My golf was as problematic as my batting. That is a large statement. But I had these nightmares about playing golf against Warnie and Punter (Ricky Ponting). I would have a straight five-foot putt. They would not say anything. They would certainly not cheat. They would just look at me with a crystalline innocence. And get inside my bloody head. So that the simple shot became a hazardous minefield. Some people can beat you just by their aura – and not just in games.
Punter and Warnie had two things in common. They had skills straight from God. And they were ferociously and naturally competitive. They wanted to win, they knew how to do it, and they passed that on to others. Deadly at golf, they were even more lethal in team games – and in games where the gamesmanship is right in your face.
The two players had something else in common. They came from the suburbs and they did not fancy school. Education in that sense was not their go. They were no toffs.
Sometimes that showed. Punter got into some trouble as captain of Australia. For once, Cricket Australia said something sensible. They said that Punter had quit school early to become a professional cricketer. He did not have a Ph D from Oxford or the training to be a diplomat.
We should bear all that in mind with Warnie. Nous – in abundance, almost freakish insights; a born poker player; but Fowler, Debrett, or Emily Post? Gimme a break. You may as well credit our Hillsong man with mastery of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.
Together with the mawkishness from one quarter, we will get snobbery from another. We are not as free of it here as we like to think. A while ago, you would hear the following at the footy – ‘You can take the boy out of Footscray, but you can’t take Footscray out of the boy.’ You don’t hear it so much now, which is just as bloody well. But you still get it for Warnie, who is seen by some as a throwback to Neighbours.
Well, the boy from Black Rock did not get to Melbourne Grammar. He certainly did not regret that, and nor do I. When Warnie left us so abruptly, I was reading Rudyard Kipling’s Kim – for the fifth time. Warnie did have a lot in common with that boyish, ragged, unlettered hero – whose lama saw him as ‘something of an imp.’
Shane Warne was born into a country where every boy dreams of wearing his nation’s colours. That is the kind of stuff our dreams are made of. But what happens when you – like Lord Byron – wake one day and find yourself famous? And nothing – nothing – in your experience of life has prepared you for this?
What happens is that you court disaster. We saw it in full force about two years ago at Cape Town with young men who were just too young to carry the load that we had put on their shoulders.
Steve Smith recovered. So did Warnie. But the captaincy was rightly put of the question for Warnie. And in thinking about that, I was reminded that I have said I do not see how we could say Smith was fit to play for us, but not fit to be our captain. Well, Warnie clearly fell into that category.
Warnie was the best cricketer I ever saw. I say that for the same reason and on the same basis that I assess my favorite footballers. It is not just their prodigious talent and skill. It is their capacity to win those big matches. Warne was a freak as a bowler. But more than that – much more than that – when he was in our team, we never thought the game was beyond us. We always thought we could win. And God knows that he got us over the line in close World Cup matches and Ashes tests – the ones that really count; the ones a nation holds it breath for – and cherishes in its memory.
You can’t teach or buy that. And the risk of a prodigy is that he may create mayhem in the dressing room – something alleged against Kevin Pietersen.
As best as we can see, Warnie was the real thing as both a cricket genius and a team player. This is fundamental for those of us who believe that in the end the issue in the professions or sport ultimately falls to be determined by character – and nothing else.
The Australian team under Steve Waugh – the iron man – was as tough a side as I have had representing me. It was inevitable that they would get up some noses, with all that power, skill, and burning drive. And those egos! And it was also inevitable that the testosterone would spill over in ways that were then unfortunate and are now verboten.
Warnie was fortunate that in his pursuit of skirt, he did not join the ranks of serial abusers – or at least, he was not seen to have done so. Things would have been very different had he arrived a generation later.
The low point for me was when he turned up in front of the MCG with an English floozie – with his kids. If you want to make a fool of yourself schmoozing in public with England’s answer to Kylie Minogue, that’s a matter for you, Mate – but in the name of God, spare your kids, and give them a sporting chance of avoiding your addiction to celebrity.
It was not surprising that in one of his flirtations with sense and decency, Warnie was joined by Mark Waugh. Mark is I think the most gifted cricketer I have seen. And he had the steel when we needed it in second innings in seriously tough test matches offshore. But he could not be trusted with the ultimate judgment of what was best for his country – and nor could Warnie.
And Mark Waugh got the kinds of blowback that can be very bad in us. He was so gifted that he did not appear to be trying. What dreadful bullshit! The trouble is that some people who are larger than life bring out the worst in some smaller people. We can be crippled by that kind of jealousy – in a land that positively celebrates mediocrity.
And ‘Junior’, as he is called, knows all about snobbery. It’s not just his grammar; his wife trains neddies in the trots, and he likes a bet. ‘Good God, old boy, next it will be the dishlickers.’
So, Warnie has left us, and the pain is worse in one part of the nation than others. Warnie was a St Kilda fan, but he was also the ultimate Melbourne boy. He was ours – all ours.
We know all about this kind of stuff in Melbourne. We are the sports capital of the world – which is one reason why most of us would never live anywhere else.
And a large part of all that is that this city has a world-famous beating heart – the MCG. That is the spot in the village where people of all types and colours meet in one community. This is the stuff that dreams are made of. Frank ‘Typhoon’ Tyson running through us like a dose of salts – a side that included Harvey and Miller. Here is where I was lifted off my feet and plucked from a world record crowd at the Grand Final in the Olympic year. The Demons just fell over the line in 1964. Gary Sobers flat batted a straight six off an uppity young quick called Lillee. The same bowler trapped Knott to win the Centenary Test. Border and Thommo sustained the most famous last stand since Custer. Akram knocked over Botham in the World Cup Final in the first over of the English innings. Warnie got a hat trick against England. And a shy, mature man of colour recently mesmerised the crowd and the nation by roiling through the English.
Melbourne people say you have not lived until you have been there for moments like that. There is nothing else like it on this earth. Warnie had his second home there, and the two will remain part of the fabric of this nation.
Bradman came from a different era – and space. He was deferential – too much so to my lords at Lord’s. And he hung on to power too long as the eminence grise, and drove an entire generation into the arms of Kerry Packer – and the lucre and razzmatazz through which phenomena like Warnie shoot like meteorites. In the end, Douglas Jardine and Kerry Packer did more to forge Australian cricket than did Bradman with all of his baggage. Warnie had plenty of baggage too, but the crowd will forget it – and just remember the good times.
Not everyone felt the same level of shock in Warnie’s end that I and others did – together with the intimation of mortality. Ian Healy kept wicket to Warne and he knew Warne had problems with his diet.
Michael Vaughan is a Yorkshireman – a good bloke and fine cricketer – and, like most English players, he was a good mate of Shane Warne. Vaughan was obviously very distressed by the news. He had had the most recent Christmas dinner with the Warne family. Turkey, and all the trimmings. Warnie, that sometime tubby little boy, stuck with his lasagne sandwiches – splattered with butter. Always the boy – like the test pilots in The Right Stuff, always seeking to extend the outside of envelope.
Well, it was the fags and the butter that nearly killed me with a heart attack at about the age of 55 – after I had given up smoking nine years beforehand. This Icarus had flown too close to the sun too long. It looks like Warnie was taken out by a slider.
Two anecdotes will show why people loved Warnie – yes, loved. A rock star and Warnie were to appear on TV with Rob Sitch. (Of The Castle – and who did medicine with my vascular surgeon.) The rock star turned up in a limo and a retinue of eight. ‘Where’s bloody Warnie?’ ‘Out the bloody back having a fag with the janitor’.
When Warnie got into trouble with drugs, he was encouraged by some lawyers to sue for libel. Large retinues of them turned up at my firm at 101 Collins St for me to mediate the case. The lawyers looked predatory and they sounded ravenous. The posturing was just awful to behold. Then Warnie went missing. ‘It’s OK, he’s downstairs on the street having a fag with your staff.’ For days later, the staff just walked around ensainted. They had been in the presence – and he had seen them and talked to them.
The only time I saw anything like it was when a group of our articled clerks went to the MCG to see Muhammad Ali. They came back visibly blessed. They were somehow changed. It is an interesting reflection. And I am not bullshitting.
There were too balls bowled by Warnie that most of us will go to God with. Each took out the then English captain. Neither captain knew how. Terror spread in the dressing rooms, and the news rang around the world. Each ball had spun – viciously and noisily, like a rattle snake. There was one difference. Warnie got Gatting first ball. Strauss took two balls. As another Englishman said, we are such stuff as dreams are made of.
And as I sat there watching all this being replayed, I could not avoid the mawkish. The tears were coloured green and gold – with a tinge of red. And I could not get out of my head an absurdly relevant clip from the most famous memorial ever – ‘of the people, by the people, for the people.’