June 15, 2024

Here's Why Shane Warne Was The Greatest Spinner Of All Time


Warne was part of a long line of Australian leg spin tradition. But he was simply the best

Just a few days ago, Sunil Gavaskar was talking on television about Don Bradman and his fantastic Test batting average. Bradman was bowled for a duck in his last Test innings by Eric Hollies to end his career averaging 99.96 in Test cricket. Gavaskar asked his fellow TV commentators why that ball from Hollies was not nominated as the “ball of the century”, a tag often reserved for Shane Warne‘s dismissal of Mike Gatting in 1993. It might well have been a tongue in cheek question in keeping with Gavaskar’s style of mischief to confuse his panellists.

What was so special about that Warne delivery to Gatting, the ball he bowled in 1993 to England’s then best batsman against spin? Gatting had no idea what happened on that ball from Warne; he might well have been batting blindfolded!

Warne gave the ball a fair amount of air. The ball drifted along its trajectory from middle to leg stump, and Gatting moved as if to glance it down to the fine leg. The batsman made no contact with the ball, which, having pitched outside the leg stump, should have been expected to miss the leg stump quite easily. However, Warne had tweaked the ball enough for it to turn back from outside leg, right across the hapless Gatting to hit the stumps. The bemused expression on Gatting’s face and the unbelieving reactions from the commentary team might have suggested that some act of sorcery, some black magic, had been invoked that moment. It seemed there was no logical explanation for what had just happened. Warne seemed to have controlled the ball as if magnetically.

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But it wasn’t just a freak delivery from Shane Warne. He had done similar things with the cricket ball before and would continue with his magic in the future. Shane Warne was simply a magician with a cricket ball in hand.

If cricket is an art, undoubtedly, Shane Warne was one of its prime artisans.

His was the art of luring a batsman into his dismissal, of studying him then scheming, plotting, and executing a trap all with guile, finesse and ultimately a skill that few bowlers, if any, have possessed in the history of the game.

On the same day as Warne, another Australian great, Rodney Marsh, passed away. “Caught Marsh bowled Lillie” was a dismissal repeated 95 times in Test cricket. Lillie’s way of getting wickets was vastly different from that of Warne. He, too, was very skilled in the craft of bowling but relied on pace, intimidation, and force to dismiss a batsman.

In Warne’s hands, the game was a more equal equation between batsman and bowler; it was a test of talent, skill, and presence instead of bravery and reaction time.

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In the 1970s and 80s, the trend of Test cricket was one of brute force – in the hands of Lloyds battery of West Indian super quicks (Roberts, Holding, Croft, Garner, Marshall), English and Pakistani speedsters as also Australia’s own Lillie, Thomson, and Pascoe.

In the 1990s, with the advent of Shane Warne, Test cricket seemed to change direction and become a subtle, thinking rivalry between two sides. In Warne’s time, opposing players could mingle and even socialise with each other, even as they readied themselves for the next day’s play. It was almost as if cricket had gone from a boxing ring to a chessboard, from brawn to brain. Shane Warne and his subtle art played a large part in this mind shift.

Only Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi in the late 1960s had taken this approach for Indian cricket with his accent and belief in spin bowling. It also produced dramatic results in the way cricket was played. Perhaps cricket was meant to be treated with that subtlety and finesse to be called a Gentleman’s game.

Subhash Gupte in action. Credits: Getty Images

As a leg spinner, the now-forgotten Indian great  Subhash Gupte might have been Warne’s equal had he been born a couple of generations later than he was. It would have been a delicious prospect had Gupte played in the Indian teams of modern times. If only he and Warne had been contemporaries! We would have seen an epic rivalry. Gupte had all the skills, subtleties, and guile of Shane Warne.

Warne came from a long line of fine Australian leg spin tradition — Bill O’Reilly, Clarrie Grimmet, and Richie Benaud, each of whom had a substantial impact on Australian cricket. As a leg spinner, Shane Warne was the greatest of them all. His imprint is indelible.

Warne plied his craft with the firm belief that it takes just one ball to dismiss a batsman, any batsman. His mere confidence and optimism would never be enough to achieve the results he did. Shane Warne was a planner, a master strategist and patient enough to wait for a batsman to fall into his well-laid web. He would watch the way a batsman took his stance, the way he held his bat and his footwork, looking for his potential victim’s weakness. He would then design, in his mind, the plan of action. He meticulously plotted the downfall of each batsman he encountered.

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None of this could work if Warney did not possess the excellent, masterful skills he did. He was deadly accurate at all times. Those who have tried bowling wrist spin will tell you that controlling accuracy for this type of bowler is extremely difficult; a reason leg spin bowlers give away so many runs. Warne could pitch the ball on a dime and control the flight of the ball bowled. To add to these skills were the variations he would bring to his bowling. A good leg spinner will have a well-disguised googly, one that turns in the opposite direction from the leg break, and sometimes a top spinner, one that goes straight but gathers speed and bounce from the turn imparted. In Warne’s case, he had developed at least three variations in his top spinners and googlies and control on how much his leg spin and googly would turn.

After that, many batsmen were like rabbits caught in the headlights. Many would come to the batting crease unsure about what to expect. After the “Gatting ball of the century”, batsmen who had watched the replays were already softened up as they took guard. 

An entire generation of Englishmen will vouch for this.

A remarkable aspect of Warne’s approach was his attitude. No matter the state of the match, how hopeless his team’s position was, his stance was that it could not be lost. Warne has turned around matches from seemingly impossible situations into victory for his team. His attitude was, “how can we win from this position?” He would have made a great captain for Australia.

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Warne played county cricket in England and the IPL in India. He mentored several players, including Ravindra Jadeja and Yusuf Pathan at the Rajasthan Royals, giving generously of his time and sharing his knowledge of the game. He put the game ahead of the nation. Young cricketers everywhere must have benefited from Warne’s influence and guidance.

Warne’s life is ample testimony that sports unite just as war destroys.

Main Image: Getty Images

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