Showman who matched substance to style and mixed rare cunning with compelling theatricality

Shane Warne has been the most entertaining and exotic player Test cricket has known. We must treasure his last few games, writes Peter Roebuck
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The Independent Online

Shane Warne has been the most extraordinary, exotic and entertaining cricketer the game has known. In his hands a cricket ball could perform previously unconsidered gyrations, spinning at right angles, skidding like a puck on ice, changing directions after an initial curl, or else dropping sharply to leave the batsman groping at thin air.

He took a bag of tricks on to the field and dipped into it with the cunning of a rat and the theatricality of a tragedian. And now the end is near. Treasure these last few days as the old rascal pitches another jewel of a leg-break or carts another irreverent 40 or plots another clever dismissal or presides over another imposing performance. Treasure them because we will not seen his like again.

Warne's imminent withdrawal is not altogether a surprise. Nor is it a bluff. He will go and he will not come back. He has an acute sense of timing. His back has been stiff these last few weeks. Although he did not complain, it took him days to recover from those long spells in cruel heat in Adelaide and Perth.

He did not enjoy those stints as much as before, and protested in his own way, aiming outside leg-stump. Nor was waking up sore the next few mornings much fun. His captain needed to take greater care of him. Not that Warne complained. Whatever his faults elsewhere, he has always been a willing worker on the field, a servant of the side. No one ever saw him throw in a towel. He has had much of the actor in him, and none of the prima donna.

Yet it was not his body but his brain that told him his time was almost up. Australia's victories in the last two Tests released him from his last burden. The Ashes have been regained. He could retire on his own terms. Cricket was not going to get the best of him. He wanted to walk away with head held high, not run off like a scowling child or hobble towards the sunset as the man who stayed too long. Now he can relax in the final two matches of the series, the last two of his long campaign. The deed has been done.

Naturally Warne also wanted to bid farewell to his supporters at the greatest cricketing stage he has known, his beloved MCG where he once dreamt of kicking a goal and where he announced his greatness as a bowler with a flipper that fooled Richie Richardson.

He did not want to leave without giving Melbournites one last chance to salute him, one last opportunity to see him play. It is not a question of ego. Rather it is a matter of respect. Melbourne was entitled to know that he was going. It has been his home. After that he can say goodbye in Sydney and then join the pals who have been keeping his seat warm in the commentary box. It was an inevitable transition. Warne needs to stay inside the circle, where he is known and sometimes loved.

Warne has been a giant. He has been the finest and hardest spinner of the ball the game has known, and among its most compelling characters. Debate may rage about his status as a saint, or as a sinner, but the fascination endures. Throughout he has been good enough to compromise criticism and command adoration. He has been blessed with the ability needed to make scandals shrink. Throughout he has demanded the spotlight. He has provoked fury and rapture but never boredom.

Among all the controversies and performances it has been easy to forget that Warne has been first and foremost an exceptional cricketer. Although he has put on a rare performance, nothing has been done for mere effect. Neither artistry nor trickery defined him. He never fell so in love with the show that he forgot the substance. Above all, he has been a fine and true cricketer, a man intent on taking wickets, holding catches and scoring runs. He has been a student of the game, eager to learn, determined to improve.

Along the way he learnt to bat, turned himself from a slogger to an effective hitter capable of timely interventions. Warne also made himself into a reliable "slipper". As usual he saw the way the wind was blowing. Mark Taylor's retirement left a gap. Never much of a chap for running around, the Victorian mastered the technique of holding edges, practised hard and never left his comfortable perch. His cricket has been an act of will.

Warne also served an apprenticeship as a spinner, learning the dark secrets of his calling from old hands, each of them able to instruct him in parts of the picture, none of them familiar with its entirety.

At first the material did not look promising. Already he had a reputation as a larrikin and a lair. Not that selectors weary of procrastinating finger spin worried unduly about that. He was also overweight and had a loose action. But he was intrigued by the possibilities of his craft, and the flipper especially tickled his interest when he made its acquaintance.

Certainly, he was interested in girls, beer, pizza and footy, but he was also fascinated by the different ways he could grip and release the ball. Likewise he quickly recognised the importance of the blind spot. He was the common man who dared to follow his star. Nor has his interest waned.

Now he departs a scene he has mostly adorned and always brightened. It has not just been about casting spells. Certainly, he has made us gasp. In his early days the very sight of him marking out that curiously tantalising run sent shivers around the ground.

Warne had another quality that set him apart. Supreme accuracy. He landed on the spot as often as the meanest medium-pacer. Without concentration and control, he would have been half the bowler.

He has been a supreme technician who stalked his victims patiently before trapping them with his rare blend of control and cunning.

In short, he had every weapon in the spinner's armoury, all of them honed to perfection. Some sportsmen are acknowledged as geniuses. Others are regarded as greats of their game. Warne has been both.

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