Cricket: Warne the original one-off

Stephen Brenkley attempts to find a place in history for Australia's genius
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The Independent Online
AND so the legend grows. When Shane Warne last week became the 13th bowler in cricket history to take 300 Test wickets, and only the second spinner, nobody of sound mind was betting against his reaching 400, with 500 attracting a lot of smart money.

If a haul beyond 600 is deemed to be a flight of fancy that is only what the bamboozling Victorian has been dealing in throughout an astonishing international career for Australia. As the wondrous spell which took him to the latest landmark typified, he goes beyond standard epithets: wizard of spin hardly begins to do him justice.

The spell of 6 for 34 with which he toppled South Africa in Sydney was as clinically incisive and brutally deceptive as anything his remarkable wrist action has purveyed since, to general surprise, he won his first cap in 1991. It was quite enough to persuade many rational judges to be overawed and difficult to disagree with a conclusion oft-stated in the past few days that he is, in bowling terms, a freak.

An international batsman of wide repute said warily: "When Warne is in that sort of form on that sort of pitch he is as unplayable as it can get." As he observed, whether to play him from the crease and risk being entangled in a messy but incontrovertible lbw verdict, or whether to advance down the pitch to try to kill the spin and face the humiliating prospect of being beaten and stumped (as New Zealand discovered recently) is no sort of choice.

It is ridiculous to reflect that at the start of the Australians' tour of England last May Warne was, if not written off, at least suspected to be less potent than he had been. An operation to his spinning finger might, it was nervously considered (not least by England batsmen), have stifled his menace. Nine wickets at Old Trafford exploded that theory and Warne has been back ever since.

In his present mood it is difficult to place him in perspective but probably nobody has a better chance of doing so than the two spin bowlers who now flank him in the Test wicket-taking records, Lance Gibbs and Derek Underwood. The West Indies off-spinner Gibbs, a consummate hard-wicket bowler who still (just) remains ahead of Warne with 309 wickets, the last taken 22 years ago, admired his technique and his attitude. There are several common attributes to spin bowling whether you do it with wrist or fingers," said Gibbs.

"Shane has beautiful judgement of conditions. It helped him that he was brought up on Australian pitches which encouraged a bit of bounce but he has that unique ability to spin the ball.

"He has all the necessary other ingredients too, mastery of flight, guile in abundance and immense confidence. It's not taking anything away from him to suggest that batsmen don't play spin of any variety as well as they used to. They've been deprived of it for a long time. He's also helped by the balance of the Australian side. They've got good seamers too.

"But to do what he's done in 63 Test matches at the age of 28 doesn't need embellishment by me.

"What he's done for spin bowling after so many years of undiluted pace - and I have to mention West Indies there - has been marvellous for the game."

Underwood, in that undemonstrative way which marked his illustrious England career as a left-arm spinner, was more cautious in his assessment but even he could hardly avoid his final judgement.

"A fine bowler, that's obvious. Look at the figures. Funnily enough, it's possible that Mushtaq Ahmed, the Pakistani leg spinner, has more variation but on song Warne so seldom strays. Some people who've watched him, and good judges at that, say he's easier to read than some players make it look. John Crawley, for instance, looks at home against him."

Then again the way the aforesaid Crawley got out at Manchester last summer, dabbing weakly with the spin to the wicketkeeper, shows that looking at home and staying in may be different things.

Underwood said: "Motivation may be difficult for him - to go and get the number of wickets he looks capable of now. And if he's got a problem with his shoulder that may make it more difficult for him to want to continue.

"But there's no denying his talent and maybe the greatest thing of all about him is that he does it by himself. Spin bowlers, like fast bowlers in the past, have tended to hunt in pairs. All the Indians who bowled in the Seventies, for instance, and I invariably had an off-spinner at the other end."

By any standards set in the past Warne (including those of Clarrie Grimmett, the bewildering leggie who played for Australia in the Twenties and Thirties), he is utterly magnificent. While only two spinners have 300 Test wickets so far, eight have passed 200. Warne's average per wicket at 23.55 is lower than all the others'. While, surprisingly in view of the ineptitude with which he is constantly met at the other end, he yields slightly more runs per over than all but two of the rest, his strike rate at a wicket every 62 balls is easily superior.

Perhaps the only surprising aspect of Warne's dismissal of South Africa was that Ian Healy was not involved. More than anything else a world-class spin bowler needs a wicketkeeper of similar vintage.

"His length is what's important over those long, tying-down spells," said Healy. "Reading him is one thing, getting there is another." He was talking about keeping, but every batsmen in the world will agree with the sentiment.

The Elite Spinners' Club

Tests Balls Runs Wkts Avg 5inn 10mtch SR R/O

L R Gibbs 79 27115 8989 309 29.09 18 2 87.7 1.99

S K Warne 63 18501 7065 300 23.55 14 4 61.7 2.3

D L Underwood 86 21862 7674 297 25.83 17 6 73.6 2.1

B S Bedi 62 21364 7637 266 28.71 14 1 81.4 2.1

R Benaud 63 19108 6704 248 27.03 16 1 77 2.1

B S C'sekhar 58 15963 7199 242 29.74 16 2 65.9 2.7

Abdul Qadir 67 17126 7642 236 32.80 15 5 72.5 2.7

C V Grimmett 37 14513 5131 216 24.21 21 7 65.5 2.1