Cricket: Peroxide genius of the flipper

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The Independent Online
From beach bum to the world's best bowler? Derek Pringle pays tribute to Shane Warne as the Australian leg-spinner reaches the benchmark of true greatness in cricket - 300 Test wickets.

It is rare in a long and complex game such as Test cricket that a single ball can live on as the embodiment of a player who has taken 300 Test wickets, but that is exactly what Shane Warne's wickedly spinning uberball to England's Mike Gatting at Old Trafford did in 1993.

Statistics now show that it was just one of Warne's Test victims; Gatting and all who saw will know it as the moment a wayward talent decided to announce his spectacular ability for wrist spin.

And what ability. Genius is an inappropriate word to describe sportsmen, but Warne comes as close as any to deserving it. He may not have the sheer bamboozling variety of Abdul Qadir, or the fizzing googlies of Mushtaq Ahmed, but he spins a leg-break like no other. Couple that with a dripping accuracy and a flipper that is upon you faster than a rash, and you begin to understand why few batsmen have been able to tame him for long.

Warne, now 28, joined the 300 club with 6 for 34 in the second innings of the second Test against South Africa - the milestone being reached in his 63rd Test. Although it is a feat Dennis Lillee, Malcolm Marshall and Richard Hadlee have done quicker, Warne's rate of wicket-taking could take him past Kapil Dev's world record of 434 wickets in another 30 Tests' time, or three years, should he stay free from injury.

Of the spinners, only the West Indian, Lance Gibbs, with 309 wickets, now stands ahead of him, a position Warne could conceivably overhaul in the third and final Test against South Africa, should the surface offer anything like the spin seen over the last few days at the SCG.

With his peroxide dyed hair and comment-provoking rotund figure - what the Aussie keeper Ian Healy calls a "bustling blond ball of body language" - Warne is an improbable-looking champion. Hailing from Melbourne, and ejected from the Australian cricket academy for bad behaviour, he began his Test career looking like he had crawled straight off a St Kilda beach - a place, incidentally, where he and his wife now live.

Like his bowling, which hints at one thing during its flight, but ends up doing quite another when it has pitched, looks proved to be deceptive. After a disastrous beginning against India in 1992, where he ended the series with 1 for 228, Warne got himself fit, trimmed his hair and, returning for another spell at the academy, met Terry Jenner.

A leg-spinner who had played nine times for Australia in the early 1970s, Jenner was trying to make a go of things as a coach. With their love for a beer and a yarn, the pair immediately hit it off and Jenner remains a close and trusted confidant.

According to Steve Waugh, Warne is just an average Aussie guy, who lives on toasted cheese sandwiches, french fries and spaghetti bolognese. He is also, by all accounts, a generous and open soul, who never forgets his old mates, a quality perhaps more cherished in Australia than elsewhere.

But whatever the man behind the extraordinary bowling feats, it is for his abilities as a leg-spinner that we must judge him. Yet the figures, extraordinary as they are, do not do his talent justice. Nor do they tell of the dramas along the way, like the operation on his spinning finger 18 months ago, that threatened to cut short his career, but which he now controls by rationing his flippers.

It is now over four years since that amazing first ball against England forewarned the world that something special was about. Happily for Australia, the world has been virtually powerless to respond and their position as unofficial Test champions owes far more to Warne than any 11-man team game should.

But then, as with Brian Lara, when he broke one batting world record after another, we are in the presence of true greatness and not some pretender to the great figures in the game's history. Anyone who gets the chance should see Warne, because he's here, today, now. We can forget the past.