Before there was T20. Before there was the IPL. Before there was The Hundred. Before sport and entertainment became as tightly linked as Australians and winning Ashes series. There was Shane Warne.
The iconic, incomparable, irrepressible wrist-spinner was not only the greatest spin-bowler in the history of the sport, but he was also a force of nature that transformed what cricket could be both on and off the pitch. It’s why the shock of his death, when it came so suddenly last Friday, was a moment that touched so many beyond just the world of cricket. This was not just a life well-lived, but a life well-shared, with millions around the world.
There is no young person born between the years of 1985 and 2000 who hasn’t at one point or another unleashed a cry of “bowling Shane” across parks, schools and cricket pitches around the country. Every young cricketer of my generation tried their hand at wrist spin before most realised what Warne did was so devilishly difficult it was impossible to replicate.
I myself remember watching Kent play a County Championship game at Tunbridge Wells many years ago. During the lunch break, we popped to the club shop to find a ball to play with on the outfield, and, of course, I had to go for the Shane Warne spin training ball. A small yellow plastic ball marked with little dots and numbers to tell you where you put your fingers to bowl the perfect Shane Warne leg-break, flipper or slider. Of course, even with all the markings in the world I never got close. This was a cricketer, and a man, who could never be recreated with science or process. He was one of a kind.
He had his struggles and his imperfections. He was as often a villain as he was a hero for an English cricket fan. But through it all, you couldn’t help but love Shane Warne. The bright blond hair. The cocky swagger. The confidence in his craft was awe-inspiring to watch. His personality took him well outside the cricket pitch. He’s one of a tiny list of cricketers as recognisable outside Lords as he was in the pub, or even amongst my friends who hate cricket. He was engaged to Liz Hurley for goodness sakes, no other cricketer could have pulled that off.
He was a true entertainer who changed the course of cricket forever. Yes, there had been great players and great personalities before him. But Shane Warne brought showbiz to the cricket pitch, in a way that changed everything. Yes, we’d had the likes of George Best in football and Muhammed Ali in boxing who transcended their sport. But this was cricket. This was crisp whites on village greens. Victorian pavilions with overbearing traditions. To have a presence like Shane Warne in cricket changed what the sport thought it could be. In the decades since, it’s never looked back.
In the days since his death, many have highlighted moments from his career that sum up his contribution to the sport and beyond. I’d recommend a read through some of his best here. The moment he bows to the Oval crowd during the 2005 Ashes as they sing “We only wish you were English” shows the level of respect he had amongst fans around the world.
But I’ll end with one that I think sums up his lasting contribution to the sport. In 2011, facing off against Brendan McCullum, the great New Zealand batsmen, Warne is talking on the mic to the commentators, as part of the broadcast innovation being trialled by The Big Bash, Australia’s T20 league. Despite being towards the end of his career, Warne is still perfectly in control of his game and able to call his shot in front of a national audience. The clip tells you everything you need to know about Warne. The showmanship. The confidence. The craft:
Shane Warne bowled the “ball of the century” to Mike Gatting in 1993. If you watch that clip, Test cricket pretty much resembles the same sport it had for a hundred years. Almost 20 years later he’s in the Big bash, wearing bright green kit and talking straight to the commentators, still showing the same ability to conjure magic that he always had. That transformation was no coincidence. The power of Warne took cricket, along with sport as a whole, into a new era of entertainment. That legacy will never be forgotten.