Master of his craft

Warne leaves behind a legacy that is almost impossible to emulate and something cricket fans will dearly miss

Master of his craft

In time to come, perhaps, another practitioner of the demanding, unforgiving art of leg-spin will take the world by storm, teasing, tormenting and luring batsmen to their doom, wowing the spectators and thrilling the connoisseurs. Given the betting man that he is, not even the effervescent Aussie is likely to take a punt on that!

From stocky, overweight beach boy to the greatest spinner ever -- that’s the Shane Warne story in a nutshell, a tale of unimaginable highs and extraordinary lows, of unalloyed genius coupled with an all-too-human fallibility, of sensational performances on the field and less edifying, controversy-attracting exploits off it.

Right till the very end of his competitive career, which ended on Friday night at the scene of India’s dramatic World Cup triumph seven weeks back, Warne played true to form.

Agreed, the fizz that characterised his halcyon days had disappeared to a great extent, but on occasion, he could still roll the years back and make the ball talk. Likewise, the passage of time might have tempered his combative, rebellious instincts significantly, but he is still up for a scrap, as he showed during his unsavoury war of words with Sanjay Dixit, the secretary of the Rajasthan Cricket Association.

It should come as no surprise to those who have followed Warne’s career with interest -- and that should include an overwhelming majority of cricket fans -- that in his last days as a cricketer, the leg-spinning genius should attract a $50,000 fine for conduct unbecoming of him. Warne has never toed the conventional line; he has forever believed in making his own road, so to speak, which is exactly what made him the colourful, occasionally controversial but forever entertaining character that he is.

It appeared as if the magic of Warne had been lost to cricket forever when he announced his retirement from the international game in January 2007, after playing a principal role in Australia’s 5-0 rout of England in the Ashes at home. It was quite the perfect time, and manner, to bid adieu, revenge exacted for the shock 1-2 defeat in Old Blighty in 2005. Then came the Indian Premier League, the Rajasthan Royals, a fairytale run in the first edition as the legend of Warne the bowler, the captain, the leader, the magician, just kept growing and growing.

It was in the fitness of things that his final meaningful wicket, in his last game for the Royals as a player, came in the manner in which it did at the Wankhede stadium. It must have particularly pleased Warne, now 41, that the victim was a 24-year-old he believes has a bright future ahead of him if he can get his act together, his head sorted out and his attitude right.

In some ways, it’s possible, Warne sees something of himself in Rohit Sharma, the outrageously gifted individual who has inexplicably allowed things, and his career, to drift.

Warne managed to pull himself together in the nick of time to ensure that for all his off-field antics, it was his deeds on the park that stood out. Rohit has yet to bridge the gulf between potential and performance, even if he is rated highly by international cricket’s second most prolific wicket-taker.

A ripping leg-break that dipped mid-flight and fizzed away from the batsman left Rohit stranded and set up a simple stumping for Pinal Shah, the young wicket-keeper who must have been wondering what he had done right to earn the great distinction of keeping wickets to the Wizard of Oz. Not only did the ball claim Rohit’s scalp, it also claimed his flailing bat that landed up at mid-wicket, leaving the batsman not just defeated but slightly disgraced, too. A reality check for the Mumbaikar that at once reiterated the reality, even at this stage in his life, of Warne’s magic and command over his craft.

While the IPL gave Warne an unexpected fresh lease of life, the greatest captain never to have led his country made sure it wasn’t one-way traffic. He gave his heart and soul to the Royals, as captain and coach, as motivator par excellence, as a genuine leader of men who didn’t expect anything of them that he himself wouldn’t do. Post the first player auction in 2008, no one gave the Royals a ghost of a chance to make an impact. The Rajasthan unit was the most unglamorous, low-key of outfits, yet Warne shaped a group of little-known individuals into true champions with his unique inspirational skills that mocked the huge language barrier that existed between the captain and a majority of his team-mates.

Young men like Swapnil Asnodkar and Amit Singh, Kamran Khan and Dinesh Salunkhe, hardly household names even in their own towns, suddenly grew in stature. They might since have faded away, but the likes of Munaf Patel, Ravindra Jadeja and Yusuf Pathan have used the IPL experience as a stepping stone to greater glories.

There was respect, yes, but a sense of pride and no little awe, when his young Indian charges spoke of the captain. You couldn’t help but feel that if Warne asked them to stand in front of a speeding train, to a man, everyone would do so unflinchingly. He had a great relationship with the franchise owners, who were obviously pleasantly surprised at how often the team punched above its weight, and while he might be lost to them as captain and player, who is to say that he won’t be back next season in a different, management capacity – perhaps as coach, perhaps as a mentor?

As Warne finally calls time on a journey that has been more exhilarating than exasperating, he can put his feet up, at last, reflect on his monumental accomplishments, and bask in glory. Even as the rest of the world says, ‘Well done, Warnie, and thank you for the entertainment’!

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