Shane Warne
Shane Warne Image Credit: Ador Bustamante/Gulf News

Shane Warne was a magician who could make the cricket ball dance. The leg-spinner was adept at exposing flaws in batters’ technique. He enjoyed his cricket as much as he loved life. Warne’s exploits on the pitch were the stuff of legend, while controversies pursued his colourful life off the pitch.

In 1992, I was on a cricket tour representing the Tamil Nadu Colts team on a tour of Mumbai (Bombay then). After play, our daily routine was to watch the highlights of the Sydney Test.

Ravi Shastri scored a double century and Sachin Tendulkar had struck an unbeaten 148. An Australian leg-spinner who made his debut returned figures of 1 for 150 from 45 overs. Nobody gave him a second glance. His name was Shane Warne.

Come 1993, precisely 18 months after his debut, the leg-spinner bowled a delivery that became the Ball of the Century. That gave Warne the aura of a fearsome bowler. His superb performance came when spinners were becoming an endangered species, and Warne’s heroics helped revive the art of leg spin.

Unlike finger spinners, wrist spinners are a rare breed since it is a difficult art to practise as they don’t have a very good grip on the ball. His success led to the birth of a new generation of leg-spinners who are dominating the shorter formats of cricket.

Magician in act

Six years later, in 1999, Indian fans got to see the magician for the first time. They eagerly awaited the contest between Warne and Sachin Tendulkar on Indian wickets that generally assist spinners. Excitement rose ahead of the clash between the best spinner and the best batsman.

The first Test was in Chennai, where leg-spinner Narendra Hirwani created the world record in 1988 by getting 16 Test wickets against the West Indies, equalling Australian Bob Massie. Fans were getting nervous. Is it a good idea to allow Tendulkar to face Warne on a wicket like this?

But Tendulkar did his homework. Laxman Sivaramakrishnan, one of India’s best leg-spinners, was called up to assist Tendulkar. He was a perfect choice as I have a personal experience facing him. Tendulkar created rough outside the leg stump and asked Sivaramakrishnan to bowl there to get used to that line of bowling.

In the first encounter, Tendulkar hit a four off Warne only to fall to the leg-spinner, leaving the fans silent. However, Tendulkar scored a century in the second innings, pummelling the leg-spinner. The Indian maestro won the battle, but that didn’t stop Warne, whose career continued to rise meteorically.

Cricketing acumen

Warne went on to take 708 Test and 293 ODI wickets in his international career. After retiring from international cricket, the Australian great led Rajasthan Royals to their first and only title in the inaugural year of the Indian Premier League. Some of India’s stars like Rohit Sharma and Ravindra Jadeja are products of that team, whose victory underlined his cricketing acumen.

Warne’s career was not without controversies. He was banned for taking diuretics before the World Cup 2003 in South Africa and was penalised for an encounter with the bookies.

The only time I met Warne was an important day in my life. It was my 50th birthday when he visited the Gulf News office in Dubai. When I asked him what he would tell youngsters, his reply was “They should enjoy the game,” summing up his motto in life.

At the age of 52, Warne’s untimely death has shocked the world. His children, son Jackson and daughters Brooke and Summer, on Monday released heartbreaking tributes.

The light remains

Jackson, who was seen in an Australian reality show ‘SAS: Who Dares Wins’ last year, spoke about the bond he had with his father. “To my brother, my best friend, to my Dad, I love you so much. I don’t think anything is ever going to fill the void you have left in my heart. Sitting at the poker table, walking around the golf course, watching the Saints and eating pizza is never going to be the same. But I know all you ever wanted for me is to be happy, no matter what.”

Warne’s ex-wife Simone Callahan signed off by saying: “Who brings a light so great to the world that even after they have gone, the light remains.”

Former New Zealand all-rounder Craig McMillan’s words summed up Warne’s lifestyle. “The ultimate showman who loved being the centre of attention and loved being in the middle of a cricket ground showing off his skills. 90,000 at the MCG was probably his favourite place to be. I was a fan to begin with and then very quickly found myself being on the same ground and actually facing him which was a bit surreal,” he says.

The Melbourne Cricket Ground was the stage of Warne’s famous Ashes hat-trick in 1994 and his 700th test wicket on Boxing Day in 2006 during his final series before retiring from international cricket. He was born and raised in Melbourne, and his final journey began at the MCG.

Cricket bids adieu to arguably one of the greatest spinners of the century.