David Runciman, reviewing Shane Warne’s book No Spin in the London Review of Books, 15 August 2019 …. with this title “Fat Bastard”
When the Australian cricketers Steve Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft were exposed tampering with the ball during last year’s test series in South Africa there was, along with all the faux outrage, some genuine incredulity. Why did they take such an insane risk? The subterfuge was so cack-handed – rubbing the ball with lurid yellow sandpaper, perfectly suited to be picked up by the TV cameras – and the potential rewards so slight that they seemed to be putting their careers on the line for next to nothing. Confronted with the filmed evidence, Smith confessed straightaway. As conspiracies go this one barely got to first base, since almost no thought had been given to keeping it secret. They can’t have wanted to be caught. Each of the three culprits looked distraught in the aftermath. But it does appear that they didn’t think getting caught would matter much.
Shane Warne, the quintessential Australian cricketer of his generation, considers this puzzle in his latest autobiography (at my count, his third). Once he has got his own faux outrage out of the way, he puts the ball-tampering fiasco down to a mix of arrogance and innocence. The Australian dressing room under Smith’s captaincy had become an insular, aloof and greedy place, with the players increasingly convinced that the wider world was not giving them their due. At the same time, they couldn’t believe that what they did was much of a crime, given how much bad behaviour on the cricket field goes unpunished. Warne tends to agree with them. Many other players – from Michael Atherton to Sachin Tendulkar – have been accused of messing around with the ball and got away with it. Some, like the South Africans Faf du Plessis and Vernon Philander, have been penalised for ball-tampering without, as Warne says, being ‘vilified for it’. He thinks Smith and Warner’s punishments – year-long bans – were grossly excessive. After all, they said they were sorry! Yes, they made a stupid mistake, but, as sportsmen like to say, they held their hands up afterwards and admitted it. If you can’t beg for a little forgiveness, Warne wants to know, what can you do?
Of course, he’s really talking about himself. Warne’s career is a succession of what in hindsight look like foolishly reckless acts, any one of which could have ruined him. He took these risks because he believed he could always talk his way out of them. ‘I’ve made a number of mistakes in my own life,’ he writes, ‘and I will continue to make them. This is what it means to be human.’ These mistakes include taking a $5000 ‘gift’ from a bookmaker in 1994 during a one-day tournament in Sri Lanka. His teammate Mark Waugh had taken money from the same man to supply information before matches about the weather and the state of the pitch. Warne says he had no idea who the money came from or what it was for, and anyway he lost it that same night in a casino. He and Waugh were subsequently fined by the Australian Cricket Board for pocketing the cash, though the ACB tried to hush it up and news of the fines only emerged years later. ‘I’ll always say we got a rough deal but I accept I was naive,’ Warne admits. ‘Looking back, what stranger gives you five grand unless there’s something in it for him?’ He did turn down the $200,000 he was offered by the Pakistani cricketer Saleem Malik (‘the Rat’) to throw a test match, but only after having a good laugh with his teammates about just how much money that was. ‘Of course I want $200,000, but not from you,’ Warne claims he told Malik. ‘So I’ve gotta say no.’ In 2003, Warne was banned from cricket for a year for taking a proscribed diuretic handed to him by his mother to help him lose weight – ‘She gave me one because she said I had a few extra chins.’ He didn’t stop to ask what it was. He had no idea he’d done anything wrong. ‘Stupid,’ he says now, ‘but innocent.’
Then there are the tabloid stings. Warne endlessly found himself gravitating from the back pages to the front after yet another woman had spilled the beans on what a naughty boy he’d been. These incidents are often mortifying, and cause deep pain to his long-suffering wife Simone – and later to his girlfriend Elizabeth Hurley – along with his three children. What can he do except hold his hands up and ask for forgiveness? But he refuses to learn his lesson. One evening in 2006, in the middle of a match he was playing for Hampshire, he got a text from a woman he’d known for years accompanied by a picture of her kissing a girlfriend. So he jumps in his car and drives to London, where the women are waiting for him. ‘Two drinks and two girls later,’ as he puts it, he drives back to Southampton, arriving at 2.30 a.m.; he sleeps in his car, has a shower, a cigarette and a quick brag to the physio about what he’s been up to, then takes seven wickets and leads Hampshire to victory. What larks! But that evening he gets a call from Andy Coulson, the editor of the News of the World, telling him that the paper has pictures of him cavorting in his underpants with two women. ‘Mate, plenty of people pretend they’re me. Fuck off,’ Warne tells Coulson. But it is him. He’s been set up. It turns out that if you’re Shane Warne, there’s probably no such thing as a free threesome. ‘I just don’t get it,’ he writes, ‘never have. I know, it’s naive of me, but my inclination is to give people the benefit of the doubt.’
Warne is no fan of conventional wisdom. He says he lives by two inverted mottoes. ‘Always get ahead of yourself.’ ‘Always shoot the messenger.’ When the shit hits the fan – money, pills, women – Warne admits he gets spasms of panic. He has an understandable fear of getting ‘rubbed out’, whether by the cricketing authorities or by his family. But he never stays scared for long. There are two reasons for this. First, he doesn’t truly believe that any rubbing out will be permanent. He may get banned for a year, but not for life. He may lose his wife, but not his kids. And anyway, there’s always another opportunity out there – another match, another team, another woman. Second, there are things he fears far more than crossing the line and getting punished. One is getting crocked. He has the successful sportsman’s deep-seated dread of suffering a career-ending injury that no amount of pleading will remedy. There is nothing to be gained by holding your hand up when you’re facing the surgeon’s knife. You can’t bargain your way out of physical pain. ‘Operations and rehabilitation are the hidden side of sporting life. The surgery can be frightening and the trauma sucks oxygen out of you.’ His other terror is of being found out, not as a bad person, but as a bad player. The ultimate sporting humiliation, and the one Warne wants to avoid at all costs, is discovering that you aren’t good enough. Far worse than getting rubbed out is getting dropped.
This helps to explain Warne’s curious relationship with his own body. His appetite for sex is seemingly limitless but he is much more ambivalent about food:
I reckon sitting in a restaurant is a waste of time, the same as cooking ... Food gets in the way of a good time. Eat, go, party. I’m all about atmosphere and vibe ... I’ll eat if I’m hungry, and I won’t if I’m not. I like hot chips, pasta, pizza, white-bread cheese sandwiches and apples – everything else I can take or leave, mainly leave. I do like ribs and roast pork too. But if there’s an opposite to a foodie, I’m it.
As a result Warne has had a long-standing issue with his weight, which has yo-yoed over the years. He can put on twenty kilos without thinking but he can take them off almost as fast because for him food is just fuel and he doesn’t miss it when he needs to cut it out. Getting fat isn’t very different from getting laid and getting caught: when you go too far you can always pull it back. But Warne’s shoulder and, above all, his bowling hand are different. They need looking after: a tubby Warne could still bamboozle the world’s best batsmen but a permanently sore shoulder or stiff wrist would leave him exposed. As a spinner he couldn’t afford to lose his grip. Let them laugh at him for being a fat bastard. He would never let them laugh at him for being easy to hit.
This also explains what is, frankly, his slightly weird relationship with cricket. He just doesn’t seem that into it. He enjoys the glory and revels in the camaraderie. He gets a kick out of outwitting the opposition. But it’s not what he loves. His first love was Australian Rules football, which is the sport he set his heart on playing professionally. In 1989, after a final trial, he got a letter from St Kilda Football Club saying that his services were no longer required. On the day of the trial he was, he recalls, ‘sick as a dog. Strange how life turns out – sliding doors and all that. Anyway, instead of saying I was too crook to play I said: “Wow, yeah, all right I’ll be there.”’ So you could say his body let him down. But Warne knows it’s worse than that. ‘The truth is that I wasn’t good enough – not a mile off, but in the end not good enough. That’s hard to take. It went deep, like my soul had been ripped out.’ Cricket rescued him when he discovered that he had an extraordinary gift for it. But it never fully compensated him for getting cut. It’s hard to believe that had he made it as an Aussie Rules footballer he’d have achieved anything like the same level of wealth or fame. Would Elizabeth Hurley have dated him? I doubt it – sliding doors and all that. Yet it was his knowledge that he was succeeding at a sport that loved him more than he loved it which gave him the ultimate edge. He always bowled like there was a sliver of ice in his heart.
Warne writes that spin bowlers have to play on different anxieties from fast bowlers. If you are really quick you can scare batsmen into thinking they might get seriously hurt, as happened to England at the hands of Mitchell Johnson during the traumatic tour of Australia in 2013-14 (Jonathan Trott, who left the tour early, called Johnson ‘my executioner’). Spinners can’t do that. But they can scare batsmen into thinking they may end up looking like fools. If you are unable to threaten them with injury, you have to threaten them with humiliation. This was Warne’s metier. There is no great secret to it, though he goes into a certain amount of technical detail about how leg-spinners do their work (‘It’s the same grip for every delivery, two fingers down, two fingers up ... The thumb rests on the ball, sort of like a rudder, and the third finger does all the work’). For spinners to make batsmen worry about their dignity, he says the trick is simply to spin the ball. A lot. ‘If you spin the ball hard, with revs on it, and it curves and dips and lands in the same spot time after time, it becomes a threat.’ If you can keep them guessing, the battle is more than half won. ‘The intimidation factor in spin bowling comes from a batsman’s ignorance,’ Warne writes. What they don’t know can really hurt them. But if you don’t spin it, then all you are is a slow bowler. And slow bowlers never scared anyone.
The so-called spinner whose approach to slow bowling Warne takes most pleasure in contrasting with his own is the English player Ashley Giles (or Ashley ‘Hit-Me-Miles’ as Warne calls him). Giles spun it a bit but not a lot. He took wickets at regular intervals with his slow left-arm spin, but never explosively and certainly not cheaply: his test record of 143 wickets at an average of 40 pales in comparison to Warne’s 708 at an average of 25. What Giles did was try to frustrate the batsmen with his accuracy, wear them down and tempt them into doing something stupid. For that reason, getting out to Giles could be a little embarrassing. But facing him was never frightening. During the 2006 Ashes test in Adelaide, Warne, who was a solid and occasionally brutal batsman, found himself facing Giles and ‘ran down first ball after the drinks break and donged him over mid-on. He said: “You just don’t rate me, do you?” I went: “Nah”.’ Warne wants us to know that this counts as banter, not sledging (‘They’re two different things’). Still, it gives a good flavour of the contempt in which he specialised. Fat or thin, in or out of love, on the front pages or on the back, so long as you’ve got nothing on him, he will get you. The rest of it – the mystery balls, the tricksy fields, the elaborate appeals – was just window-dressing. Warne is all about the atmosphere and the vibe. Deep down, he wants you to feel like shit, as bad as he once felt when he got the letter that told him he wasn’t good enough. If he can do that to you, he knows he’ll be fine.
Giles is now England’s director of cricket, having taken over from Andrew Strauss earlier this year. In his first summer in charge, England have already won the World Cup, having beaten Australia in the semi-final. Smith, Warner and Bancroft are back in the Australian team and, despite professing to be chastened by their recent experiences, are recognisably the same players they were before. Smith’s look of disgust in that semi-final when the frighteningly quick English bowler Jofra Archer deceived Smith’s playing partner Glenn Maxwell with a slower ball suggested a man who has yet to embrace his inner que sera. In the epic final against New Zealand, England scraped over the line, with Archer riding his luck in the unbearably tense ‘super over’. Both teams were clearly desperate to win, but what made the match so special was that neither seemed to be haunted by the fear of losing. They were trying to beat each other but humiliation didn’t come into it.
In his reflections on the aftermath of last year’s ball-tampering scandal, Warne says that too many people concluded that Australian cricket needed to change its ways. He disagrees:
What happened in South Africa shook everyone and now, understandably, the guys are reacting to public pressure, to sponsors and to Cricket Australia by doing the ‘right thing’ – like shaking hands with the opposition before play starts. Pleeeese! By trying to do the right thing, they’re doing the wrong thing. The best way to win back trust and popularity is by playing the Aussie way, and if that means some confrontation in the thick of the battle, so be it. It’s an international stage they are playing on, not the village green. I’ve read that we should play the New Zealand way. No we shouldn’t.
No doubt he would say the same about the friendly, modest Irish team that recently skittled England out for 85 in a morning at Lords. Bring on the Ashes.
When this article by David Runciman in Thuppahi was circulated on 19 March 2022 to a number of friends all over the world but mostly in Australia, a Sri Lankan in Sydney reacted freociously with this email comment to yours truly: “Fuck back to your island paradise you ungrateful refuge bastard!!!!”