James Lawton: Warne was the hypnotic genius who enhanced all of our lives

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The Independent Online

In the sea of tributes now flowing over the enfant terrible of cricket who became its ruling genius, transcending all boundaries and all bias, there has to be an ultimate accolade.

It is that Shane Warne has shared with the greatest sportsmen of any age a truth about himself that has always shone like a diamond even when his life has been most chaotic and, let's be honest here, wretched. He has identified the best of himself. It has been to play his game, work his wiles so uniquely, at the bidding of the gods. He once put it with great poignancy. "One thing I know I can be true to," he said, "is the way I love cricket. Sometimes I think proving this is the least I can do." Through all the personal mayhem, Warne's vocation has been to enhance the lives of all who have followed cricket and felt an undying surge of anticipation whenever he has approached the bowling crease. It is almost to limit his achievement to say Warne has been the greatest spin bowler in all of cricket history. That merely implies excellence of technique and talent. It misses out on the most thrilling ingredient of all: an imagination so fertile, so bottomless, it achieved nothing less than a redefining of the game.

For decades, fast men Dennis Lillee and Michael Holding dominated cricket. Warne said the game could again offer more than artillery fire of the most menacing kind. It could bring beauty and guile back to the trenches.

He has bestowed the gift of endless intrigue, wonderment and a competitive urge that may have been rivalled but never surpassed in any corner of sport.

Warne has let himself down on many occasions. His private life has been a minefield of indiscretion. He has been banned for drug use and punished for consorting with, and receiving money from, the agent of a bookmaker. But if the last of those misjudgements was in one way the worst, somehow it did not compromise the picture of absolute commitment to the idea of winning every game he played.

Warne has been reckless with everything but his God-given gift to make a cricket ball a thing of unchartable magic.

A former captain of England was saying over dinner in Brisbane recently that he trembles for Warne when he has to face the rest of his life after cricket. The day, it seems now, will arrive at the end of the fifth Test match in Sydney in the new year.

The fear is that when Warne can no longer express himself so perfectly, so triumphantly on the field, when the ache in his shoulder is his last tangible contact with the days of glory, his existence will implode as the thrill of the action, the challenge to produce still more improbable deeds, is overtaken by the raw knowledge that the best is over.

Warne will not be alone in facing the dusk. He is likely to be joined by his fellow legend Glenn McGrath after Sydney - and maybe the rest of the old guard, Justin Langer, Matthew Hayden and even Adam Gilchrist, who may decide that he will never re-produce the climactic perfection of his breathtaking century in Perth in the last Test. But Warne, inevitably, seems most at risk. His game has become so central to his life, and it is this that provokes the concern of a man who played against him many times.

Said the ex-England captain: "In all my time in cricket, I have never seen anyone who enjoyed the life, and just everything about it, so completely, who lived in it as though it was some great bubble. You get the feeling that Shane believes he can make everything right on the field in a way that he can't off it So, yes, you have to ask, 'what will he do when it is over'?" Immediately, he will take his place among the legion of former Test players who populate the broadcasting booth of Australian television's Channel Nine.

He will be controversial and amusing and trade on his vast popularity with a public that has learned over a decade and a half to separate the great performer from the former beach boy who in crucial areas of his life simply refused to grow up. But while Warne treads new ground, his warmest admirers will look anxiously for the trapdoor represented by another lost and reckless night, another ill-advised text message, another raging at the dying of his particular light.

Where Warne is undoubtedly impregnable - as is his likely companion on the last walk from a Test arena, McGrath - is in the strength of his professional reputation. In Warne's case, the aura was created so spectacularly, that all that came later - his world record of 699 Test wickets, so many passages of bowling which left the world's greatest batsmen dry-mouthed with self-doubt and the Test grounds of the world suddenly alive with expectation - seemed inevitable.

Only the amputation of his right arm could have deadened the belief that as a leg spinner of bewildering creative range, the naturally tubby boy from south Melbourne, who had once dreamed of playing Rules football for his local heroes St Kilda, was capable of ambushing any batsman alive.

The certainty of that belief was written in the sky above Old Trafford 13 years ago. With his first Ashes delivery, Warne not only clean bowled the tough veteran Mike Gatting. He invaded his psyche with a ball that pitched a foot outside leg stump before turning across Gatting's bat and clipping his off bail. The former England captain reflected on that extraordinary impact a few weeks ago as he walked across the parkland to the Adelaide Oval for the final day of a Test match which seemed to permit only two results... an England win or a draw.

Said Gatting: "Logically there can be only one of those two results but when you say that, you know that Warney is going to be bowling probably for two sessions and what that means is that anything can happen. Of all cricketers, I would say that about him, but I have so much company now. You can never be sure quite what he's going to produce."

It is the most compelling aspect of Warne, the sense that he observes no rules of bowling except his own. Only one cricketing nation has challenged seriously his belief that in almost any circumstances he could get the better of a batsman, and significantly it was India, where spin-bowling virtuosity is seen not so much as a gift as a birthright.

Consequently, Warne's ascendancy over all opposition is much less marked against the Indians, who down the years have levied nearly twice as many runs per wicket than his overall average of 26. It is, however, a minor flaw in an otherwise seamless masterpiece. Indeed, Warne's effortless ability to summon the demons which haunt even the greatest batsmen have at times reached mystical levels. The fine South African Daryll Cullinan was said to be so haunted by Warne that he was forced to seek the help of a therapist.

Even for those not enmeshed in his web, Warne's effect has often been close to hypnotic, an endless demonstration of skill and combative spirit. When he claimed his 600th Test wicket at Old Trafford, the place where his Ashes story started so volcanically, there was a sigh... and then a great surge of applause. It was more than a recognition of excellence in the enemy. It was the affirmation that appreciation of some sportsmen will never be bounded by the colour of their shirts or their caps.

Both Warne and McGrath have played key roles in the current crushing of the English belief that they travelled to Australia with any right to hold on to the Ashes and in doing so, at the ages of 37 and 36 respectively, they have managed to stay true to both their own values and those of a national team who have reasserted their claim to be the greatest force cricket has ever seen.

If you look for the defining moments of both men, it is astonishing that they came at ages when most Test careers are either winding down or have been formally closed.

McGrath confirmed his place in legend after tea at Lord's two years ago. He bowled a line of such divine inspiration it might have been drawn by Leonardo da Vinci. For the essence of Warne, we have only to go back to Adelaide a few weeks ago. There, as Gatting once shook his head, Warne sniffed out the most astonishing victory like some old prospector searching for a glint in the barren hills. Watching him find it was something to place alongside the most brilliant deeds of a Muhammad Ali or a Jack Nicklaus.

The allusion to Nicklaus is not random. When he played his last competitive round at Augusta in 2005 - when Warne was approaching his great but frustrating English summer of 40 Ashes wickets - tough old men had tears in their eyes. They did not cry for the Golden Bear but for themselves; their sense of loss, their feeling that something precious had gone out of their lives.

That was the feeling yesterday when you heard that Shane Warne was preparing to bowl for the last time. Cricket was suddenly diminished and if you cared about the game to any degree at all, so were you.