AT ONLY 25 years old, Shane Warne is already a national treasure. he has resurrected the dying art of leg spin, and turned it into the most effective match-winning force in world cricket. Australia have even changed the way they play the game, reverting to the pre-war tyranny of spin inflicted by Clarrie Grimmett and Bill O'Reilly. Warne has taken the arcane and made it appear simple, a feast as readily digested by the public as a Sunday barbie. To them, he is the face of Australian cricket. To many, the only face.
Such popularity has made him the icon of modern Australia. Forget your Mal Meningas or David Campeses, Warne is the most marketable sportsman Down Under, revered even more than Phar Lap - and he was a horse. Blond, handsome and photogenic, with a genuineenthusiasm to complement his winning ways, Warne is the ticket every marketing man dreams of. His may well be the face that spawned a thousand look-alike leg-spinners, and Warne, along with Brian Lara, has become a very wealthy young man, almost overnight.
Personal fortunes can be misleading yardsticks. Put into perspective against those for other team sports such as basketball, baseball and football, Warne's earnings from all sources - estimated to add up to something like A$600,000 a year (about £320,000) - pale by comparison. It is merely within the rarefied atmosphere of cricket that the figures stagger.
Big money can also disorientate a man. With companies clambering to be associated with sporting heroes, particularly those that embody the twin ideals of youth and health, it is easy for commerce to take over, becoming master instead of servant. This is something that has drawn the sparkle and spirit from Lara, yet has so far failed to dull Warne, who remains exhilarated by his art and wide-eyed over its success.
Peter Thompson, co-director of Edge Sports Management, which handles both Warne and Merv Hughes, explains: "Here was a young gun who made the ball sing and really seemed to enjoy what he was doing. So we deliberately sat down with Shane and only involvedhim in things he liked. This enabled us to create friendships rather than cold contracts. That way, companies do not ask the unreasonable and the pressure is kept off him, so he can concentrate on his cricket."
Thompson also maintains that they deliberately limited their portfolio, choosing a package of endorsements that would not only present the right image, but would allow cross promotion of products much in the way the basketball star Shaquille O'Neal's TV campaigns sell Pepsis and Reeboks. With Warne, the three biggest sponsorships - Nike, Just Jeans and PowerAde (a sports drink) - are all symbiotic, their niches in the leisure market supposedly complementing the other.
This cross-pollination of products will undoubtedly help Warne fulfil his obligations more easily in the time available, and is fine if sponsors truly appreciate the enormous time constraints imposed on modern cricketers. As Thompson points out: "We wantan endorsement from Shane Warne to be perceived as particularly good value, especially to those who have shown faith in him. His time is limited. If we try and spread him too thinly we'll only decrease his value."
As nearly all corporate hard men deal only with exclusivity and the bottom line, any perceived dilution of product exposure - which cross promotion most certainly is - usually has them scanning the small print and scrabbling to phone their lawyers. This was something Ian Botham fell foul of when Newcastle Breweries threatened to take legal action, after an alleged breach of contract, the Durham and England all-rounder apparently having failed to fulfil his promotional duties by the time he retired.
Ironically, Nike, who are reportedly putting A$1.2m (£600,000) Warne's way over the next five years, used to sponsor Botham, undoubtedly cricket's brightest star until Lara and Warne appeared in the constellation. Curiously, the bowling boots his Beefiness used for more than a decade were unavailable to anyone else, including the rich and famous.
Nike clearly saw little benefit in producing a range for public consumption, so specialised is the market. After all, Botham, a true all-rounder, used their football boots as well, during winter forays for Scunthorpe United. Better, it would seem, to getexposure in the Third Division than in a Test series. This speaks volumes for the regard in which the footwear company clearly hold the blond legger. When it comes to equipment, bowlers have rarely been as marketable as batsmen so Warne has broken the mould, particularly now that moves are afoot for Nike to launch a cricket boot in time for the 1995 Australian season.
There is no doubt that the weight of corporate interest in the young spinner has meant that his sponsorship, advertising and media activities earn him far more money than his cricket, now thought to make up less than 25 per cent of his income. According to a Sydney newspaper, Warne receives A$5,000 per Test, A$2,000 per one-day international, as well as a A$40,000 contract payment from the Australian Cricket Board. The last figure is presumably now out of date, having been renegotiated once Warne was dissuaded from joining Northamptonshire on a two-year contract, a package worth £120,000.
Money pours into his account, the latest earner being a A$50,000 deal for Coca Cola's sports drink, PowerAde. Clearly, Warne sees his future as wooing sponsors with deeds for Australia. Along with a A$125,000-a-year agreement with Just Jeans, he has jus t re-signed a contract with 3MMM radio - a music station for which he does promotions and match reports - for a sum "significantly higher" than the previous year's. Last year he received A$20,000 from 60 Minutes for a one-off TV profile. He also has minor endorsements with Oakley sunglasses and Sunwatch, while his equipment contract with Gunne and Moore is now under negotiation.
As his career rises, so does his value. Even though he is replete natural talent, he should, if anything, get better as most spinners usually improve with age. From a marketing point of view, his agent Peter Thompson is confident that Warne will grow into his role. "One of the difficulties about promoting fast bowlers is that by the time they've made a name for themselves they are on the wane. We believe that Shane will be around for a while and that he will only get better."
Many refer to "the ball" (the one that rissoled Mike Gatting in Manchester) as the seminal moment in Warne's development. Others point out that only six months before, after Warne had been left out of the Brisbane Test against the West Indies, he then returned to the side and his seven for 52 against them in Melbourne, in particular the flippering of Richie Richardson (the first time it had worked sucessfully in a Test), was the real turning point. Whatever the original cause, it was after his 34 wicket s in the 1993 Ashes tour that the effect was noted and corporate interest began to stir. "It was," as David Emerson, a co-director of Edge Sports Management put it, "the moment to start cashing in."
Some will claim Warne is another victim of the image makers. What they forget is that the peroxide-blond hair and diamond earstud were in place long before his celebrated flipper. Only the loss of almost two stones of excess weight since 1991 is a recentdevelopment, the exhortation to streamline coming not from any image consultant but from the far more persuasive voice of Allan Border, the Australian captain.
Realistically, Warne could play another 120 Test matches. If he keeps up his current average of five wickets per Test, Kapil Dev's world record of 434 wickets in Tests will be beaten with plenty to spare. Only two things can stop him: his mind and his body.
Nobody in the history of Test cricket has averaged as many balls per year as Warne has done since his career began three years ago. True, others such as Lance Gibbs and Bishen Bedi have averaged more per Test, but such has been the proliferation of Test matches in recent years that Warne, who before the Brisbane Test averaged 3,202 balls a year, has clocked up nearly twice as many as his closest rival Kapil Dev, who averaged 1,789 balls a year, albeit over a lengthier career. Warne's 71.4 overs against England at the Gabba do not bode well for an easy life.
The wear and tear on the shoulder of any leg-spinner is tremendous and rumours that Warne's is about to pack in under the relentless pressure are already beginning to circulate. To some, though, this is not as much a concern as the mental pressure now facing him to constantly perform at his best. As Gawen Rudder from Mojo, the agency that handles the Australian Cricket Board account, warns: "The media have so raised the expectations that when you hear Shane saying that you can't compare him to Benaud, the guy's pleading to be treated like a human being."
So far the pressures have not got to him, save for a disgraceful aberration in Johannesburg, where he had to be restrained by team-mates after verbally abusing the South African opener Andrew Hudson. It was out of character and Warne was apparently appalled when he later saw replays of the incident. A huge fine followed. Since then, he has taken complete charge of his bowling and his behaviour. Unsurprisingly, both have improved.
Shane Warne could break every bowling record there has ever been, and what is more he would do it with the prepossessing style of a true Aussie larrikin. In a world where people tend to know the price of everything and the value of nothing, such unaffected, natural genius has immeasurable worth. For that reason, some treasures are better preserved, than sold to the highest bidder.