Paul Barry’s take on Shane Warne’s life less ordinary is emblematic of the hypocrisy with which we treat sporting icons, and a poor advertisement for a genre that already suffers from too many hatchet jobs and hagiographies, with little in between. For every Gideon Haigh or David Frith, who write sensitive, evocative accounts of life in flannels and beyond, there is someone like Barry whose prime focus appears to be to dish out the dirt — or recycle whatever garbage has already been churned out by England’s yellow rags.
It doesn’t help that Warne was not keen on Barry’s project, and that he forbade friends and family from interacting with him. Apart from a brief exchange at the Gabba (where Warne tells him: “I’ve had seven books written about me and they’re all bullshit”), every single quote attributed to the subject is rehashed from the archives or from “close friends”. And though Barry at times treats the English red-tops with the disdain they deserve, calling the News of the World the News of the Screws, he rather ruins it by then quoting extensively from the very same publication to paint his portrait of a serial philanderer.
Some of the guesswork and speculation grates: “One of Shane’s mates at Channel 9 told me that he reckoned Warne had a pretty good average, because he had probably had 1000 women and only got caught five times… I personally know two other women who have been propositioned (or more) by him, and my limited knowledge of statistics make me think there must be a host of others with similar stories.” You find yourself wondering whether it is locker-room jealousy or merely a prurient mind that makes Barry zone in on each and every scandal that has marred Warne’s career.
The subtitle could well have been ‘A Career in Text’, given the undue importance given to salacious messages that Warne has sent at various inopportune moments.
The fundamental problem with this, and other books like Roland Perry’s recent one on Keith Miller, is the fact that it is based on the absurd premise that sporting icons are supposed to be some kind of role models. Given the fact that many of them, like Warne, struggle to make it out of high school before being thrust into a limelight that can overwhelm a balanced individual, that is a bit like howling at the moon.
In a rare lucid moment, Barry does concede this much about Warne: “Considering how crazy it all was, Warne made a pretty good fist of staying on the rails… Despite everything, he was genuinely humble about his gift, and all that he had done, and he remains so to this day.”
What is the problem then? Barry, like many others, sees that Warne has a problem, but refuses to treat it with even the slightest degree of sensitivity, calling him “stupid”, “deluded” and a “kid who won’t grow up”. Biographies of George Best (who was an alcoholic) and Jimi Hendrix (who had a drug problem) have so far been compassionate, poig-nant accounts of their descents into hell.
But when it comes to those like Warne and football’s Stan Collymore, the fact that they are slaves to the libido often turns out to be the main focus. Warne’s travails are grist to the tabloid mill, targets for cheap puns and innuendo that cost him his marriage.
When Barry can be bothered to focus on the real story, that of one of the game’s true geniuses, he actually makes for a good read. But factual errors — he talks of Kevin Pietersen “muscling Warne for six after six after six” in the one-day matches in 2005, oblivious to the fact that Warne played his last ODI in January 2003 — and an obsession with sleaze undermines the entire project, making it as unsatisfying a read as, well, any other hatchet job.
When it comes to men like Warne, and Miller before him, it’s always better to watch, marvel and wonder, rather than go looking for notches on bedposts.
Dileep Premachandran is features editor of cricinfo.com