Sports is so much more than statistics, trophies and victories. We don’t love a player for his exceptional numbers or the impeccable records but the magic he puts forth on the field. Records stay in the books and enchanting display of talent stays in the memories and hearts of the fans. Warne owned both books and the hearts.
The prodigal son of leg-spin reintroduced us to new horizons of this perishing art in the 1990s. He wasn’t invested whole-heartedly into this game in his early years but as Warne would often quote-cricket found him. Facing preliminary rejections in football by St. Kilda Football Club in 1988, which is believed to be his foremost interest, he pursued cricket as a passionate hobby rather than a career choice. Even with all kinds of deliveries in the quiver he didn’t have the best of starts to his international career as he wasn’t very proficient in the secondary aspects of bowling like setting up a batsman, use of variations and its timing, etc.
5 innings into the career he averaged 335 before cleaning up the tail without conceding a run in the process of clinching a famous 16-run win over the Lankans in their den. From there on, a little help and guidance from mentors coupled with his raw talent turned him into a wizard of deception and he never looked back.
Flame of the Ashes
After the success against West Indies at home and on the New Zealand tour, Warne was selected for the Ashes tour of 1993. England were 80-1 and Warne was ready to bowl his first ever Ashes delivery which would later be adjudged as the ‘Ball of the Century’. A start to his Ashes journey so legendary that it was bound to end as the greatest of all time.
2005 Ashes series is a timeless classic contest between 2 of the most supreme cricketing sides. England ended a 16-year wait by winning the urn on Day 5 of the final Test with only one outstanding performer from the rival camp. Warne was so terrific in that tournament that he had English crowd singing ‘We wish you were English’ on the last day. He admitted later that “it was pretty cool”.
Warne had plans of retiring had they won that series but he wanted to retire with an Ashes win. Destiny probably had other, better plans as he became the first bowler to reach the outrageous tally of 700 Test wickets amid a standing ovation of the home crowd at MCG. He eventually retired in the following and final Test of the Ashes 2006-2007 at SCG with the urn back and a 1000 international wickets. A 15-year long career ended on the same venue it started and the champion went out on a high with 195 Ashes dismissals to his name- a record which is going to stay for long.
1999 World Cup semi-final is another one of the most iconic cricket matches of all time and easily the first thing that comes to mind when you retrospect the maestro’s feats in ODIs. It was Warne once again who was exceptional in the face of adversity but this time ended up on the winning side unlike the 2005 Ashes. Defending a thin total of 213 against a strong Protea side who were 48-0 in the chase, Warne spun his web around the top-order and opened the gates for rest of cavalry to breach in. He was named Man of the Match for his sensational 4/29 and finished with another 4-wicket haul and MOM award in the Finals. He always believed that with the ball in his hand, magic could happen next ball. And more often than not, it did.
Building on the Moneyball theory, Warne as captain built one of the most competitive teams in the inaugural IPL season despite having fewer star players compared to other franchises. The use of youngsters like Asnodkar and Yusuf Pathan in the line-up is still cited often in the cricketing circuit and hailed as a masterstroke. Warne led side recorded a win% of 84 which is still a standing record in the history of the league. Lifting the trophy was just a happy-ending to what had been an incredible fairy-tale anyway. His camaraderie with youngsters is another facet of his mercurial yet modest personality.
His fierce competitiveness which was seldom witnessed in his sledging or that smirk on his face was only to bring the best out of him-as he would explain later. The belief that he could win the game from anywhere was one of the stand-out qualities of this champion. Most of this generation has seen glimpses of his post-injury bowling which didn’t have the same zip, rip or panache as the 90s but still was bamboozling enough to make his passing a personal loss for most of us. A royal in his own right, he lived life as grand and bold as one could desire. The only bowler to be voted among the Top5 cricketers of the century by Wisden, is also the only one without a knighthood probably because Kings aren’t knighted.