The 163-gram red cherry was Shane Warne’s muse. The 22-yard strip was his canvas and that supple yet strong right wrist was a paint brush.
It was all that he needed to create not just art but moments of pure magic that built a connect transcending all cricket boundaries, a love affair that had you, me, John Doe and Jane Doe in his grip.
It was a love story beyond cricket field, in life and now in his death.
Gone too soon at 52, he was an artist and the cricket world was a connoisseur of his art form, which was dying till he breathed life into it much like a magician who decided to caste his spell on a generation for a decade and half.
Mike Gatting was embarrassed, Daryl Cullinan was bamboozled and Herschelle Gibbs was left in a daze during all those years when Warne took the cricket world for a spin.
On March 4, it just spun out of control and left everyone shattered. But then the life of geniuses, like their art, is unpredictable. It could be beautiful one moment and brutal the other.
Leg-spin is a difficult art to pursue and even more difficult to fall in love with. Richie Benaud, in the 1960s, was more precise and Abdul Qadir, with all his theatrics at bowling mark, was entertainment.
But Warne was like that Pied Piper of Hamelin, who left you mesmerised and before you knew, you were a part of his journey. He wasn’t a perfect role model off the 22 yards. But there is a magnetic charm about flawed characters. Their imperfections make them even more endearing and desirable. They make life live.
They surprise life and life surprises them. Maybe one can borrow Gideon Haigh’s lines to describe him “Warne was no more to be considered simply a bowler than Marilyn Monroe was to be deemed merely as an actress.”
When Ravi Shastri would step out to hit a portly blonde guy with a very 80s American sitcom mullet at the SCG back in 1992, could anyone think that after figures of 1 for 150 on debut, he would get 707 more wickets?
At least Gatting didn’t before Warne bowled his ball of the century in England. The twitch of his eyebrows and the resigned look on his face said it all that day.
That look would be repeated zillion times on facial contours of various batters. Some dazed, some amazed and some angry at being hoodwinked.
Sorry pals. The Master was At Work. He bowled leg breaks, googlies, flippers and zooters for fun and yet batters were never able to read him.
His battles with Sachin Tendulkar during the 1998 series in India will remain a part of cricketing folklore. Tendulkar had prepared for the series by creating roughs outside his leg-stump to simulate Warnes leg-breaks and asked Laxman Sivaramakrishnan to pitch them on those areas.
Whether Warne said that “Tendulkar came in my nightmare” is truth or urban legend would never be known but the “SRT vs SKW” battles were an addiction much before social media consumed our life spaces.
Was he a rebel? Maybe. Perhaps that’s why he remained the best Australian skipper that Australia never had. A sort of an outlier who never loved the term cricket coach.
In one of his last series of interviews in India, a country that was like his second home, he had emphatically denied in his conversation with PTI that he was anti-establishment.
“Not at all. I was never anti-establishment at all. If I disagreed with something, I would challenge that person. In the case of coach John Buchanan, I challenged him and I was not afraid to challenge anyone,” he said, recalling his infamous clash with his then coach.
“If I challenged John Buchanan about tactical aspects of the game, then it was also about the captain. I would challenge anyone in our team and I would also expect to get challenged too. If someone wanted a different game plan, I was always open to suggestions. No matter what, I would always try something new. If I disagreed with strategy or training methods, I would challenge that. It was not anti-establishment but just that the way I thought about the game,” Warne said.
Adam Gilchrist, in his autobiography True Colours, had recollected a hilarious incident where Buchanan organised a Boot Camp for the national team to enhance team bonding and instil discipline.
Before entering the camp, the Australian defence personnel put the belongings on a table and asked them to pick only two things that they would need. Warne, apparently in his jockstraps, came out of the queue and picked up his packet of cigarettes and the lighter.
He had his share of off-field controversies, passing on information to the bookies, having banned substances leading to suspension from the 2003 World Cup, not exactly being faithful to his wife Simone, a steamy affair with Liz Hurley and his love for poker.
He was a bundle of contradictions. At one moment, he could provide sleazy fodder for the British tabloids, with whom he shared a love-hate relationship and the next moment, after an entire nights rendezvous, would drive down to another county and pick seven wickets for Hampshire.
Another day in office and in any case picking wickets was his day job. And perhaps that’s the reason why he was not the one that suits at Melbournes Jolimont Street considered a leader with a Baggy Green.
Years later at the ripe old age of 38, a new T20 franchise Rajasthan Royals, the cheapest in IPLs inception year, turned to him to become mentor-cum-captain. And the world saw Captain Shane Keith Warne.
The Swapnil Asnodkars, Yusuf Pathans, Neeraj Patels and Ravindra Jadejas were a part of that IPL winning side.
He called Jadeja his “rockstar”, had players carry a pink doll to embarrass them if they were late for practice and once made Jadeja walk to the hotel after the bus left.
Unconventional ways but they worked and so did his cricket brain that never stopped ticking. For this correspondent, the lasting memory was at the Shere-e-Bangla Stadium in Bangladeshs Mirpur in 2014.
One evening, wearing black tees and white shorts, Warne walked into the practice arena with the Proteas having their nets.
“Mate are they done with their nets?” he asked and once after being told that the practice if still on, trudged towards the nets. His packet of Marlboro and lighter was still in his palms.
He spoke to Imran Tahir for some time and then kept his precious belongings at the non- striker’s end. He picked up the ball and bowled seven deliveries to Quinton de Kock. Twice he came out and Warne checked his length. He was 44 and de Kock could only defend. He picked his fags and lighter and dodged a photographer with a body feint and disappeared.
That was swagger at his best and for that alone, Mr Warne, the world will miss you.