“I smoked, I drank, I bowled a bit of leg spin…” On the relatable genius of Shane Warne

Just why did the passing of the world's greatest leg-spin bowler hit so many of us for six, asks Ed Cumming?

When the push notification came through, I was with someone who didn’t care.

“Shane Warne’s dead,” I said, staring at the headline. 

“The cricketer?” 

“Yes,” I said, thinking how inadequate that description was. There is no way of knowing which deaths will knock the wind out of us, or why I found myself standing still on Stroud Green Road, unable to take in the news and keep walking at the same time. I didn’t know Warne personally, beyond a treasured handshake in the Long Room when I was a teenager. He had stopped playing long ago. I couldn’t explain to my friend why I was brought up so short. As ever with cricket, there was too much to say. 

It wasn’t just that Warne bowled leg-spin, the most mysterious of the game’s disciplines. Fast bowlers take wickets with terror and basic physics: the ball moves too quickly for the batsmen to do anything about it. Leg spinners must use deceit. It is poker. Will the ball spin, or carry on straight, or bounce higher or lower, or come fast or slow? Nor was it that for a cheeky, chubby blonde boy in the early 90s, relatable figures in elite sport were rare, albeit not as rare as they are now. Nor, later, was it that Warne provided an example of an athlete who got in shape after he retired, in his case under the ministrations of Liz Hurley. No middle-aged bloke could ask for more. Those were all parts of his appeal, but there was a more elusive quality, too.  

Warne celebrates 'The Ball of the Century', as a despondent Mike Gatting looks on

In the days after Warne’s death, social media and news footage reduced his career to a couple of clips. It’s inevitable with sportsmen. There was the “ball of the century”, of course, the twisting demon of a delivery at Old Trafford in 1993, Warne’s first in Test matches in England, with which he dismissed Mike Gatting and announced himself. Familiarity hasn’t made it less astonishing, the way the ball leaves his hand and drifts faintly to the right before it hits the pitch and shears off to the left, at an angle so astonishingly sharp that it appears to defy physics as well as good sense, before clipping the top of leg stump.  

Then a wicket from much later in his career, in a 2011 Big Bash League game, in which technology gave us a rare insight into his genius. As part of the league’s commitment to circus antics, Warne was wearing a microphone, so he could talk to the commentators mid-game. They asked him how he planned to dismiss Brendon McCullum, the swashbuckling Kiwi who was batting. With an earlier ball Warne had drawn McCullum out wide, where he had nearly been caught with a wild swipe. “I reckon he’s trying to go inside out but given what just happened he may try to sweep this,” Warne said, “so I’ll slide this through him a bit quicker…fast.” He did exactly that, sending the ball crashing into McCullum’s stumps. 

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