“The finest cricket writer alive on the greatest cricketer of our era” says the blurb on the front cover of On Warne by Gideon Haigh, making a total of two extravagant claims in close proximity to each other. The Australian leg spinner has without doubt been one of the greatest spinners of all time, possibly the best leg-spinner of them all, and the author of the book is one of the finest cricket writers around, and we must therefore make allowances for poetic or rather marketing licence. The book does not disappoint the avid cricket reader lured by its promise of authentic insights into Warne the bowler as the title suggests, but also offers a plausible psychological profile of Warne.
The leg spinner’s is a lonely art, a difficult and complex one, demanding greater rigour to attempt mastery over it than most other departments of cricket; its purveyors tend to be plotters and thinkers; they need big hearts and thick hides when batsmen go after them or when length deserts them inviting ridicule from ordinary mortals with the extraordinary power of hindsight and the comfort of armchairs. Not only was Warne the most aggressive leg spinner imaginable, he was also one of the most relaxed — someone who actually relished the challenge of being attacked, someone who never wilted, even under the relentless assaults launched by the Indians led by Sachin Tendulkar.
Sir Garfield Sobers for long regarded Subhash Gupte, not Warne, as the greatest leg-spinner of all time. We know for sure that he held this view as late as the beginning of the new millennium.
For Indian partisans, it seemed a legitimate opinion — especially as some of us have watched both of them in action, and admired Gupte’s orthodox run-up and action, his subtle variety that included a perfectly disguised googly, and the time the ball hung in the air. Warne, however, went on to enhance his reputation originally built on “the ball of the century” that dismissed Mike Gatting, and similar extravagant, awe-inspiring deliveries every now and then, by the sheer weight of consistent performances, most of them match-deciding or series-clinching feats of supreme self-belief and his audacious exploitation of a whole bag of tricks.
It would be interesting to know if Sir Garry still rates Gupte greater than Warne.
Gideon Haigh puts things in perspective, dividing Warne’s career into three distinct phases, starting with his ability early in his career to produce huge leg-breaks, bowling right-handers round the legs or left-handers shouldering arms outside the off-stump, and developing into a cerebral match-winner who used psychology and “kidology” as much as his own special brand of variations (that surprisingly did not boast a googly). Through his 15 years in international cricket, his “air of cultivated knowingness grew with each passing year – the sense that you were watching Shane Warne playing at being Shane Warne.”
Haigh refers to a conversation between Ian Chappell — an admirer of Warne not only for his remarkable cricketing instincts and fighting qualities, but also his exceptional leadership skills — when Chappell says to him, “You should have played in our day,” and Warne happily agrees with the sentiment.
He quickly questions the notion that Warne would have found approval in the Chappell era: with the initial impression he created of being a casual cricketer, Warne might never have been given entry into the Australian dressing room when Ian Chappell was at the helm.
“Cricket found Warne”, according to the author, quoting Warne himself. The youngster was spotted by the Australian Institute of Sports set in 1980 to resurrect Australian sport, and selected as one of 153 scholars. The two managers Jack Potter and Peter Spence recognised the laidback, somewhat rebellious young leg-spinner recommended by Test selector Jim Higgs, as great material, as he gave the ball a fair rip. “Leaving his hand, the ball emitted an audible flit-flit-flit-flit, then on descending to earth deviated as much as half a pitch’s width.” Warne strictly followed a bowling principle that many coaches fail to stress: Learn to spin the ball before you try to master line and length.
Peter Spence then did something that determined the course of Warne’s career. He brought in former Australian leg-spinner Terry Jenner to coach Warne. “In introducing the pair, Spence was concerned as much about Jenner’s rehabilitation as Warne’s habilitation,” with Jenner trying to reconstruct his life interrupted by crime. Warne himself “was on final warning about his misbehaviour” at the academy,” and the pair turned out to be made for each other. This unlikely partnership between two rebels leading to success and fame is the subject of one of the more interesting parts of the book.
Gideon Haigh’s book is as much about the man as it is about his great art. Writing about the mechanics of his bowling is the easy part, but describing the factors that went into the making of arguably the greatest bowler of all time is an infinitely more challenging task; Haigh accomplishes it in style. He succeeds equally in offering a credible and empathetic psychological and emotional portrait of a man whose indiscretions — sexual, dietary, gambling — Warne himself once confessed he did not understand.
In a slim volume, Gideon Haigh has managed to write a definitive cricket biography — uncluttered by sentimentality, free from sensationalism, embellished by several nuggets of wisdom lighting up many a “what if” moment. A worthy addition to cricket’s ever growing literature.
On Warne by Gideon Haigh; Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110017. Rs. 499.
(V. Ramnarayan is a writer and a former first-class cricketer)