On the eve of the fourth test, the 2009 Ashes series is poised, with all three results still possible. That marks it out as one of the better series in recent memory, without ever hitting the heights (or galvanising the nation) like that barmy summer four years ago.
Then again, lapping the high watermark of 2005, which plenty of sober commentators regard as one of the best test series in the history of the sport, was always likely to prove problematic. Still, should Andrew Strauss guide the current incumbents to victory, the English cheek will be mantled with a blush of pride just as rosy as when the national team last captured the tiny urn.
Not that the present series has lacked drama, incident or even bursts of exceptional cricket. Perhaps the stage is the same but the cast has changed. There certainly seems to be fewer characters than in 2005, perhaps less clearly defined personalities. Maybe the narrative is missing due to a lack of obvious heroes and villains?
Some players have returned; Ricky Ponting and Andrew Flintoff cast long shadows over their respective squads. But the retirement of such luminaries as Glenn McGrath, Michael Vaughan and, most of all, Shane Warne, was always likely to leave a gap.
With Warne, a man who was voted fourth in Wisden’s Cricketers of the Century list, the loss is immense. He is the only Australian cricketer to have his portrait on display in the Long Room at Lords whilst still playing. Why? In a career spanning two decades, he brought both swagger and mastery to one of the game’s most difficult arts – leg spin bowling.
However, Ponting’s loss is Sky’s gain, with Warne now offering verbal flippers from the commentary box. It is to Sky’s credit that they have moulded a team (and it would be some team) of former players into a highly watchable and on the whole a slick squad of pundits, led by David Gower, with Ian Botham, David Lloyd, Nasser Hussein, Michael Holding, Michael Atherton and the newly arrived Warne down the order.
It’s a booth defined by banter and repartee as much as for its insight. The Aussie spinner fits right in.
Standing at six foot, Warne’s well built, stocky even, with a face that looks as though it’s been permanently scorched by the sun. His hair is due another bleaching and his fingers, denied the feel of ball, twitch nervously. As we speak, his phone is passed from palm to palm. His wrist turns with unconscious ease.
“It really helps that the guys I’m commentating with are friends. We played against each other for years, but we’re still mates off the field. It’s a good working environment and the team have made me feel very welcome.
“My style is to bring plenty of humour to the game. I only do a couple of test matches a year back in Oz– usually the Melbourne and Sydney test matches over Christmas and New Year. Having said that, it didn’t take much to tempt me over here for this one – it’s the Ashes. Hopefully I’ll be back here to commentate every four years.”
Warne occupies a unique status in Australian cricket; he commands almost universal appreciation not only amongst his home fans, but amongst devotees of the sport around the world, no more so than in England.
“I’ve been very lucky with the England fans,” he says. “I’ve been coming over here since 1988 to play cricket, which means I know the place very well and I understand the people.”
Warne memorably announced his arrival in international cricket on the second day of the first Test of the 1993 Ashes series, bowling Mike Gatting with a ball that did everything short of make the tea. Pitching a few inches outside leg before veering back to clip the top of the off stump, the delivery has been immortalised by cricket fans who refer to it simply as “that ball”.
“England fans like the way I played the game,” he says before being jerked upright at the sound of an incoming text.
“Aw, give me a minute, mate,” he says in his familiar Victorian Aussie, nodding to his now dizzy handset.
We resume: “I think the England fans enjoyed my banter. I didn’t take it to heart when they gave me some stick and I always had some fun with the crowd.”
It’s a modest appraisal. Even the most ardent England supporter would bear witness to Warne’s craft with the ball.
“The England fans definitely enjoyed the way I bowled,” he amends, “but also the way I played the game. I never gave up even when I was batting. I was an entertainer yet still a down to earth guy. They appreciated that. It’s strange as I love playing here, but there’s nowhere where I get as much stick. Not New Zealand, Pakistan, India or South Africa. Here you get more stick than anywhere, but that’s great.”
If 1993 proved a spectacular introduction for the man known as Hollywood to his teammates, his English swansong in 2005 proved equally eventful.
“The 2005 Ashes was a wonderful series,” he says. “Everyone realised that. It captured the imagination in the way it was played. There was also camaraderie between the players. Looking back, I think it will be best remembered for great cricket played by both teams.”
“From an Australian point of view, we were disappointed to lose the Ashes as we were the first side to do so in twenty years. But you have to remember there was a lot of cricket played before 2005 and there’s been a fair bit since, including the 5-0 defeat of England in Australia where we embarrassed them.”
“We played exceptional cricket in 2007 with almost the same team, which no one ever talks about over here. That’s a shame because the Australian team played very well. I’m happy to admit that England played well in 2005; they were the better team. But you won’t find many English commentators saying how well Australia played in 2007.”
It’s a spiky response, a reminder that Warne, now a savvy media operator, has in the past fallen foul of the cricketing authorities courtesy of an occasionally bristly temperament. He also fell foul of his wife after several alleged infidelities (they are now separated), was fined for his role in a bookmaking scandal in 1995, and tested positive for a banned substance in 2003. Each controversy a juicy full toss, gleefully dispatched to the boundary by the British tabloids.
Yet despite Warne’s swaddling in a winning mentality, even he accepts that England’s victory may have been a necessary boon for the sport. “People were questioning the value of the Ashes, especially with England going so long without winning one. But the Ashes are always special, regardless of how well either team is playing going into the series. England’s victory in 2005 was probably good for the cricket brand worldwide. It showed that Australia could be beat. It was such a good series that it made cricket interesting again. Still, you never want to lose.”
Since 2005, the cricket world has changed dramatically with the advent of Twenty20, a new shorter, more accessible (and profitable) form of the sport. Indeed, the popularity of Twenty20 is such that Kevin Pietersen, one of England’s few talismanic figures, recently called into question the long-term viability of the five-day game (while conversely stating that he’s got many years left in test cricket). Either way, Warne is in no doubt that the future of cricket encompasses Twenty20, one-day internationals and test matches.
“You have to remember that test cricket is a very different form of the game from Twenty20. Twenty20 is good for the sport’s branding, but players are only ever judged on how they perform in a test match. You never see a player force his way into a test side based on his performances at Twenty20.”
“Anything can happen in Twenty20, which is one of its beauties, but playing five days for six hours a day is a much better measure of player’s ability. It’s a test of temperament, concentration, technique, form and attitude. It’s the complete game.”
It’s a game in which Warne excelled, playing 145 tests, taking 708 wickets and scoring 3154 runs. He also developed himself into a formidable slip fielder, and was more than capable of an exuberant knock down the order, including a remarkable dismissal on 99 courtesy of a wild swing (he never made a test century). However, it is for his remarkable bowling that he will be best remembered; a man who single-handedly reinvigorated a skill that had fallen from fashion at the sharp end of the sport. Yet despite his myriad achievements, there remains a dearth of world-class leg spinners in the modern game (Muttiah Muralitharan bowls off-spin, despite his wristy style).
“The bottom line with leg spin is it’s very hard,” he says. “You can’t just rock up and bowl leg breaks. If you’re a kid trying to learn leg spin you’ll invariably bowl double bouncers or full tosses that’ll get knocked out of the park. It’s tough going.”
“Captaincy is also another issue. I don’t think captains know how to use spin bowlers in general, let alone leg spinners. So there’s not much encouragement there for young bowlers. People think that because I had twenty years in the game, it might have inspired a few kids to come through bowling in a similar way. There have been a few that have tried, but not many have managed to make the step up. Maybe there was a lot of talent, but they just weren’t encouraged.”
It’s a straight answer from a man who spent his entire career bowling anything but. That’s the duality of Warne, a man whose demeanour and lifestyle, the latter etched on his face, offers a contrast to the almost Michelangelo-like artistry he could summon with the ball in hand.
The temperamental genius is nothing new, especially in sport. It’s a cliché. Yet there’s no feeling of regret with Warne. Despite controversy both on and off the field, Warne’s talent was never engulfed, never overshadowed. The spinner has gone on record stating that even when his life was falling apart, he could go out and record his best ever figures. That mental strength, allied with patience and most of all sublime talent define his career. I am guessing there will be quite a few overs bowled before we see his like again.