The death of Shane Keith Warne – leg-spinner and larrikin, legend and lair – at the age of just 52 has left a nation in mourning.
Australians woke to the scarcely believable news that the cricketer, a man who had, for many, come to embody the rarely realised national ideal of the irreverent, unafraid maverick, had died of a suspected heart attack.
The tributes were led by teammates and friends, along with those he tormented with his vast, dazzling array of legbreaks, zooters, flippers and the occasional straight one. But the repercussions of the end of his vast, short life were felt far beyond the cricketing world.
The Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, said Australians had woken “in shock and sadness to the awful news” of Warne’s death, describing him as “one of our greatest cricketers of all time, one of only a few that could approach the extraordinary achievements of the great Don Bradman”.
“His achievements were the product of his talent, discipline and passion for the game he loved.
“But Shane was more than this to Australians. He was one of our nation’s greatest characters. His humour, his passion, his irreverence, his approachability ensured he was loved by all.
“There was none like Shane.”
The premier of Warne’s home state of Victoria, Daniel Andrews, said he “didn’t just inspire a cricketing generation – he defined it”. Andrews has offered Warne’s family a state funeral for the cricketer, and announced the Melbourne Cricket Ground’s Great Southern Stand would be renamed – in perpetuity – the SK Warne Stand.
“We are all numbed by the news,” Australian captain Pat Cummins said from Pakistan. “Shane was a once-in-a-century cricketer and his achievements will stand for all time, but apart from the wickets he took and the games he helped Australia win, what he did was draw so many people to the sport.
“The game of cricket was never the same after Shane emerged, and it will never be the same now he has gone. Rest in peace, King.”
Warne was never the cricketing establishment’s favourite son, his extraordinary career contained far too many indiscretions, public and private, for that. “The greatest captain Australia never had” was a sobriquet regularly thrown his way, half-praise, half-condemnation.
But he was a hero, always, to those in the outer.
Online, Warne was described as a man “as real as they come”.
Andy Fisher, from Melbourne, wrote to the Guardian of the almost spiritual quality of watching Warne bowl at his home grown, Australia’s sporting citadel, the MCG.
Warne’s premature death, he said, was “a gut punch, a hole torn into Australia’s cultural fabric”.
“Watching him bowl at the MCG was the pinnacle of sporting experience for me and many Victorians – the larrikin hometown hero who had remade cricket single-handedly. The crackling hush descending as he stood at the top of his run, a glint in his eye, rolled the ball deftly again and again off the side of his wrist, a cobra mesmerising its prey.
“The theatre. The electricity. The ebb and flow of duels with the likes of Lara, Tendulkar, Flintoff. The way he held 90,000 people’s hopes and dreams in his palm … and then the roar of release. Off-field he was always larger than life, in turns hapless or hilarious, getting into scrapes and never not chugging fully from the cup of life.
“RIP Warnie – you will always be Melbourne’s favourite son.”
Warne’s statistics – 708 Test wickets from 145 Test matches, 17 man-of-the-match awards, one of Wisden’s five cricketers of the 20th century (the only one without a knighthood) – were formidable, but told only a fraction of the player’s influence in reshaping attitudes to cricket, and to its most arcane practice, spin bowling, in particular.
His legacy can be counted too in the number of leg-break bowlers, a once-dying art, plying their craft on grounds all over the country, all over the world.
From Victoria, Charles Bickford wrote that “watching my son get gripped by cricket and particularly leg spin has been a beautiful, bright spot this dark summer.
“He’s shown a natural aptitude for it, and a strong work ethic. We’ve been in the nets most mornings before school this summer – weather permitting. It’s been a time travelling experience into the world of young men for me – as the summer progressed we were joined by various local kids and their talk of players past and present, ball types and arguments over 6s and catches. The mind games of Shane Warne.”
Bickford’s son has been invited to trial for the Victorian under-12 team. The letter has been framed. But there is a pall over cricket now.
“I was awoken by the rain just now at 3:30am in Melbourne … five hours before this week’s match is due to start – the absurdly large club kit bag in the car outside. This time the rain carries the message that the game, the last of this season will be cancelled – and it is almost a relief as I don’t think we could possibly know what to do on the field with this awful, awful news.”
Warne transcended sport.
Another Gladiator, Russell Crowe, described him as a loyal friend.
Sir Elton John, a longtime friend, said “Shane was a magical bowler and such huge fun”.
British singer Ed Sheeran said Warne had the “kindest heart”.
“Such a gentleman. He gave so many hours and years of his life to bring joy to others, and was such an amazing friend to me. I’ll bloody miss you mate.”
Another proud Melburnian, Kylie Minogue, paid tribute.
The Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson, paid her respects to Warne and former Australian wicketkeeper Rod Marsh, who died a day earlier, saying both were “two legends of cricket and sport … taken too soon”.
The British prime minister led tributes of overseas leaders.
Warne, 52, is survived by his parents, Keith and Bridgette, his brother, Jason, and his children, Jackson, Summer and Brooke, from his 10-year marriage to Simone Callahan, which ended in 2005.