When the news broke of Shane Warne’s death on Friday, there was a common reaction from cricket fans around the world – not just shocked, but instantly bereft. Warne’s loss was unexpected and close on the heels of that of another Australian legend, former wicketkeeper Rod Marsh. Marsh was 74. Warne was just 52 and despite his easygoing attitude to diet and fitness, it never occurred that this ebullient commentator, coach, poker player and former world champion was in anything but the prime of life.
Some of the sorrow was, naturally, the tragedy of a life left too early. We expected Warne to be part of our landscape for many years yet, sharing opinions on the game, joking with England players he used to humiliate on the field, managing teams in domestic tournaments and, who knows, perhaps one day taking the reins of an international team and transforming it into an all-conquering behemoth (please, God, let it be ours).
But it was also about something far deeper. Every nation has its sporting heroes, but it is the rare and special talent who can appear to belong to all the world, beloved and feted by the countries whose downfall they engineered – in Warne’s case, to their enduring embarrassment.
Many England fans spent more than a decade cursing Warne’s name. From the moment he bowled his first delivery in Ashes cricket – the “ball of the century” to Mike Gatting in 1993 – he was Nemesis. He took hundreds of wickets and humbled every Test side and the ones he took against your own always looked like the ones he most enjoyed. In England’s case, that was probably true.
And it is in those fans’ lament that we perceive something about the man, perhaps even something about this life we live. Warne was a tormentor, both stealer of and laugher at our dreams. He was the completely unfair advantage on the other side of the team sheet. The Australian team of the 90s was intimidating enough without him; his presence made them the determined murderer in an Agatha Christie novel who chooses to poison and shoot their victims.
Warne didn’t just best his opponents, he revelled in it. He baited, he sledged, he screamed appeals for lbws that weren’t even close, just to annoy and confuse. He did a complete number on England, neutering their only real assets of that period: a few stalwart batters who looked heroic taking bruises and broken jaws against the world’s most terrifying fast bowlers, but like incompetent fools against Warne’s indecipherable, unstoppable armoury of spin.
Googlies, flippers, sliders, unnamed mystery balls that probably never existed and still scared batsmen out – for a long time we resented him for these. How could we not? We leapt on any apparent flaw – his weight, his dating history, his use of a diuretic pill that just happened to contain a masking agent. Only when England fans tasted victory against him, in 2005, could we finally unclench, to appreciate and celebrate what was there all along – a once-in-a-generation player and man whose exuberant personality was one with the extravagance of his gifts.
Shane Warne was the greatest villain of many sporting fans’ lives – but only because we were on the other side. And, now he’s gone, we can only wish for him back and to watch him, to enjoy his life, all over again.