Listen to this article
In Shane Warne’s right hand is my son’s cricket ball, which he is throwing up in the air and catching again. As he does so he stares down the lens of the camera and smiles, his teeth an exact match for his crisp white shirt. Do you still play, the photographer is asking him.
“Nah, nah. I’m too old. Too old,” he says, keeping up the throwing, catching and smiling.
Yet everything about his appearance is designed to keep his 45 years at bay. His face is smooth, his hair, famously transplanted, is thick with blond highlights and hair gel, and teased to make him look like a member of a boy band. Click, click, click goes the camera.
Before my meeting with the former Aussie leg spin bowler I ask Matthew Engel, my colleague and a former editor of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, to explain him to me. You must understand, Engel says, that Warne wasn’t a good cricketer — he was a great one. He was voted by experts in 2000 as fourth best of the century. Leg spin, very roughly, is using the fingers and wrist to make a cricket ball turn in unnatural directions, mainly the bowler’s right to left. But it incorporates various bluffs, especially the “googly”, which goes the other way. It is an art form that almost disappeared from cricket. For decades, few bowlers attempted it at all and almost no one did it well. Then, in the early 1990s, came Warne, who did it miraculously. He wasn’t just technically brilliant but psychologically too, endlessly spooking and confusing his opponent. Warne was the very spirit of cricket. He was also a larrikin and an overgrown teenager, who everyone loved in an exasperated sort of way. But then, said Engel, it all went a little strange. He retired from cricket, got engaged to Liz Hurley. Had a makeover. Became a celebrity. It was all a bit sad: it just wasn’t him.
I meet Warne in a windowless room at Sky Studios, where he is about to commentate with his friend and fellow cricketing hellraiser Kevin Pietersen — who at that stage has not yet been finally kicked out of the England team. Warne is in a tight navy suit and tie; his skin tone orange and he appears to be wearing eyeliner. He shakes my hand warmly, says “Hello-Lucy-howya-doing”, places himself on the sofa opposite me and leans forward ready to field whatever I throw at him.
In advance I had tried to think up the interviewing equivalent of Warne’s ball of the century, the hard-spun leg-break that did for Mike Gatting in 1993. It was his first ball against England in his first Ashes Test. Failing to come up with anything, I decide to play it straight, and ask the thing I most want to know. How come Shane Warne achieved something no one else has managed to pull off for generations before him — or since?
“A lot of people say, ‘Oh, he just rocked up and bowled.’ But I spent hours and hours and hours of practice, I never, ever gave up in anything,” Warne starts. This explains nothing, I protest: lots of people practise hard and don’t give up but they can’t bowl like he did.
“When things get tough,” he goes on, “some people start to think, ‘What happens if I fail here?’ But I think, ‘Gimme the ball.’ I used to live for that moment. It made the adrenalin flow, I’ve got the ball, and nothing happens until I let go of the ball.”
Despite the intensity of what he is describing, his Aussie voice is curiously flat. There is no emotion in it at all.
“Whenever I walked on the field, whatever was happening, my partner, my children, whatever it was, I would try and clear it all up and keep it separate.”
Warne made a better fist of keeping his off-pitch life separate than cricketing fans did. During the 2005 Ashes, when his marriage was collapsing, the bowler was welcomed to Lord's with mocking taunts of “where’s your wife gone?”. But as he proceeded to take one wicket after another — he took a total of 40 in that summer’s Ashes — the crowds changed their tune and raised a chorus of “we only wish you were English”.
It now occurs to me that discussing how he did it is futile. Warne himself doesn’t know the answer or, if he does, can’t explain it in words. So I try a different tack and take a battered old cricket ball out of my handbag. Show me.
He grips it between fingers, which are surprisingly fat and stubby. “It would just slot in there like that. The thumb would just sort of rest on there, for guidance, and then the third finger would actually just flick it like that.” He throws it from one hand to another. I don’t notice anything special. I do notice, though, that he discusses it in the conditional tense, as if none of it had happened.
He hands it to me, and I try to copy him. “Turn the seam around,” he instructs, and when I do, says “That’s it! Ashes! You’re picked! You’re in, Lucy, you’re in!”
I might be in but, a few days after the interview, it turns out that Pietersen is not.
I email Warne to find out what he thinks and he replies: “Australia will be happy KP’s not in the team — England are huge underdogs to win the Ashes even at home !”
A week later still, I email again. England have beaten New Zealand in the first Test at Lord's, so maybe they aren’t the underdogs after all?
“England had a wonderful win, but it was lucky they got bowled out, otherwise they would have batted to (sic) long! I did like the aggression the England bowlers had & if Broad can continue to bowl like that then England can take 20 wickets!!!” he messages back.
One of the troubles with England, Warne tells me earlier, is that it is desperately short of characters. Apart from Pietersen, there is Jimmy Anderson — but that’s about it.
I mention Alastair Cook, the decent and character-free England captain, who Warne has spent years denigrating, so much so that Cook last year said “something needs to be done” about the Australian’s constant attacks. “I think Alastair Cook is a very good person,” Warne says, suddenly sounding pious. “He’s someone that I wouldn’t mind my daughter marrying. He’s a very, very, nice guy. But I think his captaincy just lacks imagination.”
In this magazine a few months ago a story by former cricketer Ed Smith argued that cricket had done a rotten, complacent job at becoming a proper global sport. But when I put this to Warne, he looks nonplussed. Cricket, he insists, is “in good shape”, though it would be in even better shape if a few changes were made, starting with the ball itself.
“For over 100 years we’ve never changed the ball. We’ve changed the size of the bats. Why not change the ball? I also think we should have four-day Test matches. I’d make the stumps a bit bigger. I’d make 20/20 a domestic game, not international. And I’d have no restrictions in one-day cricket. No fielders inside the circle, have them wherever you want. And I think bowlers can bowl as many overs as they want.”
Even the Indian Premier League, which many view as a threat to international cricket, he doesn’t see as a problem. “There should be a six-week window for all players to make lots of money playing in India, and also play for their national teams.”
I ask if people are listening to the Warnifesto. Or is the rebranding from larrikin to sage a step too far? “Some people listen,” he says doubtfully. And then with more defiance: “Some people don’t like to admit that maybe I’m correct.”
Then I ask him a question the answer to which one might have thought utterly obvious. Does he miss playing cricket?
“Look,” he says taking no visible umbrage. “I miss some of it. I don’t miss the crap the players have to put up with. But I miss the camaraderie. I miss the competition. That’s why I play poker.”
Yet there is a difference. At spin bowling he was the best in the world by a mile. In poker he is number 17,040. For someone so competitive, that must be quite a comedown.
“I don’t see it like that,” Warne replies levelly, fixing me with one blue eye and one green. He has a condition known as heterochromia, which he discovered as a result of tweeting a selfie of his unmatching corneas, asking his two million followers, ‘What does it mean to have 2 different coloured eyes? Anyone shed some light? Thankyou.”
The website Bluff puts Warne’s total winnings at $35,027 — which would not make much of a dent in his expensive lifestyle — but far more lucrative are the sponsorship deals with gambling sites 888poker and now Dafabet.
The Warne brand has been a flexible source of cash, and over the years has been applied to fast food, mobile phones, computer games, as well as his own range of Spinners underwear (which went bust a couple of years ago).
Now, he’s “sort of streamlined it a bit and sort of said, ‘OK, what do I really want to do?’” The answer is poker, his own beer made by a New Zealand brewer and dubbed 99 Not Out, and sponsoring a hair transplant company called Advanced Hair Studio. “It’s pretty cool,” he says, contemplating these deals.
What with the sponsorships and commentating and his own charitable foundation, he says he is so busy that he has had to erect giant white boards in his two homes — one in London, just by Lord's, and one in Melbourne — with all his dates on them. He’s booked up, he says, until August 2016.
“And if you throw in being a father . . . ” He pauses and then declares: “I’m a great father. I love my kids dearly — they’re 18, 16 and 14 this year.”
But, more than any of it, Warne is increasingly kept busy by being a professional celebrity. Since he stopped playing, he seems to be even more famous than he was before.
“I think people miss seeing me play,” he offers by way of explanation. This may be true but the main reason is that he wants it that way. Every week or so the papers carry miscellaneous stories about Warne, buying new cars or flirting with new women — all of which have the same source: Warne himself. There he is tweeting to a porn star. “@jennajameson Thanks for the follow!! I’m a fan, hope all cool your way x.” Over on Instagram, there he is with a new white Jag. “And hello to the new white rocket!!!!” he writes, under which followers inevitably comment “Good areas Shane.” Whether these remarks are mocking or approving is hard to say.
“I think Twitter and Instagram is really a way to humanise you as a person,” Warne says, when I ask why on earth he shares so much. “I’m just being real, I suppose, if I share my daughter blowing out her candles.”
But it’s not being real. It’s being highly unreal. He has become his own publicist, putting his own spin on choosing what to broadcast and what not to. “I’m not putting stuff out on Twitter for the media, I’m putting stuff out for my followers. So if a news report or a newspaper wants to pick up what I put out there, then who cares?”
But it still strikes me as odd to have carried on his private relationship with Liz Hurley on Twitter in front of 2.1 million online wallflowers. There was a succession of intimate exchanges broadcast on social networks including cringe-making double entendres about Hurley’s budgies and dogs. And then, last year, when Warne saw a pic of his former fiancée kissing someone else, he tweeted: “Was just sent some pictures, wow, some people move on quickly. Maybe now it’s time to take up my single friends (sic) suggestions & join tinder[the dating app]!”
When other celebrities were protesting about phone hacking, Warnie was saving journalists the trouble by making it all public.
“If we don’t put stuff out there, people write crap anyway,” he says. “They write untrue stuff. So if we actually say stuff publicly, then they can use that.”
Yet in his prolific sharing, he doesn’t always get the media’s reaction right. When Australia won the World Cup, Warne tweeted that the team should go out and party — which got him called the Les Patterson of cricket for encouraging alcoholism. “A complete bogan,” the Herald Sun called him.
I tell him that my parents were from Melbourne, and that I was surprised that Aussies have become so puritanical about booze. He ignores this and says: “I think most people out there would like to have a drink with me at the bar somewhere, because I’d be a bit of fun. I’m not a very complicated person. I’ve never pretended to be something I’m not.”
Yet that is just what made Australians so cross about his rebranding as a sleek metrosexual. Cricket fans mourned the loss of the tubby, white-lipped sportsman; Warne’s body became a global news story, subjected to the sort of scrutiny usually reserved for women.
Indeed, when later he changes his shirt for the photographer I find myself looking with more interest than is normal at his chest, seeing that it is hairless and that the tan extends to his waist.
“Well for starters I lost 15 kilos, which is a lot. So, I had a healthier lifestyle, I had more of a fitness regime, I took more care of my skin. I probably have to thank Elizabeth for all that stuff. How it all started, my — not my transformation, that’s the wrong word — just my healthier lifestyle was, when I started my TV show, I watched myself on playback and went, ‘Holy crap, I put on a lot of weight.’”
I also watched the early TV chat show Warnie. What struck me wasn’t that Warne was fat but that he couldn’t interview for toffee. In the first one he sits facing his friend Chris Martin, the two smiling at each other and squirming under the cameras.
“It’s a bromance. We both admire each other. People see the lead singer of Coldplay and a cricket player. But to me it’s just Chris and Shane.”
I say that the questions weren’t very probing, and he looks a bit dashed.
“I loved interviewing!” he says.
In the hour we have been together Warne has been uniformly upbeat, whether or not the occasion demanded it. And so when at last I ask him about ageing, the cruel inevitability of which robbed him of his genius and which he seems to be fighting with every application of Hurley’s face creams, I am not surprised when he insists that all is fine. “I enjoy getting older because, I think, I learn all the time about myself, you get more experience in life situations.”
What life situations, I ask. And for a moment he is floored. “I like to think that people could learn by some of the mistakes I’ve made along the way.”
So what are these mistakes? I wait for him to mention the positive drugs test that had him banned for a year in 2003. Or the texts intended for his mistress but sent to his wife by mistake. Or the way he picked up a woman on Tinder who sold the story to the press. But he doesn’t mention any of that. Instead, he says: “Maybe I was just a bit too trustworthy of people.”
The interview is over, and I go with him to have his photo taken. As he smiles and throws the ball, he notices three large carrier bags in the corner that have just been delivered for him. It turns out Warne has been doing some online shopping, and here are six new pairs of shoes. He breaks off from being photographed and starts opening all the boxes.
Here, at last, is a different side of Warne. He is not being a professionally friendly celebrity. He is being a little boy, delighted at his new things.
“Ripper!” he says taking out a pair of maroon brogues with a sinister purple glow.
“Nice!” he says to a pair of navy brogues in suede and leather. “Nice!”
He gives a few more professional smiles and throws for the camera, and then, when he is told he can go exclaims: “Good! I’ve got time for a smoke before I’m on air.”
Shane Warne is commentating on the Ashes for Sky Sports. Live coverage begins on July 8
Portrait by Jane Hilton
Photographs: Getty; Alamy
Letter in response to this article: