Shane Warne, the showman who changed cricket forever

Long after the devastating news of Shane Warne’s passing had been confirmed on Friday, as various clips of his best work racked up their shares and teammates and opponents found the words to share their grief, it still did not feel real. An icon of cricket, a totem of world-class sport and a bastion of Australiana had died at the age of 52 of a suspected heart attack. And yet, as the news rides the waves back and forth in your mind, it is followed by the most flawed of denials. Shane Warne can’t die.

He can’t die because, well, what does cricket have left? It was there before him, but has not been the same since a cherubic figure made his debut in 1991. Warney was his own era, so much greater than the 708 and 293 wickets across 145 Tests and 194 one-day internationals. More than the commentator whose words, however ridiculous, resonated through every corridor and chamber. He was as much the man of here and now as there and then. The best leg spinner and unquestionably the greatest showman. That it will go on without him is unfathomable. The electricity has been cut off from the block, and darkness closes in.

The immediate solace comes in knowing a career of unparalleled excellence and a life well lived. And even at this early stage of collective grief, only celebration in his name feels apt.

Australians grew up wanting to be Warne. So did the English. What he did with the leg spin – not just with untold skill from durable wrists, but great theatre – changed it immeasurably. Speak to current professionals of all standards who are carrying the craft forward and they will talk of him as a key inspiration. Many of the current torchbearers of high-class leg spin, such as Afghanistan’s Rashid Khan, were reared on his videos. Even those who do not consider themselves cricket fans shout “bowling, Shane”, or other alternatives, when someone turns their arm over in their presence.

It is no stretch to say he also revolutionised what to expect from a humble pursuit, even as his persona grew to dwarf it. Cricket has long been a place where individuality was only allowed on someone else’s terms. And across more than 30 years, he made very few apologies for embracing his maverick ways within its conservative parameters. The peroxide streaks in his hair, the zinc across his cheeks, the wide-brimmed floppy hat – all part of an aesthetic mimicked the world over.

It was no different off the field, and very public issues in his private life made him a tabloid’s dream. Somehow he was always able to shut out the noise, and success on the field was testament to that.

Because even with all the fascination, all eyes transfixed on him whether he was stepping out of a club or flicking the ball with his right hand and catching it with his left at the top of his mark, he was still able to retain an air of wonder. The variations – the googly, slider and flipper – along with a fine tactical brain helped cultivate that mystique. Talk of workshopping new deliveries, almost always before an upcoming Ashes tour, was an extra layer of kidology that by the end batters knew was a bluff but still had to adopt caution. It was no surprise when he toured the poker circuits into retirement.

He saved his best work for England, with 129 dismissals in 22 Tests across eight Ashes series. Even in the only one he lost, in 2005, he was the best on show, taking 40 wickets at an average of 19, even contributing 249 runs (at 27.66 a pop). That it will endure as one of the greatest series is largely down to jeopardy he almost single-handedly provided.

By then he was already woven into the fabric of English cricket. First at Hampshire County Cricket Club, then later as a commentator for Sky Sports. His generosity also saw him guide plenty of talent on these shores. He would always have time for young spinners of all backgrounds, and unsurprisingly took a keen interest in the eccentrics. Kevin Pietersen, a close friend, often cites Warne’s guidance at Hampshire, and indeed during Pietersen’s breakthrough in 2005. Jos Buttler credited his return to the Test side in 2018 to time spent under Warne’s guidance at Rajasthan Royals in the Indian Premier League. “He just gave me huge amounts of confidence,” said Buttler during an interview in 2019. “And it felt genuine.”

It felt genuine because he was genuine. Somehow. This St Kilda beach kid who just wanted to enjoy himself was able to do exactly that while playing the most serious of sports at the most serious of levels. He drank, he smoked, he loved, he begrudged and he never took the boring option.

There were times when he should have at least taken some cursory steps on the straight and narrow. He accepted money from a bookie in 1998 in exchange for information. Five years later, he was given a year ban after testing positive for a banned diuretic, which he claims was the result of taking a “fluid tablet” his mother had given him in order to lose weight.

Throw in the salacious anecdotes, as many truths as falsehoods fashioned from those truths, and it was clear he was far from perfect. But he never claimed or tried to be. And in a complicated world, that honesty was regarded as a virtue for one who achieved so much. He leaves this plane having changed cricket for the better.

Shane Warne was the most human of greats. And without question, the greatest of them all.

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