Shane Warne’s Never-Ending Glory (Part Two)
By Gideon HaighFebruary 18, 2012
Still spinning cricket balls, still spinning yarns: Shane Warne, superstar, proves that he’s still cricket’s biggest talent and biggest name — and even has a hankering to return to the Australian Test cricket side.
IN CASE YOU MISSED PART ONE, CLICK HERE.
Jim Stynes Room, Melbourne Cricket Ground, 8 November, 2011: at one end of a long table sat Big Bash League executives Eddie McGuire and Clint Cooper; at the other sat Melbourne Stars coach Greg Shipperd and captain Cameron White. “Isn’t the green slimming, ladies and gentlemen?” asked McGuire as the svelte Shane Warne arrived to sit between them and announce his comeback for the Stars. “It definitely wasn’t the green that persuaded me,” responded Warne. “There was a bit of green,” McGuire interposed wryly.
Warne, however, soon provided the value to go with that price. TRUenergy finally signed up as a sponsor; likewise Jeep, Antler Luggage, 2XU and Jenny Craig, whose managing director Amy Smith is a friend of McGuire’s. With the exception of a pourage deal arranged by the Adelaide Strikers and the promotion of an existing state sponsor at the Hobart Hurricanes, they were the first corporate backers landed by a team in the entire league. “Shane gave the competition credibility,” Cooper recalls. “Suddenly there was an awareness that had been lacking before. It was ‘the thing that Warnie’s playing in’ … We went from cold-calling people to people cold-calling us.”
Warne was everywhere. He was photographed giving a Stars shirt to David Beckham, and to Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid; he went out to Glen Waverley Central Reserve for a coaching clinic. He conducted a lengthy private tutorial with the two youngest Stars, Alex Keath and Peter Handscomb; he rolled out the next day for a first “official” bowl at which the Stars’ sponsors were announced. He hosted a Stars function at Crown Casino’s Club 23; he became focus of the Stars’ promotional campaign for “Warnie’s Bay”, a core spectator group. His effect on fans, in fact, could sometimes be embarrassing. When he arrived a little late for one autograph signing session, everyone suddenly deserted the other players and lined up at Warne’s end of the table. It might have caused discontent, except that Warne very obviously relished the team environment.
“When you travel round as a group with Shane, whether you’re going through airports or staying in hotels, it’s pretty full-on,” says George Bailey, the poised 29-year-old captain of Tasmania who joined the Stars. “You see firsthand exactly what a celebrity he is, how people from all walks of life just want a piece of him. The good thing is that away from that, in a team environment, at training or preparing, cricket is his number one focus, because it’s what he does best. You could not find a more generous teammate.”
With four seasons behind him in the IPL, Warne’s knowledge of T20 was encyclopaedic, which he condensed into a two-page, 20-paragraph dissertation on the format for the Stars’ induction book. For a form of the game often thought of as crude, How to Win Twenty20 was full of subtle, even Machiavellian, thinking, such as using the first and last balls of each over to keep slower-scoring batsman on strike and to isolate big-hitting opponents, the importance of taking wickets in the first six overs when you are bowling, and preserving them when you are batting. The only problem with Warne, Bailey found, was the tweeting: it was so incessant he had to unfollow @warne888.
Yet the tweeting was bizarrely effective - as I observed on the morning of December 12 in the press box at Bellerive Oval for Australia’s Test against New Zealand. “Seen this?” said a colleague, holding up his iPhone to show me a photo of a disembodied hand bearing serious blisters on two fingers. It was a Warne Twitpic with the explanatory legend: “Not ideal preparation for practice match today-burning the bowling hand Get better quickly please, any suggestions-HELP.” Warne had decided to break his fast ahead of a planned warm-up game against the Renegades with a bacon roll, and managed to start a fire; the ugly lesions had resulted from his plunging his hand into cold water. The picture had already been retweeted more than a hundred times.
The press box of a morning is normally a quiet place; this day it hummed with industry. When Clint Cooper described the incident as a “cooking mishap”, it became the day’s catchphrase. My colleague’s iPhone rang incessantly as he tried to dash something off for The Australian’s website, and he recited the phrase “cooking mishap” to each interlocutor with diminishing patience. Finally his daughter rang. “Bet this is about Warnie too,” he harumphed. Pause. “He’s had a cooking mishap…” By lunchtime, Warne’s Kentucky Fried hand was the number one story on every newspaper website in the country. The Australian’s version featured the warning: “Image may offend.”
The Melbourne Stars’ coup could be seen plain as day: they had recruited not so much a cricketer so much as a media event waiting to happen. Who else burns their hand so that plastic is seared into the flesh and before seeking medical assistance distributes a photograph of it and invites his fans to respond? Who else milks the moment by turning up the next day to the tournament’s launch with his hand swathed in bandages to milk the moment?
When later I asked Stars coach Greg Shipperd how he had heard about the mishap, he said he had seen Warne’s number flash up on his phone en route to the practice game. “You’re not going to believe this, Shippy…” Warne began. When I remarked that Warne over the years had probably used this line quite a lot and that it covered a multitude a possibilities, Shipperd, normally a rather dour man, broke into unexpectedly hearty laughter. “We won’t go there,” he said. “No, we won’t go there. Oh dear…”
We will go there, of course. There is a history - each little drama around Warne resonates with a legacy of incidents and accidents, by his surviving of which he has become the willing punch line in a kind of shared national joke, the bowler of the ‘Ball of the Century’ and the object of Sharon Strezlecki’s unrequitable lust in Kath & Kim. For some, no doubt, he will remain the original irredeemable cashed-up bogan. But there is also to his fame a very Australian quality, of charisma without mystique, of ambition without avidity, with a tincture of absurdity as well.
“Warne gives you the impression that he is not worried about what people think, and that he will take whatever comes,” says academic David Nichols, who last year took on inner city-prejudices about outer-city life in his book The Bogan Delusion. “It seems like he would be the same person whether he was famous or not.” Nichols credits Warne with the “relaxed erectness of carriage” that A.A. Phillips prescribed as an antidote to “the cultural cringe” in his famous 1950 essay; indeed, it is hard to think of anyone who has worn renown and recognisability more lightly, and made fame look like so much fun, avoiding almost all the pathologies to which sport stars are commonly heir.
He has never broken the law. He has no recorded history of violence. He has never gambled to excess, preferring the protected environs of high-end poker. He has never wrestled with alcohol or been addicted to a drug, unless you count TaiSlim shakes. If not always willingly, he has owned up variously to infidelity, to vanity, to naivety and to stupidity. His other weaknesses have been open, acknowledged and utterly prosaic: in full public view, he has worked to reverse his hair loss, battled with his weight, and striven to stop smoking. The nonsense stories about him in the supermarket checkout aisles are in general harmlessly idiotic, while the true stories make for ready retelling.
Here’s one. Lately, Warne has taken an interest in art, and borrowed several works, including of the pioneering abstract painter Dick Watkins. He was thus receptive when approached by Sydney artist McLean Edwards, who wished to paint his portrait for the Archibald Prize. When Edwards and gallery owner Martin Browne met Warne and his personal assistant Helen Nolan at Warne’s home, the painter was excited to find a Watkins in prominent position. “Shane!” he exclaimed. “What a wonderful big Dick you have!” Go on, laugh: you know it’s funny.
* * * *
As the evening approached on December 17, and the Stars’ inaugural game at the MCG, Warne was in strife. In compliance with anti-corruption codes, BBL cricketers were required to turn in their mobile phones before games - except that a security officer noticed an uninterrupted stream of tweets from @warne888. In fact, the redoubtable Helen Nolan was acting as Warne’s social-media proxy. “I can get in trouble without even trying,” Warne laughed.
Outside, it looked like the Stars were in trouble. Crowds of up to 60,000 had been forecast for the game against the Sydney Thunder. But when Elizabeth Hurley went out to sprinkle a little magic dust on the occasion by tossing the coin, the MCG’s terraces yawned emptily. Somehow, everything jarred.
The Stars’ opening batsmen emerged from their inflatable players’ race crested in the Stars logo and enswirled with the fumes of dry ice to the strains of ‘Let Me Entertain You’; the languid West Indian Chris Gayle then opened the bowling off two paces. Run out by a metre, David Hussey was off the ground by the time he was given out by the third umpire. Even the moment of Warne’s actual reappearance was missed because the mid-game break had been given over to the hoary stunt of a bunch of club cricketers trying to catch tennis balls lobbed into the air by an uptilted bowling machine; never mind that the greatest bowler of this era, and perhaps of any, was warming up, a little gingerly, just off the square.
The Stars may have been proud of their sponsors, but their presence was cloying. When Warne took his turn at the crease, the public address system advised that it was “thanks to Jenny Craig”. David Warner, no respecter of persons, came down the wicket to his fourth and ninth balls and launched them back down the ground for six, the ball bouncing round the empty seats, and coming back during a Jeep Cherokee advertisement: “The search for the best four-wheel drive is over.” Warne came off with 2-0-19-0; the crowd figure of 23,496 made for similarly lacklustre reading.
There were, however, gladder television tidings. The official viewer number, 488,000, turned out to be the biggest pay-TV audience Australian cricket had ever attracted, being rivalled by only three other sports events (the Reds-Crusaders Super Rugby Final in July, and the Rugby World Cup semi-final and final in October). “We’re thrilled by those figures,” said James Sutherland in a triumphant press release. “It certainly sets the tournament alight.” He was wrong; that was to come.
When the Stars met the Heat three nights later at the Gabba, the occasion was just right. The ground had sold out in advance. Warne’s presence was milked for every moment: his image alternating on the big screen with his family’s, Warne bringing boos and his fiancée cheers from the 29,241. As the strains of the Stars Wars theme wafted round the Gabba, Warne came on for the eighth over, and bowled six slow, teasing deliveries to New Zealander Brendon McCullum and Queenslander Peter Forrest, yielding just four runs. To the first ball of the 10th over, McCullum then came down the wicket to hit “inside out” over cover, came up short of the pitch of the ball, and miscued into space on the off side.
All the while, his former teammate turned Fox Sports commentator Brendon Julian was in Warne’s ear, and when McCullum next settled over his bat, he asked Warne what was next.“"Might be trying to shape to sweep one after that first one, or maybe even go inside out again a bit harder,” said Warne confidentially. “So I might try and slide one in there … fast.” The ball was quicker, flatter, delivered stump-to-stump; seeking to sweep fine and rotate the strike, McCullum was defeated by the few extra km/h and bowled behind his legs.
Uproar: the cameras picked out Warne’s family party clapping; through Warne’s mic could be heard teammates flocking to celebrate. “That worked well,” said Julian. “Yeah, not bad, BJ,” Warne replied nonchalantly. And it wasn’t, even if in cricket terms it was not so obviously great: indeed, it was, in one sense, a pretty standard response to a batsman trying to free his arms to hit to off or leg. It was, nonetheless, a brilliant moment of television: what Fox Sports’ Patrick Delany calls a “golden nugget”. It also flashed round the world, thanks to ESPN-Star Sports throughout Asia, and to the mysterious personages who rejoice in uploading clips to You Tube — in this case ‘Bashy586,’ ‘alexczarn’, “wazclark’ and ‘uuploader007’, ‘JainamShah9999’, and ‘Mrcricpaki’. At time of writing, for example, the last had had almost 200,000 views.
The print media rather strained to do the event justice. The problematic point that if you were watching the game at the Gabba, you knew nothing of Warne’s wiles; you simply saw McCullum being bowled. Nobody made it: instead, reporters took the 50-year-old advice of the editor inThe Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance that “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” The account by TheDaily Telegraph’s Ben Dorries, for example, read like the description of a movie scene crossed with an advertisement for Fox Sports.
The Star Wars theme song blared when Shane Warne strode to the bowling crease and cricket’s cagey magic man then proved he could read the stars himself.
In an audacious piece of pre-meditation which only he would be bold enough to conjure, Warne cheekily predicted how he would dismiss Brisbane Heat’s globetrotting batting star Brendon McCullum last night.
“He might try to sweep me, so I’ll just slide one through,” a miked-up Warne told cricket fans watching on Fox Sports.
Seconds later, that’s exactly what happened as cricket’s 42-year-old showman bowled the Kiwi dasher around his legs as Warne’s glamour fiancée Liz Hurley flashed a million-dollar smile from a Gabba private box.
Those paying attention the night before would have noticed that the prediction made by the cagey, cheeky, audacious, bold magic showman had been subtly edited. “He might be trying to sweep one after that first one, or go inside out a bit harder. So I’ll try and slide one in there. Fast” had been simplified to “He might try to sweep me, so I’ll just slide one through” — thereby making Warne appear to have predicted the exact shot, and to have explicitly stated his intention rather than more broadly expressed a desire to “try”. Not that Dorries was alone. The quote was freely and globally adjusted, by TheSydney Morning Herald (“He might try to sweep me so I’ll just slide one through”), by The Australian (“I reckon he’s going to sweep me so I’ll try and slide one through”), by London’s Daily Telegraph (“I think he might be trying to sweep one after that first one. So I’ll try and slide one in there … fast”), by Auckland’s New Zealand Herald (“He might try to sweep me so I’ll just slide one through”).
Not surprisingly, the wicket got a big bash on the Big Bash League’s website: “Brendon McCullum became the latest victim in Shane Warne’s ever-expanding reel of highlights on Tuesday night at the Gabba, but the mega-star wasn’t going to feel too down after being beaten to the punch by an ‘oracle’ and a ‘genius’.” But there was a lot of hyperbole around: the Indian website Cricinfo likened it to the experience of listening “to Michelangelo talk as he painted the Sistine Chapel”.
To his credit, Warne himself shrank from making too much of the wicket. Bowlers made such plans all the time, he said afterwards: occasionally they came off; mostly they did not. But his sense of vindication must have been powerful because in the week afterwards he brooded seriously about the possibility of a return to the green and gold.
Warne had flirted with the possibility before, wondering if he hadn’t given up too soon, watching the struggles of young epigones to fill the breach he had left. Erskine was dubious - sporting careers, like old love affairs, are seldom successfully rekindled. But he agreed to broach the possibility with Sutherland, and with CA’s operations chief Michael Brown, who discussed it in turn with Australian coach Mickey Arthur. The polite but firm response came that the Australian cricket team had moved on. Not even Shane Warne, then, can step into the same river twice.
So why did he fantasise of it, however briefly, when wise heads were shaking that he had nothing to gain, and hard heads were committing to the future not the past? Part of him may miss the intoxication that comes from the clutch moment, the great occasion, and the biggest possible stage - and it is illuminating that he still, for all his T20 success and wealth, regards this as Test cricket. What it corroborates most of all, however, is the uncanny, irrepressible, undilutable optimism that has powered Warne through not just his cricket career but perhaps his whole life, where realism exists but only as a last resort, where first thoughts have been so rewarding that second thoughts have hardly been necessary.
* * * *
With the momentum Warne lent it, the BBL became a source of encouragement, and of self-congratulation, for Cricket Australia. Just over half a million tickets were sold, with the smaller grounds, Bellerive Oval and the WACA, selling out; ratings never achieved the same level as for Warne’s comeback match but were solid and consistent; membership sales were patchy, and fell short of budgets even at the Stars, but you have to start somewhere.
There was spectacular cricket, there was awful cricket, and all points between. Funnily enough, the Stars were perhaps the betweenest team of all. Their captain Cameron White had a fearful time with the bat; their bowling was inconsistent; their fielding lacked athleticism. Warne was not the only senior-citizen spinner feeling his oats in the competition: the Stars succumbed to both the Sydney Sixers and to the Perth Scorchers, aided by 40-year-olds Stuart MacGill and Brad Hogg respectively. With a single win from their first four starts, the BBL’s most glamorous team was briefly in danger of slipping from finals contention.
George Bailey wonders whether the glamour itself wasn’t part of the problem. “There was at the outset, I think, a huge amount of pressure to perform, particularly because in Melbourne there were the two teams, and, as somebody put it, it was like having two sets of sons playing for two different footy clubs,” says Bailey. “I think that weighed on the players quite a lot; there was so much build-up that guys were a bit in awe of what was expected of them.” The player least distracted by it all was, of course, Warne, whose only entourage was what he called “the Foghorns”, Hurley, her son Damian, 9, and his children Brooke, 14, Jackson, 12 and Summer, 10. “The thing I was asked about more than anything else was: what was it like to have Shane and Elizabeth round the group?” says Bailey. “In fact, it was really not very unusual. After the game, four kids under the age of 15 came into the dressing room, and they would have been anyone’s kids.”
It is Warne, in fact, whom Bailey credits with turning the Stars’ season around, by a very simple expedient: he invited everyone to his mansion in Brighton’s William Street on January 6 for a barbecue. “Shane leads a very normal existence, and that barbecue helped normalise the whole set-up,” says Bailey. “It was the first time everyone had gotten together, and everyone’s kids had gotten together, and it seemed to relax everyone, and after that we played good cricket, won our last three games, and got into the semi-finals.”
The Stars made it no further, although in the stock of memories from the competition, Warne is bound always to loom large. One suspects that in future fewer will be able to recall who won the inaugural BBL (the Sydney Sixers) than will remember the way Warne dismissed Brendon McCullum.
So what was Warne’s house like, I asked Clint Cooper when we caught up one last time at the MCG — funnily enough watching the last rites of a Sheffield Shield match. “Impressive,” he laughed. “Ridiculous, really. Can’t describe it.” I didn’t ask him to, although it occurred to me that the remarks applied equally well to the house’s owner, who at that very moment was tweeting that his favourite character in Gilligan’s Island was Gilligan. We walked out via Gate 2, parting by Louis Laumen’s bronze. Jason Warne was right: there are a fair set of cheeks on it.