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regular-article-logo Thursday, 23 May 2024

Spell broken

In India, Shane Warne was a conjuror without rabbits

Mukul Kesavan Published 06.03.22, 12:16 AM
Shane Warne.

Shane Warne. Getty Images

I have a fuzzy memory of Shane Warne’s first Test because it happened a fortnight before my son was born in January 1992. The cricketing reason I remember that match is Ravi Shastri’s double hundred which put India in a position to force an unlikely win in Sydney, though Australia managed to draw the game.

The desi cricket fan in the 1990s had a much narrower view of Test cricket than the contemporary Indian cricket follower does. Doordarshan and, later, Star Sports telecast pretty much every Test match India played at home and abroad but live telecasts of matches between other teams weren’t as comprehensively available as they are now. So nearly all the Test cricket we watched featured the Indian team at home or abroad. We had a lopsided, parochial view of cricketers from elsewhere: we knew them almost solely through their performances against India.

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Seen through this distorting lens, Warne’s reputation suffered. He took one wicket for about 150 runs in that debut Test and while he had better figures to show for his subsequent efforts, he never seemed like a bowler of the first rank against India. Craig McDermott, Glenn McGrath and Jason Gillespie were our bogeymen; when they finished their spells and the ball was tossed to a spinner, the world became a less clenched place. It made no difference whether the spinner in question was Gavin Robertson
or Colin Miller or Warne; it was a slowbowler and that was all that mattered.

March 2001 has been memorialized as arguably the greatest month in India’s Test history because Sourav Ganguly’s team defeated Steve Waugh’s all-conquering Australians and won a three-match series after losing the Test in Bombay by ten wickets. Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and, above all, V.V.S. Laxman helped bludgeon the Australian attack into submission. Warne began well with a four-wicket haul in the first innings of the first Test in Mumbai which Australia won, but after that he was marmalized by India’s batsmen. He reprised his Sydney performance in India’s second innings in Calcutta, taking one wicket for 152 runs and then went on to take 2 for 140 in Chennai.

I watched the Chennai Test from the TNCA stand in Chepauk and there was a point when Warne began bowling bouncers. Few great bowlers have been as comprehensively deconstructed as Warne was in March 2001. Laxman was the deconstructor-in-chief: my selective memory of that 281 in Calcutta is basically him stepping away to leg, coming down the pitch and driving Warne inside-out over (or through) cover to the boundary in an endless loop.

Laxman’s great double hundred and the Indian team’s achievement in stopping Australia’s record run of consecutive Test wins were seen as so momentous that the 2001 triumph overshadowed a very similar series win, by exactly the same margin — 2-1 — three years earlier in March 1998. In fact, the desi fan’s conviction that Warne was hapless in Hindustan dates back to that tour, more particularly to the doings of one particular batsman, Navjot Singh Sidhu.

By 1998, Warne was in his prime. Sidhu was at the tail end of a successful career as an opening batsman. He would retire a year later with a batting average of 42. Like many Indian opening batsmen (Virender Sehwag is another example), Sidhu was a good player of pace but a marauding genius against spin. He belonged to the now-extinct species of Indian batsmen who saw spin bowling both as a provocation (does the opposing captain not take me seriously?) and as a treat, a happy diversion from the serious and dangerous business of playing fast bowlers.

Tendulkar set the stage for Sidhu’s sustained assault on Warne by smashing a double hundred in the first tour match in Bombay, paying particular attention to Warne. My memory of that first Test in Chennai is Warne running in to bowl and Sidhu running out to bat. Bat met ball mid-pitch (or seemed to) and the ball regularly disappeared. Sidhu got a couple of fifties in the Chennai Test and another one in the second Test in Calcutta while Tendulkar scored the big hundreds (one each in the first and third Test) but it was Sidhu’s frontal assault that softened Warne up and made him a passenger on that tour. He took ten wickets for 54 runs apiece. By way of comparison, his Indian counterpart, Anil Kumble, took 23 wickets at an average cost of 18.

I can’t explain why Warne did so poorly in India, but I can explain why Indian spectators were often unimpressed by this very great bowler. It wasn’t just his returns against India, though that was a part of it. It was also the fact that Warne’s affect was that of a magician. Unlike Abdul Qadir or Muttiah Muralitharan, with their bobbing run-ups and their theatrical, eye-popping flamboyance at the moment of release, Warne’s minimalist, impassive walk-up was a magician’s turn, it suggested the conjuring up of something out of nothing. This was a great preliminary when Warne was getting wickets — look, no hands — but when he wasn’t getting them, it made him look ordinary, like a conjuror without rabbits.

The other reason was that in the 1990s and Noughties, India lost more often than it won and Australia was the 800-pound gorilla of world cricket. Indians watched cricket from a defensive crouch and sometimes felt that they couldn’t afford the luxury of simple appreciation. Also, there was an unlovely swagger to the Australians in their world-conquering pomp, which allowed us to gloat over their rare failures, of which Warne-in-India was one. Besides, not only did we have our own wrist-spinning champion in Kumble, we had, in Sri Lanka’s Muralitharan, a David that we could all get behind.

Warne sometimes hurt his own cause. There was the time he suggested that Kumble’s ten-wicket haul in Delhi meant that India’s other bowlers hadn’t been doing their jobs or the time he implied that Murali had fattened his career tally by taking easy wickets against minnows like Bangladesh and Zimbabwe. He might have been easier to love if he had let his record speak for itself.

Late in his career, though, he became a popular figure in India, partly through his stewardship of the Rajasthan Royals and partly on account of his post-retirement avatar as a brilliant, often-inspired, commentator. His death reminds us that partisan fandom is a mean-spirited thing; we should enjoy our greats while we have them.

I have a fuzzy memory of Shane Warne’s first Test because it happened a fortnight before my son was born in January 1992. The cricketing reason I remember that match is Ravi Shastri’s double hundred which put India in a position to force an unlikely win in Sydney, though Australia managed to draw the game.

The desi cricket fan in the 1990s had a much narrower view of Test cricket than the contemporary Indian cricket follower does. Doordarshan and, later, Star Sports telecast pretty much every Test match India played at home and abroad but live telecasts of matches between other teams weren’t as comprehensively available as they are now. So nearly all the Test cricket we watched featured the Indian team at home or abroad. We had a lopsided, parochial view of cricketers from elsewhere: we knew them almost solely through their performances against India.

Seen through this distorting lens, Warne’s reputation suffered. He took one wicket for about 150 runs in that debut Test and while he had better figures to show for his subsequent efforts, he never seemed like a bowler of the first rank against India. Craig McDermott, Glenn McGrath and Jason Gillespie were our bogeymen; when they finished their spells and the ball was tossed to a spinner, the world became a less clenched place. It made no difference whether the spinner in question was Gavin Robertson
or Colin Miller or Warne; it was a slowbowler and that was all that mattered.

March 2001 has been memorialized as arguably the greatest month in India’s Test history because Sourav Ganguly’s team defeated Steve Waugh’s all-conquering Australians and won a three-match series after losing the Test in Bombay by ten wickets. Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and, above all, V.V.S. Laxman helped bludgeon the Australian attack into submission. Warne began well with a four-wicket haul in the first innings of the first Test in Mumbai which Australia won, but after that he was marmalized by India’s batsmen. He reprised his Sydney performance in India’s second innings in Calcutta, taking one wicket for 152 runs and then went on to take 2 for 140 in Chennai.

I watched the Chennai Test from the TNCA stand in Chepauk and there was a point when Warne began bowling bouncers. Few great bowlers have been as comprehensively deconstructed as Warne was in March 2001. Laxman was the deconstructor-in-chief: my selective memory of that 281 in Calcutta is basically him stepping away to leg, coming down the pitch and driving Warne inside-out over (or through) cover to the boundary in an endless loop.

Laxman’s great double hundred and the Indian team’s achievement in stopping Australia’s record run of consecutive Test wins were seen as so momentous that the 2001 triumph overshadowed a very similar series win, by exactly the same margin — 2-1 — three years earlier in March 1998. In fact, the desi fan’s conviction that Warne was hapless in Hindustan dates back to that tour, more particularly to the doings of one particular batsman, Navjot Singh Sidhu.

By 1998, Warne was in his prime. Sidhu was at the tail end of a successful career as an opening batsman. He would retire a year later with a batting average of 42. Like many Indian opening batsmen (Virender Sehwag is another example), Sidhu was a good player of pace but a marauding genius against spin. He belonged to the now-extinct species of Indian batsmen who saw spin bowling both as a provocation (does the opposing captain not take me seriously?) and as a treat, a happy diversion from the serious and dangerous business of playing fast bowlers.

Tendulkar set the stage for Sidhu’s sustained assault on Warne by smashing a double hundred in the first tour match in Bombay, paying particular attention to Warne. My memory of that first Test in Chennai is Warne running in to bowl and Sidhu running out to bat. Bat met ball mid-pitch (or seemed to) and the ball regularly disappeared. Sidhu got a couple of fifties in the Chennai Test and another one in the second Test in Calcutta while Tendulkar scored the big hundreds (one each in the first and third Test) but it was Sidhu’s frontal assault that softened Warne up and made him a passenger on that tour. He took ten wickets for 54 runs apiece. By way of comparison, his Indian counterpart, Anil Kumble, took 23 wickets at an average cost of 18.

I can’t explain why Warne did so poorly in India, but I can explain why Indian spectators were often unimpressed by this very great bowler. It wasn’t just his returns against India, though that was a part of it. It was also the fact that Warne’s affect was that of a magician. Unlike Abdul Qadir or Muttiah Muralitharan, with their bobbing run-ups and their theatrical, eye-popping flamboyance at the moment of release, Warne’s minimalist, impassive walk-up was a magician’s turn, it suggested the conjuring up of something out of nothing. This was a great preliminary when Warne was getting wickets — look, no hands — but when he wasn’t getting them, it made him look ordinary, like a conjuror without rabbits.

The other reason was that in the 1990s and Noughties, India lost more often than it won and Australia was the 800-pound gorilla of world cricket. Indians watched cricket from a defensive crouch and sometimes felt that they couldn’t afford the luxury of simple appreciation. Also, there was an unlovely swagger to the Australians in their world-conquering pomp, which allowed us to gloat over their rare failures, of which Warne-in-India was one. Besides, not only did we have our own wrist-spinning champion in Kumble, we had, in Sri Lanka’s Muralitharan, a David that we could all get behind.

Warne sometimes hurt his own cause. There was the time he suggested that Kumble’s ten-wicket haul in Delhi meant that India’s other bowlers hadn’t been doing their jobs or the time he implied that Murali had fattened his career tally by taking easy wickets against minnows like Bangladesh and Zimbabwe. He might have been easier to love if he had let his record speak for itself.

Late in his career, though, he became a popular figure in India, partly through his stewardship of the Rajasthan Royals and partly on account of his post-retirement avatar as a brilliant, often-inspired, commentator. His death reminds us that partisan fandom is a mean-spirited thing; we should enjoy our greats while we have them.

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