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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