Remembering Shane Warne
There was a kid at my school called Chris Casey. He was American, had floppy blond hair, looked like a surfer. I don’t think he had played cricket before he arrived at the school, but then it’s not like the rest of us were hardened pros at the age of 11.
In the summer of 1993, Shane Warne had come to England and changed the way we all thought about spin bowling, particularly leg spin bowling.
That first ball on English soil is a piece of mythology now, handed down from the gods. Warne ripped it past Mike Gatting, made him look like an idiot. Gatting, who led the final “rebel” tour of Apartheid South Africa and always looked like he was in a clubhouse somewhere muttering something racist about the young Pakistani lad who’d just got him out.
Warne looked like a surfer and bowled like a magician. He wasn’t what you’d call hip, but he was cool in that cheeky Bart Simpson with an earring way. Sort of Neighbours plus. That was basically what being cool was to an 11-year old from North London at the time.
And so Chris Casey, who’d never seen a cricket ball in his life, learnt how to bowl leg spin. And in game after game, Chris would just… get people out.
He got five wickets for no runs once. He loped in and just landed massive leg breaks that slowly veered past one befuddled child after another. All the while he looked as if he’d just stepped off a Malibu beach. The age of Warne was upon us. He’d made cricket — or leg spin — cool? Somewhat.
I was a young fast bowler and I got a lot of wickets too, but a coach at Lord’s told me to learn how to bowl leg spin and I did, caught up not only by the thought of being the next Warne (I too had blond hair and a cheeky disposition, after all) but also in the guile of Mushtaq Ahmed, who played for my favourite team, Pakistan.
For a whole week, the former Hampshire fast bowler Malcolm Heath, a lovely, very tall man who I have just this moment learnt died in 2019, taught me how to bowl leg spin and told me, gently, that while I was a good fast bowler, I probably didn’t quite have the body for it — not if I wanted to play professionally, at least. By the end of the week I had learnt how to control the leg breaks, more or less.
But when I went back to playing I stuck with what I knew, and slowly over time Malcolm was proved right. My back and shoulders couldn’t handle bowling quickly, the other boys grew faster than me and I more or less stopped bowling and playing cricket at a high level. I play a few times a year now and at the beginning of every season I think to myself, “Maybe this is the year I’ll turn to leg spin.” I never do, though.
For generations of cricketers of all abilities, Shane Warne, who has died aged 52, was an inspiration.
He revived the dying art of leg spin — certainly as it existed outside of the Indian subcontinent. He was also one of the few cricketers who transcended the sport. This is still, in some ways, seen as a slightly unusual pursuit — certainly outside of India and Pakistan — tied up with notions of empire and class, not a worldwide behemoth like football.
Warne was someone everyone knew, a man who meant as much to the kids I played with in Delhi, Islamabad and Peshawar as he did to his native Aussies.
He was a lad (he died on a “boys holiday” to a Thai island. What a way to go). He seemed fun. He made mistakes. But on the pitch, he was poetry in motion. A rare thing. A slow moving phenomenon. How many revolutions per second was that ball doing when it left his hand, how many different things could he get it to do, and how did he do it?
For me it’s almost better not to find out. Spin bowling is the great magical mystery ride of cricket, a guarded art, a pure puzzle. One of the great joys of bowling — particularly spin bowling — is learning how to bowl different variations and then deciding when you are going to bowl those variations.
Your stock delivery might be — as one old club cricketer who played against the Pakistani great told me of Imran Khan — a 90-mile an hour inswinging yorker, but you will have other types of ball you can bowl.
Warne had his stock leg spinner, which deviated hugely away from the right hander, or jagged in to the left hander, but he also had his googly, his arm ball, his famous flipper and even a bouncer, which he threw down at West Indian maestro Brian Lara. He planned these balls out over the course of his spells, trapping batsmen again and again like some vast spider in its web.
Despite all this artistry, the abiding memory of Warne is just how much he spun the ball. It was as if he could move the thing across the entire pitch, it was astonishing, absurd, almost a parody. Look at what he does to brogue and bootcut boy Andrew Strauss here, 12 years after Gatting.
While he was clearly competitive in the way Australians always are, he was also loveable, a man who took joy in what he was doing, an heir to that other great leg spinner, Richie Benaud, who is also deeply missed.
You couldn’t hate him in the way you could easily hate other Australian sportsmen, with their dour, relentless will to dominate. He was just too fun, too funny, too effortlessly brilliant. That was another thing about him: he never looked like he had to work for it. Like Eric Cantona. That’s what sport should be: joyful, artistic.
Benaud and Warne were so much a part of my childhood. One of them commentating, one of them performing. Days at Old Trafford or Lords or the Oval or Edgbaston, days on the sofa, Richie talking, Shane bamboozling, the old enemy you couldn’t help love.
We will miss them. We do miss them. He seemed so young, he was so young. And it doesn’t feel like a long time ago, really. That’s what growing old is, I suppose.The world is falling apart in so many ways. And now Shane Warne is gone too.
As for Chris Casey, we lost touch, went to different schools. We were never friends. We weren’t not friends. His father, Beresford Casey, went on to own the burger chain Hache, which was a smaller, more upscale version of Byron — one of a proliferation of burger joints that appeared in London in the first decade of the 21st century.
Beresford seems to have released two classic rock albums in the 70s and appeared in a Labour Party campaign ad when Ed Miliband was leader. Chris worked for him for a while, I’m told.
It turns out, though, that Chis is not American. Not now and not then. He was just a boy from London who loved all things America. That’s the thing about memory: it prints the legend not the truth.