Oh, Warnie. What have you got up to now? Death is always shocking; the most shocking of all the everyday things. A day on from the death of Shane Warne, aged 52, there is still a sense of genuine disbelief, a shared bruising that seems to transcend the usual response to the loss of a much-loved sports star.
This is still hard to grasp. It feels like an escapade, a twist, another moment in the fond, picaresque story that is the life of Shane. Mainly, though, it just feels a little worse with every passing hour, a death that makes less sense, and seems more startling as it begins to sink in.
No doubt the scale of Warne’s presence has something to do with this. He became public property at a very young age and remained so to the end. Scott Morrison, the Australian prime minister, has already suggested a state funeral, and while politicians are always motivated, at bottom, by being politicians, this seems about right.
Warne was a great Australian as much as a great Australian cricketer, and a startlingly vivid entity. If you love or like or even simply know about cricket his death is like losing a piece of infrastructure, a day of the week, an element of your internal world.
But still, it’s not just that. Perhaps that sense of shock is down to the unusually vivid brilliance of his deeds as a cricketer. Warne was a true sporting genius, in a way that gives that term interest and meaning. Like Lionel Messi or Usain Bolt, Warne was one of those few individuals who can take these fixed disciplines, with their set choreography, their limits and absolutes, and turn that closed world into an activity that feels like an extension of their own character and capacities, an expression of something noble and transcendent.
But, no, it’s not just that either. Mainly, this is to do with character, the irresistible and contagious Shane-ness of Shane. One of the joys of having seen his entire career unfold in real time is that it sits there complete and unimprovable, from the rosy-cheeked stripling to the gloriously grizzled and statesmanlike Yoda-Warne of 2005, with his lovable little flared white trousers, his ennobling air of gravitas.
But that connection is still there even if you never saw him in the flesh, or came to it late, or backfilled the whole thing from YouTube videos and the overspill affections of others. One of the things about getting older is that your friends start to die. And this is the thing about Warne. However you knew him, from afar or close up, he felt like a friend.
This was also earned. Warne was in the first instance a truly great sports person – and great in a way that cannot and will not be repeated, if only because the world he inhabited and might even have saved, Test cricket as the unapologetic apex, has now effectively gone.
This was always the delicious paradox of Warne. Early on there was an attempt in the English press box in particular to portray him as a kind of beach-kid type, a junk-food cricketer, all brittle and volatile natural talent.
One of the founding myths of early Warne is the origins story about suffering two broken legs aged eight and spending a year paddling himself around on a trolley, thereby developing a preternatural hand strength, source of his hard-spinning superpowers. Does this really sound credible? How would it work exactly? Are we scouting power lifters now?
It is one way of explaining Warne away, of freak-ifying him. But in reality the essence of Warne’s brilliance was its orthodoxy, its old school purity. Warne was incredibly good at something incredibly hard, a bowling art so complex it had effectively died. Warne, the anti-hero, the custard-haired Ramone, was in fact a classicist. Warne, the cart-propelling surf dude, found crawling out of some urban dustbin clutching a packet of Cheetos and a cricket ball, was above all a brilliantly forensic thinker.
Richie Benaud got it from the start, of course. “I might feel a touch of apprehension. But in the main I just feel a touch of delight,” Richie had said of Warne’s selection for Australia after just four first class games for Victoria. Warne ended up part of a three-man attack at Sydney after Bruce Reid broke down. His hands were sweating so hard he couldn’t grip the ball. Sachin Tendulkar and Ravi Shastri “went on the rampage”, and Warne was just glad to pick up a skyer at the end, convinced he was done.
Except, of course, that didn’t happen. Everyone has their favourite Warne, from the mid-90s wonder years when he bowled every ball, when the shoulder was loose, through to the that wily, round-armed IPL incarnation, by which stage the bowling action was reminiscent of a man hailing a late-night taxi while also trying very hard not to spill his kebab.
Perhaps the most epic Warne was the 1999 World Cup version, dropped and injured and scandal-ridden, when he seemed to have reached that point when an athlete is defending rather than building their legacy; but still came back to produce something stunning and effectively reboot himself.
First, Warne actually called the “you’ve just dropped the World Cup” moment in the final group game against South Africa. Before the match Warne had told his teammates not to walk off until Herschelle Gibbs had fully caught the ball. Warne had noticed he tended to throw it up too early as he caught it. Gibbs duly dropped Steve Waugh doing this. It seems absurd. But that was Warne’s uncanny gift, the acuity of his eye. Then he produced a stunning spell to turn the semi-final, going absolutely wild on the pitch, leaping and bellowing, proclaiming his own renaissance.
And yes, there was some scandal down the years. Does anyone really care? He was covertly filmed mucking about in a pair of Playboy underpants carrying, among other things, an inflatable cricket stump, although frankly, you’d want to ask some questions here about the people doing the filming. He upset a few people by wearing the wrong duds, by failing to buy into the fetishising of the baggy green. He took some casino chips from an Indian bookmaker for talking about the pitch and conditions and that was pretty weak, Warnie, ffs.
But here is a rare thing. Cricket is a bitchy, unforgiving world. But nobody out there has a genuine bad word to say about Warne, from teammates to opponents to people who met him along the way. Quite the opposite. Instead the abiding memory is of his natural generosity.
Warne ennobled other players with his skill (how much goodwill has Mike Gatting reeled in on the back of his straight man role in the ball of the century?). He played a huge role in the unforgettable theatre of the 2005 Ashes series, and in the blossoming of other talents, from Kevin Pietersen to an endless stream of leg-spin bowlers around the world. His talent and personalty did preserve Test cricket: he gave us an extra 30 years of this stuff.
Perhaps the best way to remember him is his final comeback in the Big Bash aged 42, when he produced the unimprovable feat of predicting his own wicket on mic’d-up commentary, bowling Brendan McCullum around his legs while being cheered on from the stands by his kids and his girlfriend Liz Hurley (who, read the books, he really was very close to), and doing so in front of a wildly cheering full house: the perfect end to the perfect career, a moment of pure Warne Supremacy.
He still had so much to give. He could have been a great elder statesman. He could have done wonderful things for English cricket. If they’d ever trusted him. Mainly, though, what will be missed is that vividness, the sense of that much-loved friend you may have never actually met; but who feels right now like a profound absence.