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The master of spin speaks

Shane Warne’s autobiography is a delight for cricket lovers

On a January night during the 11 pm slot in 1992, cricket followers in India watched a young, overweight and blonde-haired Shane Warne for the first time in action on Doordarshan’s Test Match highlights. It used to be a 30-minute package in times when cable television was yet to make inroads into the country, and the public broadcaster didn’t provide live coverage of overseas Test series (except the 1989 Pakistan tour).

That night one saw a 22-year-old Warne making his international debut at the Sydney Cricket Ground in the third Test Match of the series against the Indian team. Warne came across as a deer caught in the headlights — he was listless, ineffective and was clobbered by Indians to end up with figures of 150 for 1 in the 45 overs he bowled. These weren’t figures that could foretell the unprecedented heights of greatness in spin bowling that he was going to scale in years to come. The rip he gave to the ball, and nothing else — neither the variations nor the plan nor his action — had some signs of talent waiting to bloom.

And bloom it did in the English summer of 1993. Warne’s first ball on the first day of the first Test of Ashes at Old Trafford has been described in so many ways, primarily as the ball of the century, that one forgets the everyday details: the loopy leg break drifted, swerved, dipped a bit, pitched outside the leg stump and as Mike Gatting played half-forward, it turned viciously to hit the top of his off-stump. Even two decades later, writing for The Guardian about the most memorable Ashes moments, Barney Ronay wrote:

“There shouldn’t really be anything left to say about Warne’s Ball, otherwise known as Shane Warne’s opening delivery in Ashes ; or more commonly as The Ball of the Century, Birth of A Superstar, Awakening of the Kraken, the Jailhouse Rock of Australia’s custard-blond leg-break Elvis, and so on ad infinitum.

“In part this is because so much has already been said and written, an entire vast, groaning old library of ball talk, from the historian’s cold-eyed anatomy to the biographer’s partisan gurgles.” But, now after 12 books written about him and many accounts of his achievements and controversies around him, Warne decided not to leave it to biographers.

No Spin: My Autobiography (Edbury Press) is his story in his own words put to paper by his friend Mark Nicholas, a former English cricketer and commentator.

Warne brings a good measure of candour with hindsight. Looking back at his years, he subjects his thoughts and emotions to mid-life assessment, though at some places he drifts into narcissistic spells in such reflections. But, mostly it’s forthcoming.

Remembering, for instance, his iconic Gatting ball in his first Ashes Test, he calls it a “fluke, given the nerves and the cold” and something he couldn’t do again on a cricket field.

He spun the leg breaks with exceptional talent over a memorable 15 years of Test cricket and took more than 700 wickets before playing in his last at Sydney in 2007. In doing so, he not only revived the challenging art of leg-spin bowling with his match-winning ability and off-field glamour but also became controversy’s favourite child.

To his credit, unlike many sugar-coated cricketing memoirs, he dwells on the pleasant as well the unpleasant with the same sense of brooding scrutiny. He isn’t afraid to confront the ugly edges of his life. The problem, however, seems that in order to reveal the real Warne, the book sometimes appears a tad too self-indulgent and gets repetitive. Better editing would have taken care of that.

It’s befitting for a player of his stature that the most exciting parts of the book aren’t about the controversies and women he talks about, they are about the craft of which he is the most influential modern master.

After his debut debacle, the chapters on disciplining and honing his craft under the guidance of Terry Jenner, the Aussie leg-spinner of the 70s, is particularly interesting. It’s TJ, as he calls his mentor, who taught him to direct his abundant spinning talent to wicket-taking ability by planning each ball — what he is bowling at and why he is bowling a particular ball to a specific batsman. Along with helping him with his action and sharpening the repertoire of wrong-uns’ (called googly in the subcontinent), flippers, varying pace, straight ones and of course, the stock leg breaks, TJ transformed Warne from a bowler waiting for a batsman to make mistakes to a bowler setting up, and forcing, batsmen to make lethal errors.

His stint with Rodney Marsh-led cricket academy is also significant, but his interactions with legendary Richie Benaud are more interesting — including an airport tutorial with an orange about mastering the variation of wrong-uns’.

What, however, comes as the full course after these nuggets about the craft is Warne’s take on the nuances of leg-spin bowling. The chapter is not only useful but stimulating to read and discover the great exponent’s eye for details — the angles, variations, pace, adjustment to pitching as well as match conditions, the field settings and very significantly, the mindset. The chapter has to rank among the most readable of corpuses in cricketing literature that has been published in recent decades.

The book, among other things, is imbued with Warne’s keen sense of family history. The way he chronicles his immigrant grandmother and grandfather’s lives is remarkable for its detailing. So, is his description of his relationship with his parents, which he treasures as the most lasting influence on him. His affectionate recounting of growing up with his hard-working parents and brother in a way mirrors Australian middle-class life of the 70s and 80s in Melbourne. The multi-sporting society, that Australia is, comes alive in his father’s interest in, and support for Warne’s sporting forays — first as a failure in Australian Rules Football and later as the most successful exponent of leg-spin bowling in cricketing history.

Ranging from an inadvertent dalliance with a bookie in Pakistan in the now-infamous Salim Malik saga to unexpectedly testing positive for a banned drug for taking a medicine unknowingly, Warne presents his case on controversies that kept cropping up in his eventful career. On both these counts, there weren’t many who suspected him of any wrongdoing, and that number is going to grow with this book.

On the numerous tabloid headlines about Warne’s womanising, he admits casual flings cost him his marriage to Simone, mother of his three children.

He regrets being a cause of embarrassment for his children since he considers them as the most valuable part of his life — the only serious relationship that he got into after his first marriage was with actress Elizabeth Hurley. It was cut short by the inconvenience of a long-distant relationship.

For all his excesses and moments of amorous weakness, Warne reckons his original self is of a deeply committed family man. He not only rebuilt a relationship with the first wife but also had long sessions of self-correcting introspections.

Back to his cricketing memories, Warne seems to have strong ideas about leadership, team camaraderie, attitudes to the game and training. He rates Allan Border and Mark Taylor as best captains he played under, while being dismissive about Steve Waugh as a selfish player and leader.

His disdain for former Australian coach John Buchanan is equally apparent. Inter-estingly, his disapproval of baggy green-worship culture, which he reckons was promoted by Steve Waugh with the likes of Adam Gilchrist and Justin Langer as accomplices, have a message or two for subcontinental teams like India. In recent years, an exhibition of off-field team pride shown by team leadership in India shows that playing with passion is being confused with jingoism. Warne rightly says that the field is the place to display the spirit of team solidarity and pride. Beyond the boundary ropes, even national team players have to be just like any lover of the game.

In ranking Brian Lara and Sachin Tendulkar as the best batsmen of his generation, Warne is honest enough to say they often got the better of him. He was always in the contest as he enjoyed the challenge of bowling to the very best.

Probably his shoulder operation in 1998, after which his wrong-uns’ lost their bite and so did some of his variations, meant he was not bowling his best when Tendulkar, along with other Indian batsmen, neutralised him in 1998 series, while VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid did so more memorably in 2001. Though he generally struggled to keep up his high standards in Indian conditions, he bowled decently in Indian tour of 2004.

For all his shortcomings in taming Indian batsmen subcontinental as well as Australian conditions, Indians feted Warne. His appeal as the face of that revived the craft of leg-spin bowling was firmly entrenched in the minds of the country’s cricket-loving millions.

Rajasthan Royals used his leadership potential in winning the inaugural edition of Indian Premier League. Warne shares fond memories of working with owners, ironing out minor differences and taking complete command of the team in leading it to the championship. In the process, he talks about deflating the ego of seniority and stardom in an Indian player to inculcate the spirit of joint working for team goals.

Warts and all, what elevates the book is that despite some details of his embarrassing off-field moments, what one will remember are moments when the master is passionately talking about the craft that delivers lyrically deceptive balls on the cricket pitch.

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