Stephen Brenkley: The man who cast a spell over his sport

Irreplaceable Warne retires as game's greatest bowler - and its most dazzling showman

There was a raft of letters in the papers the day after Shane Warne quit. One said: "Big deal. Warne threw a ball at some sticks." The fat, blond kid from Ferntree Gully was dividing opinion as usual.

This particular missive spectacularly missed the point. Overlooking the libel about his action - Warne and throwing are alien to each other - it fails remotely to grasp Warne's significance. Of course, the whole concept of aiming a ball at, or just outside, some wickets is silly, and everybody involved in it - playing, coaching, reporting, watching, just plain loving it - should know that.

But its battles within between individuals also make it the team sport nonpareil. It is possible to play for yourself, but you usually get found out. Playing it, especially but not exclusively when you lose, as England have again painfully discovered, teaches you much about yourself and your colleagues that may have lain unknown. So much for the traditional lecture.

Warne transcended all this. Over time he came to defy the old truism that no man is greater than the game (though part of his greatness was that he would never have considered it). In this game of games, spanning two millenniums, he has not been simply watchable, you could not take your eyes off him.

Some of this was to do with the spinning of a cricket ball from leg to off. Have you ever tried it? It is one of the most ridiculously difficult things to do with a ball, ball after ball, landing on the same spot with the monotonous regularity of the rent collector's call. Warne had a gift.

Do not for a second think that this was a gift that he intended to squander. In a tour de force press conference last Thursday he spoke compellingly, and he reminded those present that it took hard work and some more hard work to do what he did. Often he did it with a combination of back, shoulder, elbow and spinning finger hurting, sometimes all at once. So be it. He was doing something nobody else could do.

It was not just the bowling. It was never just the bowling. Within five minutes of realising how good he could be (he identified the date and place, 22 August 1992, Colombo, when with Australia's game up he took 3 for 11 in 5.1 overs) he understood.

Warne became a showman. Maybe, whatever he would have done with his life, he would have been that: the car mechanic making his mates laugh uproariously between repairing big ends, the university professor (less likely) imbuing his charges with his fervour for the subject.

How he knew, knows, how to play an audience, and he transferred the technique to batsmen. These past few years (and the 40 wickets in the 2005 Ashes notwithstanding) he was not quite the bowler he had been. It mattered not. He was always good enough to make the batsmen work. They had more chance of a night's sleep at a rock concert in a bordello than a restful time at the crease with Warne bowling.

He was perpetually on their case. As the years and the shoulder rolled on, bowling became a piece of theatre. It was becoming wearing, but then that was the conceit. Warne appealed and appealed, ball after ball. He glared, he preened, he strutted before the umpire. In its way it was putting pressure on officials, but that was not the objective. It was all part of eroding the batsman's self-belief until he could take no more. Warne was forever jabbering at them, though he was also the first to offer congratulations and commiserations.

This made Warne a shrewd cookie. He recognised that it was a batsman's game and he set about debilitating the breed in any way he could think of, pushing at the boundaries of the laws. It was horrible yet compulsive. He has made much of the fact that he has never read a book from beginning to end - including, it is believed, his own autobiographies - but had he not had the combination of physical attributes which made him a unique leg-spinner, he would probably have been successful doing something else.

Warne saw that if cricket was a business, it was a business called show. "I used to go over the top occasionally with the appealing and those types of things," he said to the hard-bitten audience who were by now eating out of his hand. "But that's me, that's me expressing myself."

That is another thing. He loves expressing himself and is a gift of an interviewee. In some ways. Once after a close Hampshire victory he came down from the dressing room to talk to a few reporters. One question in, he was still going after three minutes. It seemed time to ask him another. "D'ya mind, I'm talking," he said.

He wanted reassurance until the end. At the Adelaide Test earlier this month it was noticeable - Warne made a point of ensuring we noticed - that his old mentor, Terry Jenner, was in the nets. Jenner was dressed in civvies and occasionally, because he knows a lot about leg-spin bowling, he would mouth something about the alignment of Warne's feet or some such. But that was not the point of the exercise.

He mentioned Jenner in his au revoir, though not as often as he mentioned his former wife, Simone, Richie Benaud and Ian Chappell. He cited Chappell as his greatest influence in cricket, the man who had said to him many years ago that the most important thing of all was to know yourself.

Warne reckoned that after a long while digesting this he knew what Chappell meant and understood. So, forget the taking money from an Indian bookie and the ingestion of a banned substance, leading to a year's suspension, as the aberrations of youth. Yet he still gets caught up in tabloid stings for behaving in a tabloid way. It may not do to be censorious, but if this is knowing yourself, ignorance may be bliss.

His bowling and the effect he had on the game are what will endure long after his sexual appetite has become less fascinating. "I suppose there's always going to be attention on what I'm doing, my personal life, who I'm involved with, because of the way I played and what I achieved," he said.

"It's nice to have that sort of interest but hopefully it won't be to the same level, the same scrutiny, the same moralising. But you guys will be the judge of that, not me."

He needs it, but we and cricket probably needed him more. He was a big deal all right, and he never threw a ball in his life.

Four Vital Stats

1 Bowled 40,314 balls, a Test record.

2 Took 28.39 per cent of Australia's wickets.

3 Bowled 28.08 per cent of their overs.

4 A wicket every 57.57 balls.

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