Shane Warne poses with a surfboard in the West Indies
© Getty Images

Hate to Love

The genius and the clown

How Shane Warne was a delightful mix of both

Andrew Fidel Fernando  |  

Every boy needs a hero. In this boy's mind, his hero needed a villain. I was probably unaware of Shane Warne's existence when Muttiah Muralitharan was no-balled on Boxing Day, 1995. By the end of that southern summer, Warne had crept insidiously in. He had sat himself opposite my hero; the yang to Murali's yin.

My memories from that season are now only snippets but they are crystalline. There are glimpses of Warne lazing in the dressing room, a smug look on his face; jowls quivering when he led the team to snigger at a Sri Lankan fielding lapse. There are flashes of him bowling to sweater-swaddled batsmen, ruddy cheeks flapping between deliveries. Murali never ran his mouth at the opposition, I recall thinking. "Look at this idiot. Just go back and bowl," an auntie often bellowed at Warne through her screen.

It was the southern summer the island began to dislike Australian cricketers. Some of us kids - our emotional range was yet to develop a middle ground between love and hate - might have even despised them. Through the three Tests and a cigarette-sponsored tri-series, Sri Lanka accrued a litany of affronts. The chucking allegation was the dagger in our bellies. The ball-tampering accusations, vitriol from crowds, various bad umpiring decisions and incessant Australian sledging were accompanying wounds and bruises.

Weeks after that tour, Warne kicked us in the gut. I remember my own mother's fear over sending me to school, after a bomb blast in Colombo had killed 91 people and injured 1400. Yet when the Australian team withdrew from their World Cup match and Warne announced he "wouldn't go on holiday to Sri Lanka", never mind on a cricket tour, the nation tightened in anger. We were boisterously critical of our own political state, of course, but too insecure to suffer a foreigner being the same.

How sweet the World Cup final was. Arjuna Ranatunga called Warne an "average spinner" before the match in Lahore, then swatted a Warne full toss over the square-leg rope to take his team to the brink of the title. Minutes later, Murali rushed the field, that grin cleaving his face in two. The next day, in school, even the teachers were laughing at Warne. He was all Aussie bluster, we decided. A no-talent clown. Kids attempting legspin in our street matches recoiled when they were compared to him. "I'm not copying Shane Warne," a friend used to protest. "I'm bowling like Mushtaq Ahmed."

I found myself belatedly enraptured by his legbreaks, which floated innocuously until they pounced at the stumps off the rough, like a lioness from tall grass

As the years wore on, Murali's wicket hauls began to match the heft of his ability, and he and Warne entered a sort of rivalrous cold war. Neither made direct jibes. Battles were waged by proxy. Ranatunga was Murali's chief aggressor, rarely passing up the chance to snipe at Warne from across continents. To be fair to Ranatunga, Warne made himself an easy target. The revelation in 1998 that he had taken money from a bookmaker in exchange for pitch and weather information was juicy, low-hanging fruit. Then in 2004, at the back-end of a one-year ban for taking a diuretic, Warne made light of Ranatunga's weight: "He's probably slotting himself at 150 kilograms. Swallowed a sheep or something like that?" The comeback almost wrote itself: "Better to swallow a sheep or a goat than what he has been swallowing."

Murali's career tossed about in a different, but in many ways more toxic, brand of controversy. At times, all of Australia seemed to have enlisted in the war of words against him. Weeks before Sri Lanka toured Australia in 2004, then prime minister John Howard proffered an emphatic "yes", when asked whether Murali chucked. "They proved it in Perth, with that thing," he said. What rankled most was that Murali was not just posited as the inferior spinner. He was instead made to seem wholly illegitimate.

Later, studying in New Zealand, I was dismayed that propaganda about Murali had drifted across the Tasman. Arguments based upon science and reason sank like lead in the ocean of misinformation. I began to find gaps in Warne's record to compensate. "Aha! Look at these numbers against India," I'd say. "Can you really be a great spinner if you can't dismiss batsmen who can play spin?" Or "Murali would have minted wickets too if he had got to play England every other year."

Only when I arrived at adulthood, pruned of jingoism, did I realise how petty I had been. Warne had lived out almost everything I enjoyed about the game. He was hopelessly devoted to attack. He had a supremely tuned sense for drama; for knowing when to slow the game down, when to tighten the tourniquet, whom to hassle, whom to avoid, though not always when to keep his mouth shut. Along the way I had even picked up legspin. (Though my team-mates will say they were the ones who did the picking up - of balls from beyond the boundary.)

Australia's showman: Warne lets his hair down after winning the 1997 Ashes

Australia's showman: Warne lets his hair down after winning the 1997 Ashes © PA Photos

But by the time I grew up, Warne's career had already passed by. I have heard others speak fondly of the rising thrill when Warne ringed a new batsman with fielders, of the tension in their fingers when, suddenly, the ball began to dip, and drift and grip. All that remained for me were clips on YouTube, which thankfully, unlike for Murali, are plentiful.

I found myself belatedly enraptured by his legbreaks, which floated innocuously until they pounced at the stumps off the rough, like a lioness from tall grass. I found myself marvelling at the flipper, which suckered batsmen into setting up for the pull, then set a low, fast course for the stumps. Sometimes you could almost see the smoking cogs in a batsman's head as his mind raced to work out how Warne had wangled him. Other times, the batsman looked back on his broken stumps, bemused, like a man who rose too quickly from his chair and knocked it over. Did that ball pass between bat and pad? Between the pads? Through an undiscovered spatial plane?

My favourite Warne dismissal of all might be that delightfully overacted bluff against Craig McMillan in Christchurch in 2005, when Warne theatrically posted a close-in catcher on the off side, only to persist with a curious leg-side line. Thoughts scrambled, McMillan kept padding away full tosses until he was virtually bullied into deflecting a ball to short leg, almost off the face of the bat.

Warne is a cricketer I should have loved all along. He is my cricketing missed connection. The one that got away. Maybe, if pressed to make an all-time XI, I'd still put Murali's name down first. But lately, I've started to wonder why you wouldn't have both.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando