The news seemed as unbelievable as “the ball of the century.” And just like that ball that pitched well outside leg and traversed past Mike Gatting’s prod to tip the off stump bail, you just cannot fathom it. You tell yourself it can’t happen, that it can’t be true. Shane Warne dead?
You are Gatting who stands there for a few seconds, wondering if it’s a trick pulled on you. You are umpire Dickie Bird who just looks ahead, bemused and numbered.
It was news that everyone who read it on their phone or heard it from a call asked about again. Not a single soul could take it in the first time, could believe it the first time, could focus on anything else for the next few minutes. It’s like you’re the director of life events and you look at it and say, “Hang on, this was not in the script.” The script we don’t write, yes. But it’s not in the script, damn it.
Shane Warne doesn’t die. He can’t die. Shane Warne is there for eternity. He’s supposed to be there when we go. When we mortals go. Shane Warne picks his time and place for everything. Shane Warne is the master scripter himself. How could he write this for himself?
Remembering one of the greatest bowlers in cricket history, the Australian leg-spinner Shane Warne, who passed away on March 4 at the age of 52
Yes, you ask these questions to yourself. In fact you hammer these questions at yourself. You do this even though you disagreed with a lot of what he said and did. But you tell yourself that your gripe melts in front of his genius, for the things he does and says. You don’t matter. he does.
He was the magician. The sort who would show you what he was going to do, give you all the details and then leave you wondering how he did it. And if you asked him his biggest secret of spin or the flipper or the top spinner, he’d drop everything and tell you how. Then clean bowl you with it on the next ball.
“The ball of the century” was not a fluke. He did it again with Ijaz Ahmed. With Basit Ali. And with Herchelle Gibbs in the 1999 World Cup semi-final — the game that was South Africa’s to lose. Where Warne, returning to the Australian side after the ignominy of having been dropped for a Test in West Indies the previous season (yes, Shane Warne was axed) and having not much to show thus far, made the Australians believe, taking all three wickets in eight balls, screaming his belief at his teammates.
Then there was the 700th wicket, that of Strauss playing all over a full length ball, angled from over the wicket that lured him out and that wound in between his bat and pads to push back top of middle stump.
Time and again, he would drift it in the air, turning the ball into an eagle as it circled the air looking for its victim. That would be preceded by the walk to the top of his mark, the slow advance, the hypnotic effect on the batsmen, beating them in the mind before he beat them in the air or off the pitch.
He could read a situation better than most and was the best captain Australia never had, proving so by captaining the ordinary Rajasthan Royals to an IPL triumph in its inaugural season against top teams and top players.
Yet he was the perfect gentleman, a man oozing with the desire to give. Desperate to share his gift. A complete antithesis to his caustic criticism on the mic when he saw something he didn’t agree with.
Just how much his humility was, few know, for he never brought up his deeds. Banned for a year from all cricket in 2003 for an indiscretion, he had to regret an invitation for a charity game in England. The organizers pleaded for permission but Cricket Australia denied it. They asked him to just come and make an appearance. Once there, he had an idea and offered to don the kit and bowl to donors in the nets. Something like 300 pounds sterling for an over.
He then stayed around for a long time to bowl at kids, teaching them the art of leg spin.
Another time, he invited some visitors over and when one told him he couldn’t come because he was traveling with his wife and the baby, he asked them to bring over the baby and he’d keep the crib in his bedroom and keep checking for them. Which he did.
His giving extended to the professional scene too. Waqar Younis recounts the time when he received a phone call from Warne in the UAE. He had watched on TV Yasir Shah struggling a bit in the Test and asked for permission to drive over from Dubai to Sharjah to give advice to Yasir. He then spent much time tutoring the Pakistani spinner on what he needed to do.
But more than anything else, he loved children, and not just his own — for whom he was a doting father. On the 1994 tour of Pakistan, he went out with a couple of his mates and played cricket with children who were having a game in a small park.
For a man of his stature, he was hugely accessible. There are hundreds of people who will tell you that if they went up to Warne or he was passing nearby, he would stop and chat or even bowl, especially if there were kids around.
He did his share of reckless, even thoughtless, behavior that cost him emotionally more than in any other way. Yet, no matter what he did or said or whom he annoyed or hurt with his words or actions, it was because he felt it was the right thing to do or say. He never had malice in his heart.
Which is why he was loved so much. And forgiven. He was like Bill Clinton, for whom circulated the saying — and which would apply to Warne just as much — that if he were the Titanic, the iceberg would sink.
Warne was someone who was in your face, in a good way, even when he had stopped playing. When he wasn’t commentating, he was tweeting. When he wasn’t tweeting, he was talking with someone. When he wasn’t talking with someone, he was making plans.
Which is how he’d ended up at Koh Samui, a Thai island where he planned to get into shape and lose some pounds following a 14-day liquid diet. One of the ironies of life, then, is that the man who exited the game in front of thousands at the SCG and possibly a billion watching him on television take a bow, passed away alone in the confines of a room unseen, unheard, unable to wave his last goodbye.
What also aches is how much he was doing and how much he wanted to do that will now remain unfinished. Like the ball that has floated into the air and will remain suspended just short of dipping on that spot a foot outside leg stump. Perhaps it is appropriate too. For Warne will always be that: unfinished business.
He left as suddenly as the ball that would rip through the batsmen’s defences. His life now seems to be the air and the drift and the dip. Just like our expectations of seeing and hearing him again, it has received us. massively. And left us in shock; stunned to know where it came from and where it went.
The only difference is that this time we are left to carry on. And it’s Warne who has gone.
The writer is a cricket writer, analyst and host
he tweets @SohaibAlvic
Published in Dawn, EOS, March 13th, 2022