September 2005

The Nation Reviewed

Beach boy

By Gideon Haigh
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

In the Australian team of which he is the oldest, most experienced and comfortably most famous member, Shane Warne is the great decomplicator. People tangle themselves in theories, he complains, when cricket is a simple game. Batsmen should block the good ones and belt the loose ones. Bowlers are there to get them out. None of coach John Buchanan’s Sun Tzu stuff for him; he prefers eternal cricket verities. Don’t force it. Back yourself. Relax. It’s when Warne is relaxing, however, that the trouble starts, usually involving some combination of fag, fix, phone and femme fatale. No cricketer has so dominated both back and front pages of the newspapers of his time – confirming in the process the truism about the back pages chronicling only man’s successes, the front only failures.

On September 8 Warne begins what will probably be his final Test in England, where he has been the most prodigious visiting bowler in history and lately an extremely effective batsman, while chronically unsuccessful in maintaining any sort of private life. It would be inexact to say that he embraces fame ambivalently. On the contrary he revels in the doors that celebrity has opened; he merely resents that the doors do not always close behind him, remaining ajar for a pesky press. His public misadventures guaranteed long ago that the best Australian cricketer of his generation would never captain his country in a Test. His most recent tabloid humiliations – involving a Laura, a Kerrie and a Michelle – have cost him relationships with his wife Simone and with Kerry Packer’s Channel Nine, to both of whom he has been wedded for the past decade.

What is it with Warne? Over the years I have probably interviewed him as much as anyone. Our first meeting was in 1994 in a favourite bar in Brighton, the seaside Melbourne suburb he grew up near. Warne had already found fame to be dual-edged: it was a year since his “ball of the century” to Mike Gatting and about four months since his foul-tongued send-off of South Africa’s opener Andrew Hudson in Johannesburg. Yet he wasn’t about to abandon old haunts, any more than old friends. If he had to lead an extraordinary life, he would lead it as ordinarily as possible.

My first impression was of shaking his hand. Warne’s fingers are huge and strong but he does not affect the bear-like grasp common among Australian sporting males. His greeting has always reminded me of the description, at the beginning of Joe Klein’s novel Primary Colors, of Governor Jack Stanton’s warm and intimate handshake, delivered “with that famous misty look”. Stanton was a loosely fictionalised Bill Clinton and there is more than a touch of Clinton about Warne: great in ability, vast in charm, susceptible to appetites, disinclined to responsibility.

As we began talking on that July afternoon, Warne lit a cigarette. He smoked more or less continuously for the next two hours: another proclamation of normality, although it didn’t affront me as it did others because I also smoked, and we steadily filled an ashtray to overflowing. When I ran out Warne tossed me a packet of Benson & Hedges, then still the sponsors of Australian cricket. “Here ya go,” he said. “I’ve got heaps.” Warne clearly thought one of the coolest things about being a Test cricketer was getting free cigarettes.

I was reminded of the gesture during Warne’s match-fixing misadventure, which began when an unknown stranger offered to make up his losses in a Colombo casino, apparently out of the kindness of his heart. Of all Warne’s indiscretions, this is the one I have found hardest to abide. Yet I could see how vulnerable he would have been to such inducement. Big-time sport drenches naive and sheltered young men in all manner of free stuff; free money must have seemed like just another perquisite.

There was a lot to like about Warne. He didn’t duck a question. Though not obviously conceited, nor was he afflicted by that cloying “it’s all about the team” false modesty. And where one journalist wrote recently that Warne’s autobiography should be called Whatever It Was, It Wasn’t My Fault, this young Warne was mortified by the way he had abused Hudson – mortified because he liked Hudson and respected him as an opponent. However he has treated others near to him, Warne has always been generous to cricketers.

Cricket, frankly, is where it’s at for Warne. He is otherwise a limited man with limited interests, who would always prefer a cheese-and-tomato toastie to haute cuisine, who has travelled the world and never quite left suburban Melbourne. When next we met, just before the Brisbane Test of November 1996, I asked him for a self-assessment. He was no scholar, he admitted. “But I think I’m pretty street-smart.” A young, cloistered, privileged, prematurely wealthy white male – and he thought he knew the street? Why, by this stage he couldn’t even walk down a street without a penumbra of fans and star-spotters.

One afternoon in Sydney in January 2000 I waited for him while he filmed a TV advertisement, and sat quietly reading Erik Larson’s book Isaac’s Storm. When Warne arrived he asked what I was perusing. I explained that it was an account of the hurricane that destroyed Galveston, Texas, in 1900 and its role in the development of accurate weather forecasting. Warne nodded. “I read this book once,” he said. “It was about UFOs.”

On reflection, I found the remark endearing. Most sportsmen wouldn’t have bothered asking what I was reading, let alone trying to form a reply. Warne seeks a connection with people. It has often been commented that he needs you to like him. He also, I think, wants to like you. He remains the only sportsman who has rung me after an interview to ask if his swearing could be toned down, for like many of them he effs and blinds as a kind of punctuation. But he is also the only sportsman to have rung back to see if anything else needed asking, and then talked happily for another hour.

Warne is certainly sensitive to the way he appears, and this is partly a matter of vanity. It’s also an outcome of a reputation that precedes him everywhere. At the end of our first interview he asked abruptly: “Was I what you expected?” I can’t remember my reply, but I recall his next comment: “The trouble is, people I’ve never met think they know all about me.” He isn’t the first famous person to lament that disconnect. Yet what must it be like never to meet anybody unaware already of who you are?

Warne turns 36 on September 13. Lately he has cultivated a few youthful affectations, publicly undertaking some hair repair and youthful companions. Last summer he was followed everywhere by the ebullient young Michael Clarke; this year his pal has been England’s laddish batting sensation Kevin Pietersen. Detractors have interpreted this as evidence of a kind of Peter Pan syndrome. And Warne probably would like to feel younger, not least in his finger, shoulder, groin and knee. Yet the criticism is a little perverse, making it sound as though he has become cricket’s Michael Jackson. After all, what if he were to do the opposite? What if he did not socialise with young players? He would be aloof, curmudgeonly.

Frankly, too, if you’re a young cricketer it must be pretty cool to hang with Warnie – not only because he enjoys a good time, but also because he talks a good game. Louis Nowra’s 2002 biography of Warne presented him as an insensate blonde oik gifted with a golden wrist. It was bollocks. Never mind that Warne might not know an enormous amount forwards; he knows cricket backwards. Why was short mid-wicket straight rather than square? When should you push mid-off and mid-on back? He’s got an answer and it’s always an interesting one. The chapter on leg-spin in Warne’s autobiography is as good as anything ever written on the craft.

When last we spoke at length, at the end of his one-year suspension for testing positive to a banned diuretic, I asked what he had missed most about cricket. To my pleasant surprise, he did not start droning about the stupefying cult of the baggy green cap. He said that, whether it was a Test match or a club game, the great thing about cricket was you never knew what would happen. “You don’t know whether you’re going to knock ’em over or you’re going to get slogged, whether you’ll have a bad day or take a couple of screamers.”

In the end, however, you win, lose or draw. Life is deeper, denser, darker and not so amenable to decomplication. Even with money, fame and charm, life is not something against which to “back yourself”. You must even be careful about the way you relax.

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