Watching Shane Warne as club cricketer at the peak of his popularity

Published on Mar 05, 2022 11:06 PM IST

Meeting the man in Melbourne and while on the hunt for a Warne story.

File Photo fo Shane Warne(AP) PREMIUM
File Photo fo Shane Warne(AP)
By, Mumbai

Any reporting assignment involves planning for stories. But, how do you start? Especially, if it is the first day of your first international trip, like it was for me in Melbourne for the ICC World XI’s tour.

The organisers had kept a diary for us to sign to get our match pass for that tournament. And so I landed at the venue, the Telstra Dome indoor stadium, to collect my pass. Just out of curiosity, I turned the page to look at who had collected the pass before me. My eyes lit up seeing the name: Shane Warne.

The name was enough to provide clarity. I knew what I had to do: the first story had to be Shane Warne. After all, I was in his city.

This was October 2005. Australia were playing one-dayers against a World XI in Melbourne but Warne had stopped playing that format for his country in 2003.

The hunt for his club began. It was a weekend but club matches would be on. St Kilda Cricket Club was playing at the Junction Oval.

In 30 minutes, I was at the venue. The first innings was done. The home side was batting second. I had gone there to do a story around Warne, on his club. I hadn’t expected Warne to be there. But there he was. The stars had aligned, the greatest Australian cricketer alive was right there. I was told that Warne hadn’t played for the club in four years because he was busy representing Australia.

Warne was at the peak of his popularity then. In August 2005, in the third Ashes Test at Old Trafford, he had become the first bowler ever to take 600 Test wickets. That English summer, he had lit up the Ashes with 40 wickets at an average of 19.92 and also scored 249 runs. He shared the player of the series award with England’s Andrew Flintoff.

I met the club manager, a warm person well into his 60s. He spoke glowingly about Warne’s contribution. The manager provided material to write a profile of the club. That done, I perched myself on the top tier of the pavilion. The home team was sitting in the first row and if you weren’t aware of his celebrity status, there was no way of realising that the greatest leg-spinner of all time was in the middle of that bunch. Warne was one of the boys—cracking jokes and fooling around with his club mates.

Sitting there, soaking it all in, I put in a request to the manager for a Warne interview. A long shot, by all means. It was at a time when Warne was avoiding the media because a messy separation had played out in public glare. The manager too wasn’t sure about approaching the star cricketer in the middle of the game. Yet, he promised giving it a try.

I watched nervously as the manager approached Warne. The legend turned his head around and looked up to where I was sitting. Till date, I can never forget that look. Or that word. “Okay,” he said.

St Kilda were losing wickets and Warne was padded up, waiting for his turn and puffing a cigarette. Soon, he walked out to bat. It began to drizzle in between. As a Mumbaikar it reminded me of the Kanga League, the tournament played during monsoon in Mumbai.

Now, I was thinking: what if he bats for too long? The champion took guard and straightaway started playing his strokes. But, to my good fortune, it didn’t last long.

Pads off, Warne asked me a few minutes later: “Which newspaper?” I replied: “Mid-day, Mumbai”. “Oh, I know, Mid-thaaay,” he shot back. Mumbai also meant Sachin Tendulkar, his biggest rival, and the next day, Tendulkar was making his return to cricket after a long lay-off owing to an elbow surgery. Apart from speaking fondly about his club, Tendulkar was a topic that got him talking. I was all ears. But to my horror, in the middle of the interview, my dictaphone conked out. In a state of blind panic, I started scribbling notes. Warne looked bemused but didn’t stop talking.

Interview over, I walked for kilometres instead of hiring a cab, struggling to process what seemed surreal. It remains the most memorable day as a sport journalist.

Back in the hotel, I called up Mark Ray, the former Australian first-class cricketer who had written the book, “Shane Warne: My Own Story: As Told to Mark Ray 1997”. Congratulating me, he said: “That’s typical Warne; he will not speak to the biggest of media houses and give a random interview.”

For me, what stood out about Warne was that he lived by his own rules. Reputations, on and off the field, didn’t matter to him. One of the most sought-after personalities in world cricket could be completely at ease with his club mates. And he could open up to a young journalist he had never met before.

 

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