Bangalore: In every walk of life, there are some individuals that are more equal than others, that are larger than life itself. A majority of them enjoy that status because of what they have accomplished; then, there is the minority, that tower over the rest not merely for achievements alone, but for the off-field persona, if you like, that accompanies the on-field virtuoso.
Particularly in sport, the lines between what one does on the field and how one conducts himself off it do get blurred from time to time. There are very few that stand out merely for what they have achieved in their chosen fields – a Sachin Tendulkar, a Rahul Dravid, a Roger Federer, a Pete Sampras, a Lionel Messi. But for every Tendulkar, there is a Brian Lara. For every Sampras, there is an Andre Agassi. And for every Messi, there is a Cristiano Ronaldo.
Neither Lara, nor Agassi or Ronaldo, is any less a champion. While a Tendulkar, a Sampras or a Federer, and a Messi will enthrall with magic in his area of expertise, the Laras and the Agassis, the Ronaldos and the Tiger Woods, they will captivate and mesmerise, excite and enchant with the colour and the glamour that might not always come naturally to the Tendulkars and the Federers.
And, they don’t make them any more colourful, captivating and controversial than Shane Warne.
Just for mere skills, Warne is in a league of his own. An absolute magician with the cricket ball in hand, a master practitioner of one of the most difficult, demanding arts, someone who lent new meaning to the term ‘weaving a web’. Warne is the granddaddy of guile and deception, a wicked legspinning genius who has produced so many dream deliveries that he has made people believe that not only can dreams come true, but that they actually do come true.
Legspinner non pareil would have sufficed for most. Not, however, for Shane Warne, Hollywood as he came to be known across and beyond the cricketing world.
There has never been a dull moment when Warne has had the cricket ball in his hand, walking measuredly to the bowling crease, tongue sticking out of one corner, an incredible wrist and strong fingers imparting unmatched 'revs' and procuring unimaginable turn from the flattest of surfaces. It was said of Muttiah Muralitharan that he could make the ball turn even on glass; Warne could do it on sand, in water, perhaps even on the moon. In his sleep. Time after time.
But Warne has never been just a cricketer, even if Warne the cricketer alone would have done quite nicely, thank you. He has been an entertainer, he has been an unquestioned match-winner, but he must also go down as cricket’s ultimate showman. And the word 'ultimate' is not being used loosely.
Warne's 'misdemeanours' are far too many to be listed in detail here. From providing information on pitch and weather to bookmakers nearly two decades ago, to testing positive for a diuretic shortly before the 2003 World Cup and serving out a one-year ban, from lewd text messages to pow-wows with the establishment, from manhandling a teenager in New Zealand who photographed him smoking when he was being sponsored to kick the habit to having a run-in with officials of the Rajasthan Cricket Association when he was the captain-coach of Rajasthan Royals, Warne has somehow managed to keep the spotlight firmly trained on him, whether by accident or design.
You would have thought the passage of time, retirement from competitive international cricket and a more than passing interest in poker would have taken the maverick out of Warne the cricketer. If you did, think again.
Warne is now 43, an age where 'senior statesman' is a natural rather than an assumed role. It's an age when calm and circumspection and maturity replace excitability and the carefreeness of youth and middle age. It's a time in a sportsperson’s life where the past is a gentle if pleasurable memory, the future a challenge that entails chalking out children’s education plans and wise investments of the riches accrued through excellence on the field.
Not for Warne. The competitive juices continue to course through his veins. The streak of adventure and adrenaline that sometimes was his worst enemy is anything but a thing of the past. The Big Bash League of 2013, in all probability Warne’s last competitive tournament — though you can hardly make such a pronouncement when it comes to this man with any certainty – was a not-so-gentle reminder that an old dog can still learn new tricks.
They say the ultimate challenge for any international cricketer is to win over the heart of the Australian fan, and the respect of the Australian player. Marlon Samuels did that and more 13 years ago with a fabulous unbeaten 60, impressing Steve Waugh, that hard-nosed competitor, to gift the young Jamaican with the famous red rag that Samuels still carries with him. Warne wasn't part of the attack that was systematically dismantled by Samuels during that knock, so it may not have been respect earned first-hand, but respect was certainly not on view during the recent Melbourne derby, between Warne's Stars and Samuels' Renegades.
It all started when the Stars were batting, with Samuels appearing to deliberately prevent David Hussey from going for a second run by clinging on to his shirt. Hussey made his point but desisted from making a show of it. Warne, though, is cut from a different cloth.
When the Renegades began their chase, Warne had a right royal go at Samuels, at one point grabbing his shirt to remind him of what he had done to Hussey, then letting loose a verbal volley that even amateur lip-readers could have deciphered with great ease. He later needlessly fired the ball at Samuels' shoulder even though the batsman wasn't attempting a run, an action that spurred the Renegade to throw his bat down the pitch. Warne was slapped with a one-match ban and Samuels is awaiting his sentence, unable to leave his bed after being struck on the face by a Lasith Malinga bouncer in the same game.
Then, in a move reminiscent of what Mahela Jayawardene did at the World Twenty20 when, facing a potential ban for slow over-rate, he asked Kumar Sangakkara to lead Sri Lanka in a league game, Warne stood down from the captaincy in the semifinal against Perth Scorchers and handed over the reins to James Faulkner because he was sitting on a one-match ban for the same reason. Jayawardene had escaped with nothing more than a few ‘not in the spirit of the game’ rebukes, but Warne faces greater sanctions because the BBL rules make it explicitly clear that if the designated captain of a franchise plays a match but does not lead, then he is breaching the code of conduct.
What is it that makes Warne do such things? A complete 'I don't give a damn' attitude, or the desire to compensate for inevitable waning skills with anything that will keep him in the news? The inability to accept that he is past his sell-by date, or the unshakeable conviction, however mistaken, that he is forever in the right? Perhaps all of these. Perhaps none of these. After all, if the answers were that simple, the mystery of Warne the cricketer and Warne the person would have been unravelled a long time ago.