The cricketer Shane Warne is as Australian as they come—garrulous, plain-spoken, competitive, cocksure, cheerfully philistine—so one of the surprising aspects of his personality is his love for England. It is an affection that extends beyond the gullible figures of English batsmen, who set up Warne’s greatest successes, and extends to the fans (who love him as one of their own), the food and drink (Warne is a great guzzler of fizzy drinks and demolisher of chip butties), and even the county cricket scene.
It says something for Warne’s divided allegiances that, although he has retired from international and Australian domestic cricket, he still plays for Hampshire in England and proudly leads the team. The English media is just as devoted to Warne, with the broadsheets closely tracking his on-field deeds and the tabloids sniffing out his off-the-pitch shenanigans. Even the two extant Warne biographies, of which Simon Wilde’s new book is one, are written by British journalists.
Some readers would argue that the subtitle chosen by Wilde, Portrait of a Flawed Genius, contains an unnecessary emphasis. It is rare that genius is not flawed; egocentrism and fallibility always seem to be part of the package.
Warne’s greatest failings have been domestic. Accepting easy sexual conquests as the dues of his success, he has repeatedly proved himself incapable of leading a family life. In this, he is not alone among professional sportsmen, who live most of their lives in a bubble from an early age.
Among the interesting statistics cited by Wilde is a comparative study conducted across 35,000 athletes and non-athletes which concluded that “the average adult athlete was self-centred, insular and had the moral reasoning of a 13-year-old.”
On the field, though, the same rakish charm, the desire to feel wanted by his team and to be at the centre of the action, the hunger for a new challenge brought by a new day, made Warne the best spin bowler of all time. Often, it was his incredible self-belief that rolled the opposition over, never more so than against South Africa in the semi-final of the 1999 World Cup, one of the greatest one-day internationals ever. As Kevin Pietersen, one of the few batsmen to successfully thwart Warne, pointed out, the challenge with Warne was to play the ball, not the bowler.
A few bright patches excepted, Wilde’s book is the classic hack’s biography, written to the level of a modest feature article, and heavily reliant on quotes and statistics. Never the most thrilling writer even at his best, Wilde descends variously into the hyperbole of pub talk (“No one else has ever made absolutely every ball mean so much”) and the inanities of marketing spiel (“He made cricket exciting. He made it cool”). Wilde has only a limited insight into Warne, the man, and is just about competent on Warne, the cricketer.
A better tribute to Warne, in fact, is a book of which Warne apparently isn’t even the main subject, even though he does feature prominently on its cover. The Australian writer, Gideon Haigh, is now established as one of the greats of the cricket-writing pantheon, and his latest book All Out is a collection of his columns on the 2006-07 Ashes series, which Australia won 5-0.
The series was Warne’s last on the international stage, and he conjured up for himself the most thrilling of send-offs, consistently keeping the Australian team ahead with sparkling performances with both bat and ball, and taking a record-breaking 700th Test wicket in front of his home crowd at Melbourne on Boxing Day.
Haigh’s burnished writing is alert to every facet of Warne’s sublime skill, his powers of forethought and deception. “When Warne takes the ball these days, it is with a proprietorial air,” he writes. “He arrives, settles, surveys. He attacks, consolidates, harries, heckles and sometimes even dawdles.” There, in a couple of sentences, is an image of a man controlling the pace of the game, exercising both bowling fingers and tongue, and playing mind games everywhere.
Haigh also does a nice line in wit. During the commercial breaks, Warne would pop up again on TV to extol the merits of a hair regrowth treatment, thus proving “that no bare patch is beyond his exploitation”.
Elsewhere, he writes of Warne’s always-injured namesake, Shane Watson, that he “seems to have left his body to medical science while still alive”. Haigh has an instinctive sympathy for Warne, and this is a book just as sharp and fizzy as its lead character.
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