As the Ashes preparation ends and the Brisbane toss looms, the man who has defined the embryonic series isn’t a player or a coach. Instead one commentator has repeatedly stolen the headlines, cajoling England, seeking to undermine the certainty of the captain and batsmen. Not much has changed since he played really. In 2010, as Australia plummeted to Ashes ignominy, the crowd clamoured for his return to the fray. Now they seem content for his mental disintegration of the Poms to be purely verbal and from afar. Shane Warne’s presence looms over the contest as much as ever.
In 1980, American anthropologist Clifford Geertz coined the phrase “theatre state” for a polity where power is demonstrated through ritual and symbolism. The Australian cricketing empire ruled by Steve Waugh fits Geertz’s idea – the Baggy Green, the veneration of past greats, the vast, partisan stadiums. As Gideon Haigh astutely notes in his marvellous On Warne, Warne never actively participated in these rituals of state, never sanctified the cap with Waugh’s fervour. There was a simple reason why: Warne was confident in the symbolism of himself. In Haigh’s words, “Shane Warne needed no symbols, no props, no enhancements”. He was, in himself, a construction representing Australian – and his own individual – might.
Haigh’s book is not a conventional biography. He recognises the inherent difficulty of the form, especially with a figure like Warne: the tendency to teleology. Warne’s self-belief wraps you up, it becomes hard to look at events without considering what is to come. Hence, Haigh’s biography is not a conventional one; instead, it is five essays, interconnecting but equally able to stand alone. The first is the most conventionally biographical, describing Warne’s rise to stardom, but is in Haigh’s inimitable prose, combining cricket with history and sociology, placing Warne in context. Haigh’s ability to combine high and low brow without seeming pretentious or needlessly populist is marvellous – he compares Warne’s philandering to that of both Jez from Peep Show and Edward Ashburnham from Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier.
Moreover, this is biography as a “survey of his phenomenon”. Perhaps the best chapter is the detailed description of Warne’s bowling, his biomechanics and his evolution. Haigh artfully describes the “pageant” of each delivery, the power of his return to his mark, chatting to the umpire, floating the ball from hand to hand. This was Shane Warne creating “Shane Warne”, the man who the batsman played instead than the ball he bowled. It was what the historian Paul Hollander has called “contextual redefinition” – an object or action that appears superior to an identical replica in a different context. There was, as Haigh puts it, “a leg break, then there was a leg break from Shane Warne”. His bluff and bluster helped with the deception – he would claim to have a new ball before each series, but said that “it’s batsman who worry about variations, not bowlers”. He would dominate the tempo, control the pace of an over, a session. He also had the ability to beat a batsman, giving him the sense that he could get him out at any point, but was choosing the most opportune moment.
For all this illusion and imagery, Warne the man was far more than just an aid to bowling. He was a big kid, but had fascinating relationships with those close to him. Terry Jenner, the troubled mentor who kept him focussed; Kevin Pietersen, his egomaniacal sparring partner, their paths intertwining on the final day of the 2005 Ashes; Glenn McGrath, his partner in parsimony. Steve Waugh, his captain, with whom he became “‘diametrically allied’, to borrow William Safire’s description of Richard Nixon and George Meany” (a classic Haigh allusion). John Buchanan, the professorial coach who saw his role as improving the players as “people first and people second”, and with whom Warne clashed repeatedly. Perhaps most interestingly, Stuart MacGill, his rival leg-spinner, as dissimilar technically and temperamentally to Warne as it is possible for two people in the same profession to be. Warne always looked out for talented spinners, even from the opposition; yet MacGill was an exception, a direct threat to Warne as a cricketer, and therefore, perhaps, as a man.
Haigh also investigates Warne’s manifold controversies – the women, the drugs ban, the links to match-fixing. Few players from the 1990s were untainted by the sordid fixing affair, and Warne and other Australians, notably Mark Waugh, had close contact with an Indian bookmaker, “John”. Exposed by poor relations with the cricket board, Waugh and Warne were also approached by Saleem Malik, the Pakistan captain who later received a life ban for fixing. In Haigh’s words, “the Australians… called him “the Rat”, because of his murine features, and if ever a man could have said to have grown into his nickname, it was Malik”.
The drugs ban was a more direct threat to his career, a personal error rather than minor involvement in a wider conspiracy. His ban, for taking a banned slimming pill, can be directly linked to his final major foible, his womanising, Warne’s vanity catching up with him. His notoriety and celebrity that worked so well to create doubt in a batsman’s mind backfired when his antics found their way into the tabloid press. Once again, Warne as cricketer and Warne as man overlapped and interacted – this was his great talent, and great attraction. Haigh admits to focussing on the cricketing side, but offers a fascinating insight into its interaction with Warne’s personality. The energy created by the friction is the allure.