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The magician

The magician

Shane Warne’s powers over cricket balls and players transcended sport

Magic is a sporting word. Outlets that pride themselves on their quality, sobriety, accuracy and objectivity routinely ascribe magical qualities to great athletes like Roger Federer, Lionel Messi, Simone Biles, Tiger Woods, Lewis Hamilton, Ben Stokes, Serena Williams…

And with the death of the Australian cricketer Shane Warne, from an apparent heart attack at 52, we have read again and again that he could bowl “a magic ball”, that he would habitually “weave his magic”. 

It seems that we need magic, or something we can call magic, and therefore we need magicians.

Warne bowled leg-spin. What he did is open to relatively simple explanation in terms of physics and biomechanics. A leg-spinner imparts rapid rotation to the ball, so that when it lands it changes direction. It’s reasonably easy to do badly, very hard to do well and almost impossible to do consistently. Warne’s secret was consistency. Leg-spinners traditionally give you a bad ball every over; Warne gave you a bad ball every hour.

Watch darts players. To ensure consistent accuracy they use as few muscles as possible: nothing moves but the throwing arm. Leg-spin involves many, many muscles: especially fingers, wrist and shoulder: and that’s what makes consistency so elusive. Consistency gave Warne the framework for the exceptional: moments that have gone into legend, like the so-called Ball of the Century (see below) or a particularly special ball to Andrew Strauss 12 years later, in 2005. 

Warne might bowl an unplayable ball at any moment: so every one of those rare bad balls had to be seized on. Warne developed a delivery that looked like a bad ball but wasn’t: the flipper. He produced it with an action like snapping your fingers: impossible to imagine how he delivered that consistently.

It looked as if the ball was there to be walloped. But though the arm came over at the same speed every time, the flipper was a good deal quicker, and what’s more it didn’t bounce much. Time and again the swiping batsman was bowled or LBW.

Warne at work commanded the attention. No one ever mistook consistent for boring. Some great performers seek relative anonymity: others embrace the audience, the performance, the confrontation. Warne used his staginess as a weapon, but then he used everything as a weapon.

The so-called magic of the spinning ball can be explained by A-Level physics: but Warne had an added ability that can’t be understood in simple terms. He could impose his will on an occasion: when Warne was on top he created a strange illusion: that his opponents were complicit in their downfall.

I saw that best in Adelaide in 2006, when England, batting first, had declared on an apparently unassailable 551; Warne had taken one wicket for 167 runs. It was humiliating: the snag was that Warne wasn’t humiliated. In the following innings he willed England into one of the most traumatic defeats in cricket history. He took four wickets, but more than that, he set the tone. He caused England to surrender to the will of Warne.

They never made him captain, more fool them. He was too scrape-prone, always capable of doing something daft that would embarrass delicate Australian sensibilities. Had he been captain, England would never have won the fraught and beautiful Ashes series of 2005. He had a profound cricketing intelligence, a soul-deep sense of team and the devil’s instinct for finding an opponent’s weakness – and when he did he went all in.

After he retired as a cricketer he was a delightful man to bump into the press boxes of the cricketing world: as if you were the one person he really wanted to see. I would ask him about his celebrity poker events: “What’s your tell, Warnie?” “I talk too much when I’ve got a good hand.”

What Warne did as a bowler was cumulative. He put together long and tireless spells which imposed a mental weariness and a fatalistic compliance on a succession of batsmen. He also established a reputation that advanced year after year as he collected his 708 test wickets, and used that personal mythology as yet another weapon. 

We can explain every ball he bowled: rotation, velocity, gravity, flight, dip, differential in air pressure, state of the pitch, age of the ball: all the stuff that makes up the craft. We can also take a forensic look at the personality that used that craft. But in the end, we come back to magic: not for what we can’t explain, but what we prefer to leave unexplained. Our life is richer for magicians.

4 June 1993: the “ball of the century”

The remarkable thing about Shane Warne’s ball of the century, which was bowled to Mike Gatting at Old Trafford in 1993, was what came before it. In a warm-up match he had been hammered. England’s top batsman Graeme Hick had taken Warne for more than five an over, as he conceded more than 100 runs. Warne, it seems, was quite exploded: an over-hyped kid had been rumbled before the Ashes series began. 

But it was an exercise in deception. Warne had kept back his best stuff and allowed Hick to have his day. With his first ball in Test cricket in England he was bowling in earnest at last. The ball drifted laterally as it advanced, so that it landed outside leg and from there it turned a good 90 degrees – literally turning square – and took out the off-stump. For many seconds Gatting stood motionless, not in protest, but because his brain could make no immediate sense of what had happened. Nor could those of us who merely watched. One England wicket down: 194 to go.

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Simon Barnes on sport