His authenticity made him relatable and likeable beyond Australia's distant shores. He was at home on the hallowed balcony of Lord's as easily as the streets of the subcontinent, teeming with humanity
Shane Warne's untimely death on March 4 cast a pall not just in Australia but the entire cricketing world. He died in Thailand the same day another Australian stalwart Rodney Marsh died in Australia, aged 74. As iconic as Marsh was in an Australian context, it was Warne's passing - at just 52 - which has left a hard-to-fill void in global cricket. He ended his innings too soon, with still a lot still to play for.
Marsh played cricket when it was not yet a global sport. In his era, cricket was not broadcast globally, tour schedules were much lighter and only a handful of countries competed against each other with few multi-team competitions. The one-day format - which made cricket more sexy - was also relatively new and the longest format dominated the sport. Marsh retired from cricket in 1984, some eight years before Warne made his international debut. The Western Australian paid it forward as an administrator, coach and commentator.
Warne was a transition from Marsh's era and the emergence of cricket as a global sport. He understood stardom and self-marketing as cricket became a more popular and snazzy sport and attracted a younger, wider audience. People watched cricket to watch the stars play, and Warne was a big draw around the world, especially when he was the Gladiator performing at the MCG. His larger-than-life persona surely helped turn a talented boy from a Melbourne suburb to a global star.
Yet, Warne was also quite old-fashioned, reminiscent of the Marsh era. He enjoyed white-ball cricket as it brought out the showman and a big game player that he was. But his heart was in the longest format of the game where his once-a-generation skills truly shone and bagged him a then-record 708 wickets. And as a true ambassador of the game and his art, Warne was always the first in line to praise and reach out to other talent.
Before injuries wreaked havoc on Yasir Shah, Warne was his No. 1 fan; Shadab Khan revealed he took up leg spin because of Warne. In 2020 when the Covid-19 pandemic was at its peak, Warne spent more than an hour online with the Singapore Cricket Club academy, encouraging kids to keep their spirits up, hone their skills and, most importantly, enjoy the game. It was a message of hope, of optimism.
Warne the player
While it was Abdul Qadir who revived leg spin bowling, it was Warne who took it to the next level with his innovation and x-factor. The flipper bagged him tons of wickets and his stock ball, the leg break, was the epitome of skill, accuracy and mental strength. No matter the opponent, no matter the conditions, venue or game situation, Warne could turn a game with a single delivery. The Ball of the Century to Mike Gatting ended the Englishman's career and launched Warne's.
In the 1999 World Cup semi-final, South Africa choked on the last ball but it was those rippers to Herschelle Gibbs and Gary Kirsten that deflated the Proteus. His 293 ODI wickets do no justice to his impact on white-ball cricket. His tactical genius was never hidden.
Warne and Pakistan had a mixed relationship. He admired Qadir and openly credited the Pakistani for improving his skills. In a documentary released just before his passing, Warne accused Saleem Malik - then Pakistan's skipper - of approaching him to fix a match, an offer that Warne rejected. He played just 15 Tests against Pakistan but collected 90 wickets at just 20 apiece. These included 18 in the three-Test tour in 1994 where he was the Australian Player of the Series. Pakistan won the series 1-0 but only just. He skipped the next series and never returned until the final of the 1996 World Cup where eventual champions Sri Lanka bludgeoned him for 58 runs. Warne was unusually quiet about the hype around Australia's first tour of Pakistan in 24 years. Yet at the last moments in life, he died watching Day 1 of the first Test.
Warne the mate and flawed genius
Warne was as Australian as an Australian can be. In a country where "mate" is bolted onto the national lexicon and psyche, Warne was a mate's mate, a friend who could be counted on in difficult times and one who was always there to chug beer and share some shrimp on the barbie. He was also an ordinary bloke who in his early career topped his income by selling pizzas and mattresses. Yet he also endured and eventually overcame the criticism and resentment that Australians heap on successful people who standout from their peers. His last meal was quintessential Australian: Vegemite on toast.
Australia fell in love with Warne's zinc-tinted nose, his floppy blonde hair and on and off-field antics. He was the star in an era when the Australian team was teeming with talent. His persona helped differentiate from Steve Waugh's stoicism and Ricky Ponting's brashness.
Waugh and Ponting were exceptional, but Warne was a genius, albeit a flawed one. He was no Sachin Tendulkar, who is still a boy-man wrapped in cotton wool and whose every move is carefully scripted. He didn't have the Caribbean's easy charm and swag of Brian Lara nor the boy-next-door persona of Muttiah Muralitharan. He surely didn't have Mike Atherton's Cambridge Blue. Warne smoked, drank, womanised, gambled and flirted with performance-enhancing drugs and with match-fixing. As much as Warne was compassionate and generous with both time and money, it was his late-night parties, his penchant for a good time that attracted tabloid headlines. Instead of fighting, he embraced his life, warts and all.
Warne was a flawed genius but transparently so and that's perhaps why we adored him. His authenticity made him relatable and likeable beyond Australia's distant shores. He was at home on the hallowed balcony of Lord's as easily as the streets of the subcontinent, teeming with humanity. He loved his life and those around him, particularly his children. He marketed himself but generously shared the bounty with those in need. He lived life - as he told the young cricketers in Singapore - in the moment. And enjoyed every bit of it.
It is perhaps why so many around the world cried on his untimely passing. A flawed genius and a mate had left the field - this time for good.