Who is the best sportsman active in the world today? Tiger Woods, the dominant golfer of his generation? Roger Federer, the tennis player whose racquet hand was touched by the gods? Michael Schumacher, the aggressive but clinical German racing driver?
As I have watched the titanic series of cricket matches between England and Australia, which resumes in Nottingham on Thursday, I have become convinced that the answer is none of the above. Though I say it through gritted teeth, the best sportsman in the world today is a mouthy 35-year-old with a bit of a tummy from the Melbourne suburb of Ferntree Gully. He is the supreme exponent of the most arcane craft of a particularly arcane sport. He is Shane Keith Warne, the Australian leg-spin bowler.
Cricket, like baseball, is a game of statistics and these alone make a pretty compelling case. I was at Manchester the Thursday before last as, at 2.26pm, he ambled to the wicket and lobbed the ball towards Marcus Trescothick, the England batsman. It bounced off the back of Trescothick’s bat on to an Australian team-mate’s right thigh before bobbling into the air, whereupon the team-mate – wicketkeeper Adam Gilchrist – gratefully caught it. Pretty it was not: “I think it hit Gilly about four times as it bumped up,” as Warne later said.
But it was cricket history in the making. It made Warne the first ever bowler to take 600 Test match wickets. Though Sri Lanka’s Muttiah Muralitharan and Glenn McGrath, his fellow Australian, may in time join him in the 600 club, as a testament to sustained achievement, that is a truly eye-popping figure. In my boyhood, the record stood for years at just over 300. What is more, Warne’s record has not been bloated by easy successes against the less accomplished cricketing nations that have entered the Test match fold over recent years. As he says: “I have never played a Test match against Bangladesh. I have only played one against Zimbabwe.”
Woods, not yet 30, may well attain the statistical summit of his sport, but for now he is still playing catch-up with Jack Nicklaus. Federer, for the moment, stands out more for the lethal artistry of his play than the sheer weight of titles accumulated, though that too might change. Schumacher, nearing the end of his career, can match the Australian in the numbers game. He has won more Formula One drivers’ championships (seven) than anyone.
Warne, however, has more than one string to his bow. He can bat with flair and capability, as he underlined in the last four days of the match at Manchester, first battling to within striking distance of a first Test century, the currency in which bona fide batsmanship is measured, then helping captain Ricky Ponting salvage the match. Then there is the small matter of his slip-fielding. Warne has taken not far short of one catch per game in the 126 Test matches in which he has played – no mean feat given how much he bowls. This is the sort of versatility in all facets of his chosen sport that Michael Jordan brought to basketball.
But numbers tell only part of the story. Warne is one of those rare athletes whose exploits change their sports for good – and for the better. When he bounced on to the scene in 1992, it was the age of the fast bowler, as epitomised by the fearsome West Indies pace men. His explosive turn, allied with pinpoint control, an unusual quality in a “leggy”, who must bowl his stock delivery with a straight arm out of the back of the hand, gave the kiss of life to a dying art. The force of his personality – he has the pugnacity of a pace bowler – cemented the recovery. One parallel would be the transformation in women’s tennis triggered by Martina Navratilova and her muscular athleticism.
There is one more thing: cricket with Warney is a lot more fun than cricket without Warney. That cannot be said unequivocally about the others. A megastar such as Woods, or cycling’s Lance Armstrong, is generally good for the commercial health of a sport. But I actually preferred the situation in the 1980s and 1990s when it seemed that any golfer in the top 20 or 30 could win any tournament. Federer on song is perhaps the most beautiful sight in sport, but his effortless superiority, as with Woods, can undermine dramatic tension. As for F1 in the Schumacher age, well, I rest my case.
This is partly because Warne plays a team game and the others don’t (in F1 the team is mainly hidden behind the scenes). If the number one golfer in the world is too dominant, the unpredictability that is sport’s lifeblood will
dissipate. If the number one leg-spinner bowls a miraculous spell, he could still end up beaten. But equally, it takes a very special team player to dominate his
sport to the extent of these other individualists.
Warne’s 36th birthday falls the day after the present five-match series finishes. Though lithe athleticism is not the first-class leg-spinner’s most necessary attribute, some feel that the end of the road is in sight. They may well be right. He is no stranger to the operating theatre. His unnatural craft puts shoulder and arm under severe strain. His ruptured personal life – he and his wife recently separated and he plainly misses their three children – may also have a bearing on when he decides to go. “I have to work on a few things there when I get back home,” he acknowledges. “A lot of things come into it, but the bottom-line
is . . . once my enjoyment goes,
My hunch, though, is that cricket fans will be able to savour his dextrous skill for some while yet, in England as well as Australia. I say this partly because 36 is no great age for a cricketer. But I say it mainly because Warne is developing yet another facet of his game – captaincy – and characteristically both relishing and proving very good at it.
After some important off-field scrapes over the years, including a year’s ban for taking a banned
diuretic drug, it now looks like he will never captain the Australian Test team. Sporting geniuses, moreover, are often not good strategists. Yet Warne has made such a good impression at Hampshire, his English county, that Rod Bransgrove, chairman of Rose Bowl plc, Hampshire Cricket’s owner, describes him as “probably the world’s best captain”.
“Shane has fantastic natural charisma that takes people with him,” Bransgrove says. “He knows how to bring out the best in his team and how to unnerve the opposition.”
Peter Roebuck, an astute cricket writer and Somerset’s captain in his playing days, is more measured in his praise. Warne, he says, is “very comfortable with younger players that suit him temperamentally, but there is no proof he can handle older players.
“Cricketers are insecure people,” Roebuck continues. “He looks that in the eye and overcomes it. That breeds respect. Hampshire wisely have put younger players under him. I think that is going to work.”
If it does, not only will the south-coast county be a force in the land, but the career of cricket’s brightest treasure may glisten on for a few more seasons.