First, the raucous applause, and then the hushed quiet. A familiar sequence in the life of Shane Warne, and exactly how it still was at The Oval as an audience of 500 cricket lovers first greeted his arrival like a triumphant prize fighter and then fell silent to hear an authentic sporting genius hold court.

The questions soon veered spectacularly. "It's a non-cricket one," says the jacketed and well-spoken gentleman in the third row, "but can you please tell us about Liz Hurley."

Even Warne, who always refers to his ex-fiancee as "Elizabeth", was momentarily stumped. "Err, great fun ... the happiest time of my life ... pretty good ... what else do you want me to say?" he says, before eventually being unable to resist. "And she looked good in leather pants, too!"

An hour later and hundreds of people were still queuing patiently for Warne to sign their books. These were not your usual autograph hunters but evidently there are some celebrities for whom exceptions are made.


Warne had earlier strode breezily into the John Major Suite while busily tapping away at his phone and, having nipped out on to the balcony overlooking the Vauxhall End for a smoke, what is striking when we do sit down is his complete attention to the task in hand.

On a wider scale, it was a skill that defined one of cricket's greatest careers. "Hollywood", as Warne was known by his team-mates, was embroiled in a seemingly never-ending soap opera of off-field controversy, but rarely did any of it undermine what happened on the pitch.

"You find a way to compartmentalise and concentrate on what you have to do. People ask what is the zone? It's total concentration on what you're doing right now - 100 per cent. People would say, 'How did you concentrate when the Barmy Army was singing, "He's blond, he's bent, his a*** is up for rent, Shane Warne" for seven hours at a time?' I heard them but I didn't hear them. I was so concentrated on what I had to do."

Shane Warne says his Australia team were too cocky at times. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Shane Warne says his Australia team were too cocky at times. Photo / Brett Phibbs

And what might he be thinking?

"Every time I had the ball in my hand, I truly believed something magical was going to happen."

It's a fascinating insight and as he looks back over a career that spanned 23 years, 708 test wickets, seven victorious Ashes series and a World Cup win, two other factors stand out.

The first is a still lingering scar when he was let go, aged 19, by his Australian Rules football team, and the other is how, having then combined cricket with driving trucks, delivering beds and serving pizza, he never stopped working at his game.

Warne's memory of a day spent with his old mentor Terry Jenner on the day before the start of the 2005 Ashes series is instructive.

"My advice to anyone is never leave the nets until you are happy. I bowled that day for five or six hours. I never felt like I had leg-spin mastered. I was always tinkering."

Warne has been in England this week to promote his autobiography, No Spin, and the title could hardly be more appropriate. Even before we've started, he is deriding "waste-of-time" interviews when players trot out polite cliches.

"You want people to say what they think," he says.

Warne has invariably followed this approach. He jokes his knighthood must have been lost after noting that it's "Sir, Sir, Sir, Sir" for Wisden's other four Cricketers of the 20th Century: Don Bradman, Jack Hobbs, Viv Richards and Gary Sobers.

On Joe Root, Warne thinks that England should consider taking the captaincy away from him ahead of next year's Ashes.

"A lot of people speak of him in the same breath as Steve Smith and Virat Kohli, but I think it's 14 hundreds. To be one of the very best of the modern era, he needs more. Maybe it's something England could think about. 'Our best player needs the shackles off, not have the responsibility of captaincy and we'll give it to someone like Jos Buttler'."

Warne describes Australia's batting as "the weakest I've seen - maybe the weakest ever," and says the fear factor has gone.

Shane Warne during the ICC Cricket World Cup match between New Zealand and Australia in 2015. Photo / Photosport
Shane Warne during the ICC Cricket World Cup match between New Zealand and Australia in 2015. Photo / Photosport

Next year, though, could be the first test series back for Steve Smith and David Warner following their bans and respective loss of the captaincy and vice-captaincy for ball tampering. Warne is embarrassed by what happened to Australian cricket - "I don't understand how you get to a point where you bring sandpaper on to the pitch" - and is unsure whether Smith can ever be captain again. But he still regards the sanctions, which he equates to a US$10 million fine, as draconian.

"By next year, they'll be pleading to have them back. I'm sure Smith will be back better than ever. Australia need to earn the respect. They're in for a hostile time around the world. Forgiveness takes time."

Warne's advice?

"Be yourself. Warner is at his best when he has an edge, when he plays an enforcer role. Occasionally he might step over the line. I'll take that."

Warne admits he and Australia occasionally did but offers the context of a long career covering 339 international matches.

"I think we did as a team. Got too cocky, too arrogant at times. We thought we were better than the opposition - but we were. Overall, we played the game in the right spirit. Hard, tough and, if we got beaten, shake the opponent's hand and say, 'well played, we'll beat you next time'."

And what of sledging? Warne regards the best exchanges as humorous and is adamant he would have personally stepped in if he ever heard anything like the "Osama" remark Moeen Ali says was aimed at him by an Australian in 2015. According to Moeen, the player later claimed he was misheard and said "part-timer".

There is little holding back, though, once the subject turns to former Australia captain Steve Waugh.

"If five of us went for dinner and it was 100 quid, we'd all put in 20 and he'd say, 'no, no, I only had the steak. I had £11.25'. He was one of those. It's no secret I don't like him. He really became obsessed with averaging 50."

Waugh has previously said he is "not justifying" accusations of selfishness with an answer and, ahead of turning 50 next year, Warne insists his book is about much more than settling scores.

There is an especially revealing section when he details how, having "never been one for shrinks", he began "intense and brutal" counselling sessions with Jeremy Snape after starting to date Hurley and wanting to become a better person.

He was struck when Snape asked him to write his own obituary, to consider his children's memories of him and to see himself aged 70.

"Perception doesn't always equal reality," says Warne. "People read headlines. Yes, I do like a bit of fun. Yes, I am silly. Yes, I like to have a few beers but I've also got a serious side. I am much more of a family man than people think. I might not have been a very good husband but I am a good dad. People who didn't like me, probably will never like me, but I hope they have a better understanding of who I am, what I stand for and my journey. I'm not bullet-proof. A lot of things affected me and I was strong enough to overcome it."

As Warne gets up and heads back on to the balcony, he again looks out over the venue for the dramatic last day of the 2005 Ashes series.

"Many great times at The Oval. Yes, I didn't like to lose the Ashes but England were the better side and deserved to win that series. It was good for the world game. You couldn't keep having Australia smash England 4-0, 3-0, 5-0."

He then pauses and thinks of the 2006-07 return in Australia. "Everyone ignores that one," he says, smiling. "It's the forgotten Ashes series. We won 5-0."