The Warne genius - untouched by time
This was not how the memory of Shane Warne with a red cherry in hand was supposed to be when there were stumps, English batsmen and a cricket pitch at hand. His hair had to be ruffled. There had to be some brown stains on clothing.
He was dapper. This blond-haired guy with a ball in his hand and neatly combed hair. He could have walked into that indoor net off the street on his way to a wine-tasting event. Ironed white trousers, t-shirt hanging neat over his frame. Hanging, but not in that loose-fitting way that sportsmen on the field of play seem to have - this was ordered fashion that spoke of understated style. On a frame that was disconcertingly trim.
This was not how the memory of Shane Warne with a red cherry in hand was supposed to be when there were stumps, English batsmen and a cricket pitch at hand. His hair had to be ruffled. There had to be some brown stains on clothing. There had to be a tongue hanging out somewhere. And he had to look like the version who inspired the typically Australian-wit laden banner of "It ain't over till the fat man spins".
And five minutes into a net session during the fourth Ashes Test, where Warne was holding a spin "masterclass" for Sky Sports, bowling to Nasser Hussain and Andrew Strauss, you realised that the accoutrements to Warne holding a cricket ball in hand didn't matter. At a net session or an international match, retired or active, 25-year-old or a month short of his 44th birthday, with that red ball in hand, you were guaranteed wizardry.
The Ashes may have a one-sided scoreline right now, but the series has thrown up plenty of memorable moments. And yet, the most captivating part, for me, involved retired cricketers at an indoor nets - because Warne made it so.
He spoke illuminatingly of how he determined his stock ball, assessing the pace and bounce of the pitch to determine what kind of delivery would get the maximum turn. He demonstrated the use of angles in a way that brought the oft-uttered phrase alive, going close to the stumps one ball, wide the next, and wide around the wicket after that. The key, as Warne said, was getting the batsmen to "search for the ball". And allied to that was the exposition of the subtle art that is bowling in general and legspin specifically. Bowl a particular type of delivery to drag the batsman into a position you want, and then deliver the sucker punch when, forced by muscle memory, he lines up to a delivery that does not quite behave the way he had expected.
The art of Warne's bowling is explained at great length with unmatched lucidity and insight in Gideon Haigh's On Warne, one of the finest cricket books you could hope to read, and one that does remarkable justice to the phenomenon that Warne was. "It is a miracle of strength, dexterity and timing," writes Haigh on the art of bowling a leg-break. "Try it yourself - go on, I dare you. You let go too early. You hold on too long. You get nothing on it. You get too much. Your teammates laugh. Your opponents laugh harder."
What was noticeable in that short net session for Sky Sports was how almost every ball landed where Warne wanted it to. It could have been edited footage, perhaps, but it's easy to believe it wasn't, because Warne did put the ball exactly where he wanted it to for a majority of 50,000 international deliveries, and more than double that number at the domestic level.
Later on air, Hussain spoke of how quickly Warne had bowled a replica of his famous 'ball of the century' when they wanted to recreate it, saying, "even Warnie" - a perfectionist if there ever was one - was satisfied and said "that's it lads".
Watching Warne was made so compelling because the field was his theatre. There have been a fair few number of bowlers who made the ball do things that might have sent physicists searching for new laws. In the last 20-odd years, Wasim Akram seemed to imbue the ball with a mind of its own, Dale Steyn's deliveries sometimes seem pre-encoded with a homing device and Muttiah Muralitharan - Warne's great contemporary and spinning rival - held the ball as if on a string.
But most of their magic started from the run-up and ran through till the delivery. Nobody quite brought drama to the pause between deliveries the way Warne did. With Warne, the field was his theatre and he was always on stage. Naturally, he was the star. As Haigh wrote, "Batsman after batsman came to the middle determined not be drawn into the web of Warnitude. They would, they promised themselves, forget the reputation.... play the ball and not the man. Again and again they departed remonstrating with themselves that they would do this next time... Critics carped that Warne got wickets 'because he was Shane Warne'. Warne's response to this would have been: 'Thanks for the compliment'."
In that Sky Sports spin lesson, Warne - the quintessentially aggressive bowler, who was often described as having a fast bowler's spirit in a spinner's body - spoke, seemingly counter-intuitively at first, of the virtues of bowling defensively, especially to a batsman who was new at the crease.
"What it actually means is that once you've worked out the pitch and what your stock ball is... the plan basically, for any bowler is, when a new batsman comes in, you don't want to give him any freebies. You don't want to release the pressure. So you bowl defensively. You bowl your stock ball, which you should be able to land nine times out of ten, and you don't try anything. But, you attack with the field. You might have a couple of men around the bat, a slip, a leg-slip and you're crowding him to make him feel the pressure. But you don't want to release that pressure with your ball, so you bowl defensively and let the pressure create ball after ball."
It's astonishing how well-thought out that is, not because bowlers can't think, but because it's Warne speaking about bowling defensively, of all things. And it gives a peek, a small one, into what made Warne the bowler he was - one who didn't just out-bowl batsmen, but out-thought them.
He might have got wickets simply because he was 'Shane Warne' - but then, there haven't been too many, or even one other, quite like Shane Warne.