Warnie: mourning the death of a rock star

Vale Warnie, you ridiculous and ridiculously talented man. Photo: Wisden/Twitter.

Richie Black looks back on a week in which we processed the shock passing of one of our most beloved yet controversial sporting figures.

“Like I’ve said to a lot of the guys I’ve been talking to the last couple of days, just how much I love him I guess. I didn’t say that [to him], and I wish I did.”

In his grief, former Captain of the Australian Men’s Cricket Team, Ricky Ponting, was drawn to express his enduring affection for his former, now fallen, comrade Shane Warne.

The most straightforward, therefore poignant, expressions following the death of the legendary cricketer have been from Warne’s teammates and closest colleagues.

But inevitably, perhaps appropriately, with such a public figure, that’s not the complete story.

In the last week the concept of Warnie, as brought to life by the media has been tossed up, flighted, spun, landed … and, yep, that’s where things get a bit more complicated – as they so often did when it came to Shane Warne.

For the love of Warnie

For Ponting to say something like that – in the context of one of the most macho, heteronormative sporting cultures – is kinda wonderful.

A measure of Warne’s personal qualities has been the heartfelt expressions of grief. It’s manifest in Ponting’s aching sadness as with the Twitter shock from the likes of Adam Gilchrist or the deeply poignant, articulate on-air statement made by fellow broadcaster Isa Guha.

Isa Guha speaks about the passing of Shane Warne. Video: Fox Cricket/YouTube.

Meanwhile, legendary hard men like Allan Border and David Boon have been brought to tears.

Then, as we know, there were the peripheral figures and random members of the public leaving pies and cans of VB at the foot of his statue at the MCG in touching salute. Condolences from Mick Jagger, Elton John, Robbie Williams and – oh god – Piers Morgan.

And, kinda predictably, for a man who so lived his life through its prism, both willingly and unwillingly, the grief overwhelmed the media.

The multi-page, wrap-around Warnie news briefly eclipsed the epic brutality in Ukraine and the unprecedented floods in NSW and Queensland. His passing dominated headlines across the world, naturally in Australia, England and India – but even places like Malaysia.

His death was politicised. And as always (well, particularly now he was dead) it was beyond his control.

There’s been a predictable elitist backlash from those who think a sportsman (of ill-repute) shouldn’t be given so much air in a time of more significant crises.

Then there was an even more predictable backlash from those commensurate elitists who think he should.

Our Prime Minister – without much else to do, apparently – didn’t help by weighing in with a thread of tweets that must’ve engaged the PMO for hours, while ignoring that it was International Women’s Day.

Meanwhile, bleating from the sidelines, professional celebrity-douchebag Pete Evans, like a few other libertarian trolls, linked Warne’s passing with his endorsement of Covid-19 vaccines.

And in the background there was the vaguely morbid attention to the passage of the body home via autopsy.

Beloved Warnie, the cheerful Melburnian bogan made good, in death, was now existing on a plane with Vladimir Putin, the existential hell of climate change and an insane celebrity chef.

He didn’t belong there, you might think. It was ridiculous. But, of course, actually – he kinda did. Because ridiculousness and controversy was so often Warnie’s point. That’s why we loved him.

Rock star

Warne is/was frequently likened to a rock star. Certainly, in our collective outsized grief, he lived up to the title.

But the touch of ridiculousness about him – well, that’s key to any self-respecting rock star.

He had all the well-documented traits: the charisma and lifestyle, the Jagger-esque mingling with (and getting engaged to) other celebrities.

He could also martial a crowd, rousing it to celebrate him, while also being able to bring it to order. When Bay 13 was at risk of getting out of control one night at the MCG, Warnie famously stepped in and asked them to stop throwing golf balls at the English players.

Warnie steps in to sort out unruly Australian cricket fans. Credit: Cricket.com.au/YouTube.

And let’s be honest, he also tried to get it his end away a lot. The sometimes problematic state of arrested development – that simultaneously appalled people and drew them to him – was very rock.

It also had that reflexive effect of making us question our choice in heroes. After all, who hasn’t caught themselves envying the excesses of someone like Shane, then thought *whoops* that ain’t right.

Yet through all of it, we also had his generosity and humanity (not typical rock star traits) to respect. Anecdotes abound of his willingness to entertain autograph requests and his avuncular way of providing coaching for kids and other cricketers.

This generosity, of compassion, manifested itself in his support of marriage equality, as well as enthusiastically endorsing gender neutral language.

Idiot genius?

But above all, Warney was prodigiously talented, someone who revolutionised his craft. In doing so, he was a force of nature.

If we continue with the rock star theme, then he’d be more cock rock than art rock. A bit more Led Zep than Bowie. Analogous to the likes of (stay with us here) extremists like Led Zeppelin’s drummer John Bonham or, say, Eddie Van Halen.

By which we mean essentially clutz geniuses. Singular masters of their respective crafts – that were somehow able to transcend the limitations of the medium, to become something more. Talent that defied rationality, justification – forged somewhere in the gut (or lower). Hey, where rock should be.

Warney simply did ­­– the intellectual imperative was simply to be best and be fucking great at one thing. And then go have a dart, beer or a root.

All of these men, it must be said, tended to be a little bit hopeless when it came to just about everything else in their lives. As if the brain only had so much space to fit that outsized talent and not much more (we’re only sorta kidding).

Warney’s cricketing talent, which seemed to fall from the sky, was married to a relentless, dedicated drive. He knew he was good – he pursued the process of winning with ferocity and faith.

But while intelligence and street-wise nous, about which much has been written, certainly applied to cricket – very little of that seemed to find its way into the rest of his life. He wasn’t stupid – far from it – he was more guileless. He was a kid, delighted with his lot. A genius fucking kid.

Klessic. Photo: Varun Puri/Twitter.

And so people were often embarrassed by him or laughed at him or sighed, “Oh Warnie.” Along with the sex scandals, the endless tabloid intrigue, and the Playboy undies, there was also a betting scandal and a year-long ban for failing a drug test … the latter which he, FFS, pinned on his mum.

Meanwhile, his generosity applied to his progressive take on LGBTQI issues but he also rubbed shoulders frequently with dubious entities like Sam Newman (amongst those who wept openly for his passing).

Simplicity – perversely – complicated him, or at least the media prism through which he was perceived: held up, glorified, then put in a sex tape and pilloried. We thought he should be better but we loved that he wasn’t.

A simple man with a complex craft

Contradiction also applies to his relationship to what made him famous. The art of leg spin is one that is complex, subtle and nuanced, one of mystery.

None of those words, funnily enough, could ever be applied to Warnie, the man.  

Leg spinning was also, when he came on the scene, considered the province of fogeys and nerds (even relative to other cricketers).

Warne changed all that with precision accuracy and an incredible ability to spin and turn the ball. Simple, really, when you put it like that.

For those few who’ve made it this far and yet (until now) have no interest in cricket, this was best exemplified by his so-called ‘ball of the century’, now considered the heralding of a champion. Picture yourself, 4 June, 1993, Warne’s first ball, first Ashes test … he did this.

Warnie’s famous ‘ball of the century’. Video: Bradman Museum/YouTube.

There were other variants too – zooters, wrong ‘uns, flippers (if you don’t know, don’t ask, just let your imaginations run wild) – but all defined by his implacable will to win.

The cricket writer Greg Baum once wrote of him: “At his best, he has the ruthlessness of a clinician and the flourish of a performer, and his bowling is simultaneously a technical and dramatic masterpiece.”

Imagery, as accurate as it is, clearly jars with the image of a peroxide blond, dancing with a stump on the balcony at Trent Bridge – or the Botoxed latter-day rake he eventually became. But it reminds us of something fundamental beyond all the outsized shenanigans and contradictions.

It’s true, even speaking as a Shane Warne fan (which we fucking are), the media coverage – amidst the multiple crises gripping the world right now – has been over the top. You might argue he wasn’t the greatest of public role models, sure.

But don’t lose sight of his singular, ridiculous command of a complicated game. The ridiculously amazing thing at the foundation of all these contradictions.

We love you Warnie.

Six minutes of Warnie at his best. Video: ESPNcricinfo/Twitter.

Richie Black is the deputy editor of the Sydney Sentinel. Twitter: @NoirRich.

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