Dear Shane... I love you

In an open letter to Shane Warne, James Lawton pays tribute to a departing legend who has hit new heights this year
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The Independent Online

You may feel this is a little abrupt, and perhaps not the way you do things down in Oz - give or take the odd dodgy text message - but I do have something important to tell you on the dawn of your farewell to Test cricket on English soil.

I love you. Not all of you, of course. I'm not crazy about the peroxide and the diamond ear studs, but then I'm old enough to know that no one's perfect, not even you, Shaney.

But love, albeit of a specific kind, it is, and I have more than a hunch that I speak for much the Pom nation willing you to fail at the Oval over the next few days as spectacularly as you succeeded with your first delivery in the Old Country.

We love you, at least I do, because you have carried us so far beyond the turgidly embittered rivalries of big-time sport, the banal chanting and the booing of national anthems, and not least because you have made it so much easier to be thrilled, even awed by the achievements of the England side. You have stood and fought, at the age of 35, quite beautifully. You have set a standard for the ages.

Even as we hope, and in extreme instances, pray for the demise of you and your team-mates, we glory in your defiance and what you have been asking of Englishmen like Freddie Flintoff as he explores new areas of his talent and his competitive character.

With both the ball and the bat you have defined the way it is when true champions are required to respond to the first fading of the light that has bathed them for so long.

We were privileged to see this in Muhammad Ali one night in Madison Square Garden, when a big, younger man from Ohio, Earnie Shavers, hit him so hard it was easy to imagine the building was shaking. We saw it in Jack Nicklaus when he almost won the US Masters in the shadow of his 60th year and on a wet day at Leicester racecourse 10 years ago when Lester Piggott was asked what technique he would bring to one of his last rides. "I suppose I'll put one leg each side," he said with a chilly smile glinting with battle.

We saw it when one of Michael Vaughan's recent predecessors, Mike Atherton, batted for an age in Johannesburg, and when your own embattled captain, Ricky Ponting, put down the anchor at Old Trafford a few weeks ago.

Endlessly, Shane, we have seen it in you this unforgettable summer.

This is where the love is, Shane - the love of sport's ability to bring the best out of a man, to allow him to put aside all the screw-ups he shares with much of the rest of humanity, and say: "This is something I can do, maybe better than anyone else."

It is the beauty of great games when they are played at their highest level and the extraordinary thing now is that we do not have to trawl back through all the years of your inexorable progress from feckless beach boy to master sportsman. We don't have to begin to itemise the record wicket haul, except maybe that first one in England at Old Trafford which rearranged both Mike Gatting's wicket and his understanding of what was possible on a cricket field.

No, the wonder of your effort this summer Shane, at such a venerable point in your career, is that you have managed to produce, in one form or another, almost everything you had, and, at times, given the growth and the passion of an England team that has thrilled the nation to its bones, maybe even a little more.

You even gave us a passable facsimile of the Gatting Doomsday ball - the one that shot out one of the new, authentic English heroes, Andrew Strauss, clouding his face with a disbelief that rivalled Gatting's 12 years ago.

Your bowling at Lord's on a Saturday afternoon was transcendent. You mesmerised both the English batsmen and the headquarters of cricket. You were the not quite superannuated Merlin of the game.

I could go on in this vein for some time but maybe the billet-doux has already created enough titters in your dressing-room.

I know to my cost it is not a place normally suffused with sentimentality. One of your compatriots, the former captain Ian Chappell, made this clear many years ago when I made a soft entry into what I reckoned was quite a biting question. "Let's cut the bullshit, mate," he said, "what do you want to know?"

Another of your compatriots, the fighter Jeff Harding, was even less patient with one colleague who repeatedly failed to gain a response from a leading question. He tried one last time, only to be told: "I heard your question the first time, cobber, and you can still stick it up your arse."

So maybe we ought to put away the pleasantries and cut to the point. It is simply this: if Michael Vaughan's England carry the highest hopes - and respect - of their country to the Oval this morning, if their deeds have so superbly coloured the nation's life this last month or so, if Flintoff is indeed the new Botham, you are, mate, a huge part of the reason.

You have provided an edge of fight and skill which has required every member of Vaughan's team to dredge from deep inside himself the best of his talent and character. This has enabled England to match, and so often outplay your team, which carried such awe when you arrived, and in the last act it could be they will finally go beyond the demands placed upon them so magnificently.

This is not what you had planned for your last sweep through the Old Country. You imagined you would be trailing glory yet again. But then, of all people, Shane, you know better than most that, on and off the field, life has a tendency to pop up with a kick in the groin. The most important thing, as you have proved this summer, is to remember what you have achieved in the past, who you are, what you are, and then maybe what you can do today.

One of the less significant disappointments of the summer was that you were one wicket short of getting the "fiver" bowling statistic that would have put up on the Lord's honours board. You shouldn't worry about that, Shane. Your name is etched immovably in a rather more important place - the heart and the respect of an entire nation.

Yours, can I say, affectionately,

James Lawton

PS The flowers are on their way but in the circumstances I quite understand if you decide to put them through security.

Over and out: Other Aussies at the exit

GLENN McGRATH

The miserly paceman will be 39 the next time Australia contest the Ashes in England and will surely have hung up his bowling boots by then.

JASON GILLESPIE

The 30-year-old fast bowler has mislaid his zip on this tour and may not play for Australia again, let alone on these shores.

MATT HAYDEN

The 33-year-old opener has struggled for form over the last year and is nearing the end.

RICHIE BENAUD

Australia's former captain has been commentating in England - on BBC then Channel 4 - for over 40 years. With coverage passing to Sky, The Oval will be his final stint in this country.

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