November 2012

Arts & Letters

‘On Warne’ by Gideon Haigh

By Waleed Aly
'On Warne', Gideon Haigh, Hamish Hamilton; $35.00

On Warne. It sounds like a tome of grave significance. Mill On Liberty. Greer On Rage. No more elaborate title is necessary to justify the inquiry. The subject matter is so central to the human condition, so timeless, that we are duty-bound to engage.

And that’s pretty much how Haigh approaches this book. It’s nothing so mundane as a biography. There’s no clear chronology here. It’s a study, constructed much in the manner of a university subject, examining Australia’s greatest modern cricketer from different angles. There’s Warne as artist, Warne as teammate, protégé and deputy, Warne as hapless scandal-magnet. Shane Warne is presented as a many-faceted phenomenon, and each facet treated with a special focus.

It works because Warne is such a mercurial, contradictory character. He can predict precisely how and when he’ll take his next wicket, or the result of a tied one-day match, but is unable to foresee that taking money from a stranger (who turns out to be an Indian bookie) in exchange for match information is a bad idea. He’s uncouth, but also the greatest ever exponent of the most refined art in cricket – leg-spin bowling. His controversies skirt the game’s most cardinal sins – match-fixing, performance-enhancing drugs and womanising – but he somehow emerges mostly adored. A conventional biography would somehow obscure Warne’s story. A cricket writer as peerless as Haigh knows this.

Haigh’s is an exquisite treatment of a much-discussed subject. Cricket fans will be completely engrossed: Haigh’s analysis of Warne’s statistics is the most incisive I’ve seen, and his eye for relevant detail is astonishing. But those determined to see Warne narrowly as a casual purveyor of infidelity above all else will be sorely disappointed. For this, Haigh provides thoughtfully considered context. The result, though, is a somewhat sympathetic account that has Warne as “a philanderer ... although almost certainly a sentimental one, dedicated to the pursuit of poontang while at the same time exalting his wife, even after they were divorced”. Haigh’s Warne is more hapless than contemptible: this will enrage some.

For mine, Haigh is at his inimitable best in his chapter on ‘The Art of Warne’. You get the feeling that Haigh understands Warne’s mastery better than Warne himself, and he never fails to capture it crisply. Haigh’s descriptions of Warne dismissing batsmen “in a state of near or total paralysis”, and of Warne’s appeals being “more like an invitation” to the umpire to join a party are precise to anyone who has witnessed these things. Warne’s wizardry is rich enough to unleash Haigh’s, and Haigh’s wizardry brings Warne’s to life anew.

Waleed Aly

Waleed Aly is a writer, broadcaster and academic.

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