David Warner celebrates his century
© Getty Images

Hate to Love

A deranged fearlessness

It's easy to think of him as a boorish oaf who makes easy runs. Not that David Warner gives a toss

Rob Smyth

I suffer from multiple personality disorder; I am a football fan and a cricket fan. I have long marvelled - and occasionally winced - at the contrast between the two. Put simply, football seems to accentuate the bad in a person and cricket the good. Cricket reminds us that we have two eyes, and enables us to explore the wonderful world that exists beyond extreme partisanship. It is possible to get the best of all worlds. You still desperately want your team to win, but if they don't, you can put it in the appropriate context. Most cricket fans love their team, but they love the game more.

Last winter's Ashes was a case in point. The instinctive sadness was outweighed by the majesty of Australia's comeback, the delightful human story of Mitchell Johnson's redemptive revenge, and sheer fascination at the brutal and unceremonious slaying of one of England's greatest sides.

There was one exception to all that. Throughout the series, David Warner brought out the football fan in me. He was an oaf who made me say "oh f***" as he raced towards another cheap century. He was just a bully. A talented bully, but one who made easy runs in the second innings when Australia were already well on top. He didn't cause England's wounds, he merely poured industrial quantities of salt into them. He was also a tedious boor.

The Jonathan Trott comments were a red herring - Warner surely couldn't have known about Trott's illness - but he punched Joe Root, which was akin to taking potshots at Bambi. His behaviour on the field was also too much. He showed no respect for his opponents or the game. Never mind a word with the match referee, he needed an ASBO. And he simply had not done enough to be behaving in such a way. At the end of the Ashes he averaged 53 in home Tests and 25 away. I couldn't wait for him to be sorted out by Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel.

Allrounder: Warner is both cartoon villain and world-class opener

Allrounder: Warner is both cartoon villain and world-class opener © Getty Images

I'm still waiting. Whether it's fair or not, Warner's performances against South Africa made me see him through completely different eyes - as an extraordinary talent, and a bad guy who is emphatically good for the game. There will be times during next summer's Ashes when he will surely piss me off, but Warner plays his role so well as to enrich the story of any match in which he is involved. He is a brilliant villain, and no script in the history of humankind has not benefited from such a character.

Warner's villainy might be irrelevant were he not so damn good. Against South Africa he proved himself to be so much more than a bully. He didn't just pick on the weak; he picked on his equals and apparent superiors. Dale Steyn was smashed for 117 from 94 balls and dismissed Warner once. Morne Morkel didn't get him out at all, but did disappear for 142 off 135 balls.

He did not just establish himself as a world-class opener; he showed he was the world's classiest opener. He made two centuries in the series decider in Cape Town and ended with 543 runs in six innings at an average of 91 and a strike rate of 87. His performance was without precedent. In 137 years of Test cricket only seven players have scored 500 runs in a series with a strike rate in excess of 75 - but Warner is the only man to do so in a contest to establish the world's best side.

Warner is often compared to Matthew Hayden, yet in terms of style - if, clearly, not personality - he is more like Adam Gilchrist. If the ball is in the slot, it's going, regardless of the pitch, bowler, match situation or time of day. Warner, like Gilchrist, takes attacks apart in a businesslike manner. His brisk, brusque batting intimidates bowlers and frazzles their minds. He hits them off their line and length - or, in the parlance of our time, he takes them out of their areas.

Whereas Gilchrist counter-attacked against the second new ball, Warner preemptively attacks the first new ball - setting the tone for an innings and inverting the classical relationship between new-ball bowler and opening batsman. He inverts it in other ways too: at times he goes out of his way to sledge or irritate bowlers or fielders, like Matt Prior or Philander do. Even though it's two versus 11, and he is always one ball away from having every word rammed down his throat, he continues to chirp away. That takes a rare level of certainty and conviction, but then Warner's confidence is missile-proof.

He leaves bowlers feeling almost defiled. They stop thinking clearly, change their plans, and get sucked into a personal battle. Precisely what Warner wants

With Warner it is business, but it's also personal. There is an exhilarating disdain and intrusive aggression to his batting. For bowlers, an assault from Warner must be like being punched in the face while your hands are tied behind your back. "And what are you gonna do about it, mate?" Mental disintegration is largely associated with bowlers and fielders, yet Warner is a master of achieving it with the bat. He leaves bowlers feeling almost defiled. They stop thinking clearly, change their plans, and get sucked into a personal battle. Precisely what Warner wants; for him, confrontation is a performance-enhancing drug.

In that respect Warner resembles Javed Miandad, and there are also similarities in the way they construct an innings. They are like fugitives, living on the lam - but crucially both never seem afraid of death or being dismissed. That almost deranged fearlessness makes them exceptionally dangerous. Warner, like Miandad, lives on his wits and his talent. He has never had any choice. He came into the Australian team without playing a single first-class match, and as of October, at the age of 27, has only played 12 Sheffield Shield games. There is little education or grounding to fall back on in times of trouble. All he has are his balls and his bat, his eye and his mouth.

Most of the time that is more than enough. His impact is even more powerful because you know he is not getting in character. Warner plays it as he sees it, on and off the field. And while that sometimes leads him down some regrettable paths, his honesty is essentially preferable to the snide behaviour and briefing that is commonplace in top-level sport. Warner, at least, would stab you in the front.

There are elements of others, including Gilchrist and Miandad, but Warner has unconsciously put them together to make a unique and compelling character: a gloriously talented troll who leaves opposing players and fans foaming with impotent rage.

Rob Smyth is the author of The Spirit of Cricket - What Makes Cricket the Greatest Game on Earth

 

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