Cricket writing has changed over the years. However, books such as On Warne offer some respite.
As cricket grabs unprecedented attention, thanks to IPL and a proliferation of T-20 leagues across the world, cricket writing has not been able to keep pace with this. Where are the men (or women) who could make a reader pick up a copy of a newspaper, magazine or indeed a book just to read him? When I was young, admittedly many summers ago, I used to look forward to the incisive analysis of Tony Cozier in his weekly columns, the poetic flourish of Henry Blofeld and even the rasping comments of Malcolm Conn. Like millions, I enjoyed Geoff Boycott’s humour, and often wondered if my linguistically challenged grandmother could have similar admiration for him! Then came Ted Corbett. It was hard to agree with him, but fun to read. He amused the reader, sought to befuddle him too. In the end, he came across a smart fellow blessed with a rare gift of words. He did not always have the perspicacity of Cozier but managed to convey simple little things in simple little ways.
Not many of them got down to penning biographies though. And, whenever somebody tried to tread the sensitive zone, he was too concerned about stepping on people’s toes. So, biographies got reduced to mere hagiographies. I, for one, have a well-established aversion towards reading biographies. Pray, for how long, can one bear endless exercises in adulation? Most people are too timid to speak the truth and too scared to face the consequences of an occasional drop of guard. So, why write? And if you are not honest about what you write, why should I, or anyone, for that matter, read you?
Under the circumstances, it was not a bit surprising that Gideon Haigh’s book On Warne, brought out by Penguin-Hamish Hamilton, stayed on my table for a few days. Then it spent more than a couple of weeks on the book shelf. Until recently when during the first Test in Chennai, Indian batsmen were milking Nathan Lyon with relish — except Dhoni who had no time for such niceties — my mind went back to the genius of Shane Warne, the man untouched by the term understatement, yet a hugely popular bloke. Haigh, possibly, cannot afford to hide the skeletons in Warne’s well-stocked cupboard, I told myself. And picked up the book.
Not a day, or an hour too soon, I realised. While many others have squirmed or equivocated, Haigh has gone ahead with a flourish and revealed many an incident, then happily denied by all players. About the famous Edgbaston Test where Glenn McGrath had twisted his ankle just an hour or so prior to the match, Haigh reveals what we all suspected, “the Australian team was a divided lot”. Ricky Ponting and Adam Gilchrist denied a rift with Warne, who wanted to bat first after winning the toss but Matthew Hayden admits, “Warnie’s belligerent state of mind did not help us. It polarised the team at a sensitive time.” And Haigh happily adds, “What’s illuminating about this story is not so much the divergence in recollections. But the assumptions into which they fitted… Warne’s demurral was as much a statement of belief in McGrath as it was an assertion of his own primacy.”
Then, Haigh makes no bones about Warne’s relationship with fellow leggie Stuart MacGill. Referring to Warne’s comment, “Bowling spin can be a lonely business”, Haigh calls him a “virtuoso soloist, who needed, and preferred no accompanist”. No wonder MacGill played most of his Tests when Warnie was absent. Haigh puts it beautifully, “If McGrath as a partner was providence’s gift to Warne, Stuart MacGill was its prank. Out of Western Australia via New South Wales came a leg-break bowler who at his best was only a little less effective… MacGill’s 208 Test wickets at 29 would stand out in record books like a copperplate were it not for the fact of Warne’s 708 at 25 resembling an illuminated manuscript.” Their difference went beyond the cricket field: Warne was funny, MacGill witty, the former was street smart, the latter considered book smart. Warne had the common touch, MacGill uncommon tastes.
Kudos to Haigh for saying as much. With relish, with honesty. Not with malice. There is no attempt at sensationalism. No holding the punches either. Here is waiting for a day when some Indian guy could dare to write that about, say, Gavaskar-Kapil, Azhar-Sachin or even VVS-Dhoni!