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SHANE WARNE: HIS SUDDEN DEATH FEELS PERSONAL

One of the finest bowlers of all time, Australian legend Shane Warne died aged 52 after a suspected heart attack.

Shane Warne bowling action
Four steps and a jump: Shane Warne in delivery stride. (Image: Getty)

“This feels personal,” a friend and fellow cricket tragic texted me after he read my message to him about the shocking news that Shane Warne had been found dead at a rented villa in Thailand on March 4.

It does indeed feel personal. For a generation of cricket fans my age, the news that Warne, Australian cricket’s leading wicket-taker and the finest bowler I have seen in the flesh, had died at the age of 52 will leave a void. Who hasn’t tried to imitate his bowling style?

You didn’t have to like the Australian cricket team to be a fan of Warney. This was a rare breed of bowler, whose role in breathing life into the art of legspin has been chronicled for decades. Warne made waking up in the dark of wintery Indian mornings worth it, even when the Indian cricket team was not touring Australia. He drew crowds to the stadiums during Test matches. To watch him go about his craft as only he could, to the dew-dropped words of Richie Benaud on Channel 9’s commentary, was to experience the unbridled joy that is Test cricket. The great showman of Test cricket.

There was so much to love about Warne. The way he got into batsmen’s heads, how he talked them out and wore out umpires with his calculated ploys. The way his drifting, leaping legbreaks outdid the best and worst of every team he played against. Always in the game. Completely engaged in whatever he was doing on a cricket field. Loved and hated by countless people across the world, Warne might be the most famous Australian on the planet.

Shane Warne fans
Always the crowd-puller: Shane Warne in his element. (Image: Twitter)

And he was so much more than ‘the ball of the century’ that launched his Test career. Beyond the pudgy frame and blonde mullet and shenanigans at the bowling crease, there was a brain and a half and unparalleled acumen. Indeed, with Warne, more than the deliveries he bowled, the bamboozling was done in the mind. No wonder that Ian Chappell once termed him the best player never to captain Australia in a Test.

There was something unique about Warne when he bowled. The way he ambled in, tongue protruding, and got the ball to turn as sharply as a hairpin Himalayan bend in the road. The skill with which he bowled his pace, and with which he got prodigious turn, all the while being so bleeding accurate. Warne offered you very little to work with, and when he got into a batsman’s head, he could be devastating. The way he identified a batsman’s technical and temperamental flaws and ruthlessly exploited them … wow.

For me, at least, there was no greater spin bowler. Alongside Wasim Akram, no bowler has captivated me the same way. Was there a more watchable player? You be the judge.

I count myself blessed to have been able to witness Warne bowl, live at the stadium, what ranks as arguably his best spell in ODIs: the four wickets he claimed during the epic 1999 World Cup semi-final between Australia and South Africa at Egbaston. It has been over 22 years since I sat in the stands with my father, but the visions of Warne dismissing Herschelle Gibbs, bowled by an even better delivery than the one to Mike Gatting, and Hansie Cronje are vivid.

Shane Warne 1999 World Cup
Shane Warne bowled arguably his best ODI spell during the 1999 World Cup semi-final. (Image: Getty)

Alongside his cricketing genius, Warne was a flawed character. There is no debating that. His life and career are testament to it. Relationships, corruption, drugs, gambling, alcohol, financial irregularities. The works. As the Australian historian and cricket chronicler Gideon Haigh once said of Warne, he rewrote the book when it came to fame in cricket.

I have for long struggled to separate a sportsperson’s off-field habits, characteristics and doings from their on-field success. It has often clouded my judgement of them, particularly cricketers whom I have admired or had a distaste for. Warne was right at the top of this list. As I write this, memories of the ball floating out the back of his hand to bamboozle some English or Pakistani batsman are as vivid as he most recent picture I have of Warne: that of the on-air commentary referring to Cheteshwar Pujara as ‘Steve’, the insensitive nickname given to him when he played county cricket for Yorkshire, while Warne was discussing how pronouncing the Indian batsman’s name is not easy with fellow commentators. That was Warne. Uniquely Warne.

Since the time I started to pen my thoughts and memories of Warne, my phone has buzzed over a dozen times with messages from friends of the same age, each of whom have been touched in some manner by Warne’s magic. One of them, a man who is a bigger fan of Warne than I am, summed it up aptly when he typed: watching Warne bowl, a generation of Indian cricket viewers started to bowl legspin off four steps to the crease.

Let that be the abiding memory of Warney.

Written by Jamie Alter

Sports writer, author, actor, anchor, digital content creator and TedX Talks speaker.

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