Shane Warne died as he lived, leaving a hurricane of emotions and memories | Jonathan Liew
There is a scene in the 2001 Channel 4 documentary Shane Warne’s English Summer in which the Australian leg-spinner is shown in the Hampshire dressing room a few minutes before play is about to begin, wolfing down an enormous plate of chips. The interviewer suggests that perhaps this is not the nutritional regimen normally associated with the world’s top athletes.
“Well,” Warne replies through a mouthful of ketchup and deep-fried matter, “if I don’t have my chips, I’m not happy. And if I’m not happy, I don’t bowl well. A piece of lettuce or fruit doesn’t make you feel good, does it?”
Everyone has their abiding memory of Warne as a cricketer: the Strauss ball, the Gatting ball, the Richardson ball. Well, this is mine. And in the days since the great man passed, I’ve been thinking about this little exchange a lot, and how it upends so much of what we think we know about sport. Look after your body. Take control of the little details. Top performance derives from immaculate preparation, rigorous coaching, self-sacrifice and, you know, not eating chips.
According to reports from Thailand, Warne died of a heart attack at the age of 52 in his luxury Koh Samui villa on a holiday with friends, after watching Australia play in the first Test against Pakistan and having had a massage in his room. Obviously, this is no way to go, a devastating loss for his family and friends. It is also, in the grand scheme of things, and with apologies, a bleakly perfect way to go: the Youngman’s Death that Roger McGough so heartily endorsed.
In a way, Warne died as he lived: unapologetically, without fear or shame, leaving a hurricane of emotions and happy memories trailing in his wake. Indeed, one of the more comforting aspects of the grieving process has been the opportunity to relive and reflect upon the immense pleasure he provided us over the last 30 years, not for selfish or pecuniary reasons but because pleasure – both the taking and the giving – simply flowed through him like blood, was indeed the entire point of the exercise.
Did it feel good? If not, then what was the point of it? Whether it was chips or cricket, punditry or poker, a cheeky six over the infield or a cheeky sext in the dressing room, in a sense Warne’s entire life was based on the pursuit of tactile thrills, and so it was watching him from afar.
Warne touched all the senses: the sight of his imposing frame, the fizz in the air of his hard-spun leg-breaks, the grip of a ball in his fingers, the smell of Marlboro Lights, the taste of pure fear. And of course, there was his sixth sense: the paranormal ability to intuit a batsman’s weakness, to conceive the catastrophe before he made it happen.
You’ll notice that we haven’t mentioned any of his achievements yet. The Ashes wins, the 708 Test wickets, the Indian Premier League triumph with Rajasthan Royals: does any of it really matter? In a way no athlete has better encapsulated the paradox of sport and why we do it: an eternal battle between the pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of perfection. Sport as an industry worships the details, the processes, the margins: best practice, eating right, saying the right things, squeezing out every last drop of capital from your body and the world around you. It drowns us in rules and numbers, makes grand plans and strategies, never stops growing and never stops demanding. None of this felt remotely relevant to Warne.
Sport for him was a human thrill ride, a vehicle of expression and emotion. It was the memories you made and the friends you collected along the way. Imperfections were there to be embraced, mistakes owned. For this he was frequently cut down to size by a public and an establishment that required the perfect bowler also be the perfect man. His improprieties were lapped up by the tabloid press. He never captained Australia in a Test match. His marriage fell apart and the scrutiny of his body occasionally made him deeply uncomfortable. Arguably there has been no more ridiculed figure in the history of cricket. And yet, for all the scrutiny and intrusion, Warne continued to choose warmth over coldness.
During a Test match at Old Trafford a few years ago a friend asked if I could persuade Warne to record a good luck message for his wedding. Ha! Some chance. Still, I tentatively knocked on the door of the Sky Sports green room. Warne was having a nap. He didn’t know who I was and he didn’t know the bride and groom. But he emerged groggily in his socks and filmed a note-perfect 45-second message in a single take. He didn’t remotely mind doing it. Any opportunity to spread a little happiness. I would have loved him for that, if I didn’t love him already.
I know you’re not supposed to make these things about yourself, but when an athlete connects with you on such a personal level, how can you not? I loved his talent and lust and cheek and bravado. I loved the vision of sport he embodied. I love the fact that his highest Test score was 99 and I love the chill of terror he used to send up my spine. I love that the greatest spinner of all time lived on a diet of chips. I love that he wasn’t perfect, and most of all I love that he never tried to be.