I never saw the likes of Richie Benaud and the famous leg-spinners of yesteryear, but even so I can say with complete confidence that Shane Warne is right up there among the greats of the game throughout history. Not only because of his own brilliance as a player, his warmth and generosity, and his later contribution as a coach and as a commentator, but because of his impact on cricket. Shane Warne made leg-spin sexy and from the moment he broke on to the scene the art of spin was revitalised all over the world.
One of the things I most admired about him was the way he approached the game. He would always push to take the attack to the opposition, to take the positive option. His mentality was that of a winner, fuelled by the self-belief that came with having such great skill. He could deliver a leg-break pretty much unlike anything we had seen, and with great accuracy. His best delivery would drift in towards leg stump before spinning away from the right-hander – it was his stock ball, and a bloody great one.
If I compare him with some of the other great spinners I faced such as Anil Kumble, Saqlain Mushtaq or Mushtaq Ahmed, one of the unusual things about him was that he rarely bowled a googly; his stock ball was such a great delivery he didn’t really need to.
I remember there was often a bit of kidology before the Ashes series that he had developed a new delivery, but that ball was good enough to beat many Test cricketers.
He was not just a great player, but a great character. He burst on to the scene in 1993, in an Australia team captained by Allan Border and including the likes of Merv Hughes. As a group they were very in-your-face, very aggressive, used lots of blunt language, and Warne fitted right in. He was so competitive on the pitch but he would also speak to absolutely anybody off the field, completely welcoming of opposition players if they wanted a chat after a game.
I remember one occasion when I was playing for Surrey against Hampshire, and after the game Azhar Mahmood had gone into the Hampshire dressing room to speak to Warne before emerging with a brand new Gray-Nicolls bat. I asked him where he had got it from, and he said: “Warney just gave it to me.” At that point I had never really spoken to Warne except on the field, but such was the quality of the bat I soon found myself striding across the Hampshire dressing room where Warne was sitting, fag in one hand, beer in the other. I asked if he still had some extra bats, and he told me to look in his locker. He had about 10 bats in there and I ended up taking one away. The generosity of the man was striking.
He was equally generous with his knowledge and his time, and inspired great loyalty in those around him. When he captained Hampshire his positivity, his creativity and the way he put faith in the players around him and brought the best out of them was obvious, and he was much loved there. I am absolutely sure he would have been a formidable Australia captain, an honour he never received, probably because he was a little bit rough around the edges as often genius players can be. He did not necessarily conform, and was not always a believer in sports science and data. He famously said that the only coach a team needs is the one that takes them to the ground, before going on himself to prove the positive effect a good coach can have.
I was told a story about his time at Rajasthan Royals that makes this point well. He was preparing his side to face their next opponents and turned to one of the young, inexperienced Indian players, someone who was not even in the side at the time, and in front of the whole squad asked his opinion about one of the opposition players the young man happened to know. Just by asking this young player’s opinion, by listening to it and taking it seriously, he made him feel valued, boosted his confidence and brought him into the senior group, but in a subtle and unshowy way.
As a player he always had great presence. He was a character, an extrovert, never shy of saying a word or two. Later I spent some time with him while doing media work and found him great fun to be around. He loved being in company, meeting new people. He had some really interesting ideas on cricket and whether you agreed with him or not, he was always thought-provoking in a positive way, talking about the game in the same spirit he had played it. He was an unforgettable player, a warm and open character, a superstar package. He will be fondly remembered and greatly missed.