Cricket: Time catches up on artful spin doctor

By Peter Roebuck

A book could be written about Shane Warne's first ball in Ashes cricket. Famously, it was the ball of the century, an absolute fizzer delivered with a rip of the fingers and snap of the wrist that sent it burning through the air and made it curl to leg before bouncing and turning prodigiously past the bat of a flummoxed opponent.

Good morning, Mr Gatting. Good morning, England. My name is Warne and I bowl leg-spin.

Ever since, English batsmen have been tormented by this artful, supremely gifted, dedicated practitioner of the game's most difficult and rewarding skill.

Throughout he has been an extraordinary mixture: a darkness capable of creating light; a rascal who can fool a professional with a flipper; a larrikin who can make the wise look foolish and the seasoned seem like novices.

And it was all seen in that first, deadliest delivery.

It was much more than a wicket-taker, much more than a statement of intent. It was a warning of a formidable cricketing power about to be let loose upon the game. A career was predicted in a moment, a life foretold in an instant.

Here was a beach bum performing wonders, an innocent casting a spell. Warne had joined the immortals. Since then, he has been beyond containment, not least by himself.

Would you have it otherwise? Must not a man be taken as a whole? Of course he is a rogue, but he is not coming to tea. Nor is there any need to take everything he says literally.

Another, more respectable, man could not have dared as much, a career upon the pitch of a ball, and against the flow of the times. The West Indies were the reigning champions on that day in Manchester when this prize chump lobbed down his first Ashes delivery. Dennis Lillee was the local hero.

Warne ignored all of that. Instead, he changed the game until it fitted his requirements. You have to be good to do that; very, very good.

Imagine the nerve involved in sending down that delivery! Was it not a time to settle for something safe? He was not bowling on a sunny afternoon to an unknown in a park match with only his loyal mother in attendance.

His antagonist was not some fearful youth lately summoned by a sorely stretched selection committee but Mike Gatting, regarded as his country's leading player of spin.

Nor did the novice have much of a record. In his pot-bellied youth he had been turfed out of the cricket academy and flogged around Sydney by various Indians. He walked almost naked into the arena.

And still he did not hesitate. Disdaining all compromise, Warne decided to try his most demanding delivery. Wrenching shoulder, wrist and finger to a degree that eventually caused the surgery that took away some of his powers, making him ordinary everywhere except in his own mind, he produced the perfect leg-break, a ball of such deadly content that even now it causes gasps.

* * *

Imagine the reaction at the time. Imagine the response in the England dressing-room. Arguably it was the most beautiful moment the game has known, an affirmation of its enduring possibilities.

Warne had announced himself as a brave competitor, a strength that has subsequently been confirmed a hundred times, and most especially in the heat of the hottest battle.

In some respects Warne has been lucky. Nature blessed him with ability. Providence provided a coach in Bob Simpson who understood the importance of attacking the blind spot. Fortune left a space to be filled. But Warne took his chance. He worked at his game until the ball obeyed his every instruction.

His mastery did not come and has not been sustained by flashes of lightning. A lot of good deliveries are bowled between the wicket-takers.

But have you ever tried to bowl a leg-break? It is as unnatural as swimming butterfly. Have you ever tried to pitch a leg-break on a saucer? It is a damnably difficult operation.

Small wonder most leg-spinners live on the edge of their nerves. Their entire life is a gamble.

Yet Warne has made it look easy. His great secret has been his uncanny combination of control and movement.

The accuracy is part of his trick. In truth, he is two characters in one body, the player and citizen, the wild man with supreme control, the maverick with unmatched mastery of his craft.

In his younger days, at the Australian academy, he did not always deport himself with the required delicacy. Nothing has changed. But he was always spinning a ball from hand to hand, asking questions, in the nets, trying this and that. Throughout he has been fascinated by the intricacies of his calling.

Warne was not born great. There was nothing inevitable about his rise. Rather, he was given the qualities needed to achieve greatness and made the most of them. He had the fortune to be born in the right place at the right time. Desperate to resume playing proper Australian cricket, the selectors were eager to find a wrist-spinner to end their reliance on containing finger spin. They did not look too closely at the package. Most of us let out parts of ourselves, and learn to restrain the rest. For better or worse, Warne came to believe that for men like him it was all or nothing.

* * *

Taken as a whole, Warne has been an immense boon to the game. All the good things said about him are true. All the bad things said about him are also true. Nothing has even been his fault. He is, too, an almost reluctant adult. Throughout, he has wanted to remain forever young. About the only people he has been unable to convince have been the more mature and moral of his colleagues in Australian teams.

These days the ball does not turn as sharply or bounce as much as it used to because he cannot any longer put as much energy on the ball.

Even that does not stop him. Undeterred, he has added new deliveries to his bag of tricks, constructions that take wickets without changing course.

Nowadays it is not his extremes that provoke admiration but the way in which this most crafty of customers manages to take almost as many wickets with scarcely half his old powers.

But, then, he is a clever cricketer who, pretending he has none of his own, is able to prey upon the doubts of his opponents. In his pomp he could stand at the top of his mark, flicking the ball in his fingers, licking his lips, biding his time before starting that slow, teasing approach that builds towards a sudden wrench of shoulder, wrist and finger, an eruption of effort intended to create an explosion 22 yards away. He has dazzled even as he has demolished. And yet his dedication has not wavered.

His final, most glorious trick has been his last. Unable any longer to impart upon the ball the energy that made it fade and dip and bite from the pitch he has learned to take test wickets with straight balls.

At once Warne is a supreme technician and a conman, a born rebel and a calculating professional.

* * *

In the last few years wickets have been harder to take as batsmen become accustomed to his wiles and his body limits his ambitions. Worse, flaws of character have been revealed, exposing aspects of the inner man hidden on the field. Nor has his charm saved him from the consequences. He has reacted by seeking fresh homes, especially at Hampshire where, at last, he has been able to shape a side.

Sportsmen salute his competitive courage. Spectators rejoice in his artistry. In an age of reason, he chased the wildest of dreams.

- INDEPENDENT

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