It went deeper: he projected an aura of certainty that he was also writing the scripts. He united three forms of psychological dominance: one part circus master, one part chess wizard, one part Hollywood star. That left you, the batsman, to choose between being a clown, a pawn or a walk-on part. Many – most – acquiesced.

I played quite a few matches against Warne, spread over seven years when he played for Hampshire (three of them as captain). They were the most absorbing hours I ever had with a cricket bat in my hand. It would be absurd to boast about it – especially as he got me out three times in first-class cricket – but I spent enough time at the crease to observe how he operated, the traps he set for you. His bowling was merely brilliant. His psychological mastery of events was much better.

Above all, he always suggested he knew something you didn’t, some secret that gave him the eternal upper hand. “Part of the art of spin bowling,” he has argued, “is to make the batsman think something special is happening when it isn’t.” The phrase “It was a privilege to play against him” is tossed around too lightly but that is exactly how I feel about Warne.

Leg spin is the hardest thing in cricket and arguably the most artful activity in sport. All leg-spinners live on the precipice of disaster. They risk their own humiliation in the pursuit of the batsman’s. Most leg-spinners are fragile match-winners, the equivalent of frail foot-balling playmakers. Warne was the exception. Far from crumbling under pressure, he craved it. Fans loved him for his bullying of lesser players. Cricket insiders respect him for the opposite reason: the way he relished bowling at the greats. Warne was the opposite of a flat-track bully.

He was also extremely gracious, pointedly so. If an opponent played well, even if it had been just a cameo, he singled them out after the game. When he felt an opponent had shown positive intent or had “had a go”, he rarely missed an opportunity to say so. Nor was he aloof. When I was a 22-year-old Kent player and Warne was one of the best-known sportsmen in the world, I passed him in the corridor at the back of the dressing rooms. It seemed the most natural thing in the world for him to say, “G’day mate!” even though we’d never met. I’d been introduced to England captains and received frostier reactions.

Gideon Haigh’s slim, elegant book On Warne has its own kind of confidence. A highly intelligent Australian cricket writer, Haigh doesn’t exaggerate his limited access. The title is deliberately essayistic and Haigh is an excellent essayist. Rather than trying to have the last word on Warne, he wants to capture a truthful likeness, even if it is necessarily impressionistic. The assumption of the book is that an astute and independent writer can strike deeper truths than a compromised but diligent biographer. Haigh is right.

It goes without saying that Warne is a quintessential Australian – bleach-blond, fun-loving and ultra-competitive. Haigh, however, thinks that Warne is a very particular type of Australian. Where Donald Bradman embodied the gritty self-reliance of rural Australia, Warne reflected socially aspirational suburbia. But is that how Australia likes to see itself? Warne has complained that he is treated more kindly in this country than his own. Perhaps his personality is a bit too close to the bone for Australian tastes.

Australia is split along a different axis, too. There is an American Australia and there is an English Australia. The American Australia is optimistic, bullish, welcoming but a bit brash. The English Australia is studiously modest, self-parodic and despises showing off. Warne is very much an American Australian. He might be engaged to Elizabeth Hurley but he has always given the impression of a man who could nip off to Las Vegas at any moment.

That was one of the tensions that ran through Warne’s career in the baggy, green Australian cap. Steve Waugh, preferred over Warne for the captaincy, cultivated the idea of the humble Aussie battler. Warne was never going to fit easily into that mould.

Paradoxically, Warne went back a generation into a formative friendship with Ian Chappell, the ultimate alpha-male warrior captain of the 1970s. Warne and Chappell happily united in shared contempt for the uselessness of coaches (Chappell loves saying that the only use for a coach is to drive you to the ground), health drinks, warm-ups, psychobabble and team bonding exercises.

Yet sportsmen tend to cherry-pick their sense of history. One of the book’s telling dressing-room anecdotes describes Warne urgently ordering a beer just before a visit from a group of hardbitten rugby players. His cricketing teammates ribbed him mercilessly for affecting a yeoman simplicity. Would Warne really have enjoyed cricket so much back in the day, when it was a commercial backwater and a night out meant 15 beers and possibly a shaved eyebrow or two? Haigh suggests that Warne’s self-image as a throwback to the no-nonsense “good old days” fails to acknowledge how much he benefited from the changed status of professional sportsmen.

On Warne is full of lightly worn erudition. Haigh quotes Alan Ross’s poem “Watching Benaud Bowl”: “Leg spinners pose problems much like love/Requiring commitment/The taking of a chance.” Haigh contributes plenty of exquisite phrases himself. This is his summary of the Warne run-up: “Eight paces: that’s all it was. And only the last few counted . . . Something so simple, so brief and so artless could cause so much perplexity at the other end.” Haigh captures the way Warne passed the ball from hand to hand between deliveries – “languidly, voluptuously, like somebody feeling warm sand run through his fingers”.

Haigh is equally astute on how the great spinner changed. “Early Warne” was so good that he could destroy teams with near unplayable balls. “Late Warne”, Haigh argues, was more interesting because he relied more on intelligence. “The bluff, the kidology and air of cultivated knowingness grew with each passing year – the sense that you were watching Shane Warne playing at being Shane Warne.”

Haigh does not take his logic further. Might that cultivation of an act have caused deep problems elsewhere? He leaves unexplored the possibility that a carefully cultivated persona can be constraining as well as liberating. Bit by bit, many great sportsmen lose track of who they once were. In seeking mastery of an authentic personality on the stage, authenticity in “civilian” life becomes ever more elusive.

Perhaps that goes with the job. The word “player” derives from the stage. Only recently has a player been a sportsman rather than an actor. Warne’s showmanship reminds us of that link with the word’s past.

All great actors sacrifice something of themselves in their pursuit of a truthful performance. So do sportsmen. Warne, the great method actor of modern sport, has perhaps paid a higher price than most.

Ed Smith’s “Luck: What It Means and Why It Matters” is published by Bloomsbury (£16.99)

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The plot against the BBC

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.