The cricketing world was left in shock and disbelief after the death of Shane Warne aged only 52, as if collectively bamboozled by one of the ripping leg-breaks that were the hallmark of the former Australia spinner’s iconic career.
Pat Cummins, the Australia men’s captain, was among those struggling to process the devastating news that Warne had died from a suspected heart attack in a villa on holiday on the island of Koh Samui in Thailand.
“Warnie was an all-time great, a once-in-a-century type of cricketer,” Cummins said, his players having learned the news as they travelled back to the team hotel after day one of their first Test against Pakistan in Rawalpindi.
“His record will live on for ever. We all grew up watching Warnie, idolising him, we all had posters on our wall, had his earrings. We loved so much his showmanship, his charisma, his tactics. He just willed himself and his team to win games for Australia. Above all else, his incredible skill as a leg-spinner.
“The loss we’re all trying to wrap our heads around is huge. The game was never the same after Warnie emerged and the game will never be the same after his passing. Rest in peace, King.”
These sentiments were echoed across the world, Warne having left an indelible mark during a 15-year international career that began in 1992, caught fire with the “ball of the century” against England’s Mike Gatting during the following year’s Ashes series and returned 708 Test wickets from 145 caps. He also starred in the 1999 World Cup triumph, named man of the match after taking four for 33 in the final against Pakistan.
On Friday, Gatting paid tribute to Warne and that unforgettable moment. “I didn’t expect it to spin that much,” said Gatting. “When we spoke about it, I am not sure he expected it to spin that much. He said he just tried to get it down the other end the best he could. Well, it was a bit too good for me. Without a doubt, he is the number one ever. He had all the things a cricketer needed. Above all he had great fun playing cricket and resonated with a lot of youngsters.”
Sachin Tendulkar, the former India batsman, tweeted: “Shocked, stunned & miserable. Will miss you Warnie. There was never a dull moment with you around, on or off the field. Will always treasure our on field duels & off field banter. You always had a special place for India & Indians had a special place for you. Gone too young!”
Adam Gilchrist, Australia’s wicketkeeper during the peak years of Warne’s time with the national team, tweeted: “Numb. The highlight of my cricketing career was to keep wicket to Warnie. Best seat in the house to watch the maestro at work. Have often felt a tad selfish, that Heals and I pretty much exclusively are the only ones who had that thrill and pleasure at Test level. Rip Warnie.”
Other former Australia team-mates of Warne have also paid tribute to him. Mark Waugh described him as the “ultimate entertainer on and off the field” on Twitter while Brett Lee wrote: “Can’t believe it. The greatest bowler to play the game ever ! The RockStar of cricket ! Gone too soon. RIP mate.”
Ian Botham, a former commentary colleague of Warne’s with Sky, said: “I’ve lost a great friend on and off the playing field” and added that his thoughts were with Jackson, Summer and Brooke, Warne’s children from a 10-year marriage to Simone Callahan that ended in 2005.
The news, initially reported by his employer, Fox Sports, came less than 24 hours after Warne had tweeted a tribute to Rod Marsh, the former Australia wicketkeeper who had died from a heart attack aged 74.
The word genius may be overused in sport but applied to Warne, the chubby, peroxide-haired Aussie Rules fanatic from St Kilda, Victoria, who during an era dominated by fast bowlers almost single-handedly revived the art of leg-spin; as Cummins said, a generation of young cricketers grew up wanting to be him.
Warne’s hold over England in particular was legendary, claiming 195 wickets from 36 Test matches after his life-changing first delivery in the storied rivalry left Gatting flummoxed at Old Trafford. After playing a part in six successive Ashes series wins he saved his best personal performance for the 2005 series, claiming 40 wickets despite dealing with the turmoil of his divorce.
It could not prevent England finally breaking Australia’s 16-year stranglehold with a famous 2-1 win but Warne had the last laugh before retirement, held aloft by his teammates at the Sydney Cricket Ground after the 2006-07 whitewash in which he became the first bowler to pass 700 Test wickets and the urn regained.
As well as captaining Rajasthan Royals to victory in the first ever Indian Premier League in 2008, and coming out of retirement to play in Australia’s Big Bash League between 2011 and 2013, Warne enjoyed a fruitful relationship with Hampshire in English county cricket, playing five seasons at the Rose Bowl between 2000 and 2007.
In retirement Warne was a strident commentator and pundit for Channel Nine and latterly Fox in Australia, as well as Sky Sports in the UK. Bryan Henderson, Sky’s director of cricket, said: “We are devastated at the loss of Shane. On the pitch, he was simply the greatest. Off the pitch, he was a wonderful and loyal friend.
“No words can capture his contribution to the game, and our shock and sadness that he has left us so early. His repertoire of magic on the field, in the commentary box and in life itself will never be forgotten, and our hearts go out to his family and friends on this saddest of days.”
The final day of England’s solitary warm-up match in Antigua paused for a minute’s silence during the morning session. Joe Root, the England captain, said: “It has shocked us all in the dressing room. He was always a joy to be around, he gave so much energy to the sport. As a kid growing up he was a massive idol of mine and someone you wanted to emulate.”