Priceless legacy of Warne's wizardry

John Benaud says the bowler's finest achievement lies in the future
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The Independent Online

To capture 356 Test wickets is a glorious achievement, but when Shane Warne eventually broke Dennis Lillee's record as Australia's greatest strike bowler the moment was all rather anti-climactic.

In recent times, as Warne neared record territory, he surely imagined playing to a full house at his beloved Melbourne Cricket Ground, as Lillee did when he broke Lance Gibbs' world record (309) in 1981. And, in his wildest dream, Warne might even have hoped to ensnare this special victim with a special ball, either the flipper or that drifter which snakes back and around the batsman's legs, then rattles the stumps. In fact, victim No 355, Nathan Astle, was bowled around his legs, outing the famous pumped Warne of the raised, shaken fist and the extended "yeeeaahhh".

Reality, however, was lurking: on a bleak Auckland day before an empty house at Eden Park, victim No 356 was aNo 11 batsman whose wild and windy top-edged attempt at a sweep was hardly a reflection of his name, Paul Wiseman.

Such relative disappointment for Warne was areminder to even the best that cricket remains a great leveller and character-examiner. Warne conceded as much after the event when he confessed to bowling poorly on that last day of the Test as the drawn-out nature of his quest got to him.

To use his words, "I bowled eight overs of crap". Sports psychologists would be interested that a cricketing magician who has twisted the minds of the world's best batsmen for nearly a decade and taken an average of four wickets per Test - playing a large part in enhancing his team's sky-high reputation - should falter when faced with the seemingly simple task of conjuring up a single wicket to enhance his own.

Records by their very nature demand statistical assessment. The clipboard pencillers and the tactical translators they spawn would note that 209 of Warne's victims were caught and, of those, 107 were edges taken by the close catchers Mark Taylor (51), Ian Healy (34) and Mark Waugh (22), compelling evidence of a technique that mixes variable spin lethally with variable bounce.

Of course, just about any point can be made via statistics. For instance, Warne's flight is rarely acknowledged because it's difficult to nominate any batsman who dances to him other than Brian Lara, and because the professional Warne-watchers like mainly to mention the "big balls" - the flippers and zooters and what some commentators call "the spitting cobras". But 18 stumpings and 15 caught-and-bowleds prove his armoury includes some teasers.

The real genius of Warne is revealed when the bowleds (63) and leg befores (66) are linked. Warne is the bowler who has made his name by turning the ball half the width of the pitch yet, when he wishes, he can finesse the movement of wrist and fingers and turn the ball hardly at all. And he can do it so cleverly that the batsman doesn't notice, and so accurately that even the stingiest umpire is obliged to grant a leg- before appeal.

Some observers will fall for the old trap of anointing Warne the greatest, after comparisons with the great legspinners of earlier eras, such as Clarrie Grimmett. Taylor inadvertently offered a reason as to why it is wise to avoid that and simply acknowledge Warne's super talent.

In congratulating Warne on his record, Taylor credited him with reviving the art of leg-spin. That begs the question that if leg-spin was dead then so might have been the talent of most batsmen to cope with it. There was hardly a dearth of leg-spinners in earlier eras. The truth is, Warne has sharply reminded us of the values of the leg-spinning art.

But for a revival to occur, leg-spinners have to be turning out all over the world, at all levels. That delicious moment may be a decade away and Warne, in retirement, may then be able to gaze upon them and lay claim to being the revivalist.

Warne, an 82-Test veteran, is talking of playing for four years and being the first to 500 Test wickets. He has a few milestones to pass: Imran Khan (362 wickets/88 matches); Curtly Ambrose (369/88); Malcolm Marshall (376/81); Ian Botham (382/102); Wasim Akram (383/ 92); Courtney Walsh (426/112); Richard Hadlee (431/86); Kapil Dev (434/131). They remind us of Hadlee, the complete destroyer.

Warne will be readier for the personal pressure sure to impact as he approaches the 400-mark and by then there may be other negative factors, such as a dramatic change to the class of the Australian bowling attack around him.

Warne is at his best with an aggressive pace balancing act at the other end, but Glenn McGrath, who has carried that load willingly after injury claimed Craig McDermott and Merv Hughes, is getting on. Jason Gillespie and Brett Lee have had injury problems. The "spin twin" option seems unlikely, as the domestic ranks are poverty-stricken.

Also, Warne has chosen to play a county season with Hampshire. No rest there. Fred Trueman once said of the bowler who would pass his then world record (307): "If he does he'll be bloody tired." We are constantly told cricketers are fitter these days, so 500 should be a stroll.