Why am I reading every eulogy, every obituary, every retrospective of Shane Warne that I can lay my hands on following his shock death yesterday aged just 52? And why, periodically, are those tributes prompting my throat to catch, and my eyes to brim with tears?
After all, Ukraine is burning. The world is reeling from Russia’s brutal invasion of its sovereign neighbour. Rationally, in terms of relative tragedy – relative loss – there is no comparison.
Against the stark horrors of war, sport doesn’t really matter, and cliches about its being ‘war by other means’ ring ever more hollow as bombs rain down on Kyiv and Kharkiv.
But like only a very few sportspeople, Warne transcended his chosen sport – cricket. For all his flaws – and there were several, readily acknowledged by the man himself – he gloriously embodied and answered the rhetorical question posed by the great academic and cricket lover, C.L.R James:
“What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?”
The four fellow-geniuses that cricket’s venerable almanac Wisden named the greatest Players of the 20th Century – Don Bradman, Jack Hobbs, Gary Sobers and Viv Richards – were all preternaturally gifted, dominant in their respective eras, and, in a game so distinctively informed by averages, scoring rates and percentages, statistically supreme.
Warne belonged in their exalted company on all those counts. But there was something special about him besides.
Connection to the ordinary
Those many laudatory profiles have rightly hymned Warne’s extraordinary reinvention, mastery and development of that hardest and previously longest-neglected of all cricketing skills: leg spin bowling.
They have dubbed him perhaps the greatest captain that Australia never had; a tactical wizard who relentlessly out-thought batsmen, however brilliant those batsmen were otherwise.
Yet through it all, he somehow never failed to represent a vital connection to the ordinary school kid or club cricketer, who plays for sheer love of the game, and for the immense joy, fun, craic and companionship it so prodigiously affords.
Granted, that same schoolboy-like enthusiasm had a corresponding downside in various immature and injudicious liaisons, partnerships, schemes, ventures and escapades off the field.
But even then, the mis-steps and failures seemed of a piece with that earthy connectedness, that approachability, that sheer, visceral humanity – that link to the back-garden match, the park pick-up game, the street contest among friends, played with a single bat and a threadbare tennis ball.
Such qualities were maintained and reapplied when Warne turned pundit on retirement. Unlike most sports superstars who find it difficult to explain their art to others, he was a natural, infectious teacher, a lucid analyst and expositor.
There have been endless replays of his still-astonishing Ball of the Century to Mike Gatting at Old Trafford or his fiendish flipper to Alec Stewart at Brisbane. But the clip that most tweaked my tear-ducts these past 24 hours was of his commenting so enthusiastically, so constructively, so kindly, on the fledging spin techniques of a group of five and six year-olds.
Heart in the right place
Sure, as he again conceded, he could have been a better husband and a more present father. Yet still, when he said he loved nothing better than sitting with his kids on the sofa at home eating pizza, you believed him.
He meant well, his heart was in the right place, and even though he had his fair share of foibles and failures, we who love cricket loved him – we really did. As the home fans chanted to him at the end of the great, nail-biting Ashes series of 2005:
“We wish you were English.”
That rare trans-partisan compliment loops back to why Warne will always be remembered among the greatest cricketers: because he exemplified more than his team, more than his country, more even than the sport he chose as a teenager over tennis and Aussie Rules football.
He represented the very best that game-playing – and team game-playing – can offer to us as humans: not merely an escape from the ravages and tragedies of life, but, at least in part, an antidote to them.
Granted: sport cannot solve geo-political conflict and war; it is not even, really, a sublimation of war, despite that meretricious cliche cited above.
Yet in its modest but wonderful way, sport can enhance values of community, cooperation, resilience, fair play, wellbeing and – yes – joy, that war threatens so grimly to occlude and negate.
Love of the game
Another renowned insight about cricket is that whereas other sports attract fans who love their team above all else, cricket attracts fans who love cricket above all else.
Make no mistake: Warne was one of the most competitive cricketers who ever ran up to bowl, crouched at slip, marked his batting crease or marshalled his fielders when he captained Hampshire or the Rajasthan Royals.
More than that, though, he loved cricket, and even more still, he loved life itself. It was precisely because he so palpably loved, that he enjoyed and relished all that cricket means – both on and off the field.
Reminders of a better life
That’s why the finest professionals and the most modest amateurs, from all nations and from myriad sports well beyond cricket, have united this past day to celebrate what he brought to our lives, as well as to the cricket arenas of the world.
Cricket won’t solve war; sport doesn’t repel tyrants. But played as Shane Warne played cricket, it reminds us of a better life – one in which camaraderie trumps contestation, in which physical grace and technical skill trump brutal might.
A game in which two teams classed as rivals, and identified with their nations’ particular identity and pride, can nonetheless supersede mere patriotic chauvinism for the ‘good of the game’ – and more than that, for the good of life itself.
David Hilborn is a theologian and currently Hon. Senior Research Fellow of Moorlands College. He was recently inducted into the Hall of Fame at his beloved former cricket club, Keyworth CC.