I awoke on Saturday at 5 in the morning to a pitch-black house with no power. The rain drumming on the roof almost loud enough to drown out the thunder that split the sky. And a headline on my phone saying that Shane Warne was dead. As I tried to shake off my slumber and deal with a flooded switchboard, I was trying to make sense of what surely must be a mistake, or a dream.
Perhaps I was still asleep. Or, as I deluded myself for a moment, perhaps some poor overworked, cricket neutral sub editor had gotten the name of another cricketer mixed up. He/She was going to get sacked for recycling the news of the death of Rod Marsh. A great man and a great cricketer whose loss was a blow to the game he served so truly and so well. Rod Marsh deserved much better than to be doomed to becoming a footnote to this breaking news.
Say it ain’t so
But, Shane Warne? Dead? If anyone ever seemed vibrantly and vividly alive, it was Shane Warne. But as headline after headline, tribute after tribute, appeared online it was clear this was no mistake and Warnie really was dead. No one was going to tell us that it was a mistake, or fake news, or even just the latest and greatest twist in a life full of them.
I try not to get sucked into the modern trend of becoming overwrought at the latest celebrity death, but this one hit me hard. It seemed like I wasn’t alone, either. Every quote I read, everyone I spoke to reflected the same sense of shock, disbelief and loss. Both those who knew him and those who didn’t.
I was talking to some American friends and trying to explain how big a deal this was. I ended up using the comparison that it was as if Michael Jordan had died. It was the best I could come up with, and perhaps fairly close. It is hard to explain to a non-Australian exactly the place Shane Warne held.
We have always been proud of our sporting heroes, and we definitely punch above our weight on the world stage. But, there have only been a few Australians who have dominated their sport so completely as to be remembered as amongst the very best the world has ever seen. Sir Donald Bradman comes to mind. Also Walter Lindrum, who so ruled the world of billiards that they changed the rules to curtail his dominance.
Shane Warne was one of those athletes who changed the way their game was played. There had been great leg spinners before here and overseas—Clarrie Grimmet comes to mind—but the real rock stars of cricket had always been batsmen or fast bowlers.
The spinner’s art was seen more cerebral, and certainly not as exciting as watching stumps explode in all directions or a batsman beaten black and blue, or the ball smashed out of the park. They were the ones kids bought posters of and wanted to grow up to be.
But, Warnie always put on a show that made everyone around him look like they were playing in black and white while he was in technicolour. It didn’t matter whether he was coming back from an injury, or a scandal. It didn’t matter whether he was on the winning side or the losing one.
In fact the performance I will always remember as his greatest was in the 2005 Ashes when he was so mighty in defeat. The Barmy Army paid him the ultimate compliment of showing how much they wished he was English.
When he had the ball in his hand he bowled like he believed he could do the impossible—and made everyone around him, in the crowd or at the crease, believe he could, too. He made leg spin cool. He made a whole generation stop pacing off ridiculously long run ups and start trying to rip the ball. But, it was just as much what he was off the field that made us love him and made him more than just another boorish, overpaid athlete.
Aussie in Excelsis
Despite the bad behaviour, despite the stupid mistakes, despite the endless scandals, it was impossible to stay mad at him. Part of that was his obvious love for the game, and the way he never forgot what the point of sport was. It wasn’t enough to win, he wanted to entertain, and he wanted to make sure everyone loved cricket as much as he did.
But, most of all it was the fact that what you saw was what you got. Australians will forgive their public figures almost anything if they don’t try and be something they’re not, and they can spot a fake a mile off.
Warnie owned his mistakes, he knew when he had been an idiot, and there was no pretence. He was just a normal bloke who put his foot in his mouth on a weekly basis and could be a bit of a tool, but who was incredibly generous and loyal even when it cost him.
So long and thanks for all the memories
When a celebrity dies it is important to maintain a sense of perspective about our grief and our loss. It’s not the same as what those who knew him and loved him are feeling. He may have been a cricketer, a celebrity, but he was also a son and a father, and my thoughts and prayers are with those who are coming to terms with that loss right now.
But, he was a part of our lives in a way very few sportspeople will ever be. It’s hard to imagine we will never hear his voice commentating the cricket, or watch him doing another spin masterclass on the lunch break during a test, or even pick up a paper and see what latest shenanigans he he’s gotten up to, again. He will leave a void in our nation’s consciousness that will never be filled.
But, cricket and Australia and sport are better for him having lived, and many of us are better for the memories we have of him and the dreams he inspired in us. And, you could do a lot worse than leave a legacy like that behind.
The King is dead....long live the spin.
David Goodwin is the former Editor of The Salvation Army’s magazine,War Cry. He is also a cricket tragic, and an unapologetic geek.
David Goodwin archive of articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/david-goodwin.html