It was not Shane Warne’s greatest stage: the ground at Whitgift School in Croydon on a warm, early summer’s day, 4 June 2006. Hampshire, captained with aplomb by Warne, were visiting Surrey’s “other” ground, all deckchairs and hampers and hundreds and hundreds of children sitting close to the boundary, a treat long forbidden at the Oval, Surrey Country Cricket Club’s home, or any other of English cricket’s major venues.
These children had been mesmerised by the 2005 Ashes series, arguably the greatest ever, which had been free to air on Channel 4 television and had gripped a nation with the swings of fortune unique to test match cricket. The irrepressible Warne, despite being on the losing side, had taken 40 wickets in five tests and had batted, too, with considerable grit and skill.
There was something about the cartoonish profile of Warne — the blonde, bleached mischief-maker — that attracted children, and my son was one of them. We schlepped down to south London on what was his ninth birthday to watch the greatest cricketer of his generation and one of the very greatest ever perform his magic in an intimate rus in urbe setting.
Every child who wanted his autograph that day got it
Of course, Warne delivered. Hampshire beat Surrey by eight wickets, with Shane bamboozling batsmen as he always did, taking six for 42. It was a master class in leg spin bowling, but it became much more than that. When the final wicket fell, hundreds of children ran onto the pitch and the perfunctory security staff were in danger of being overwhelmed. But Warne, the reason they were there and the target of all their attentions, had an idea. He took a table and chair, placed it on the boundary and asked the children to line up around that boundary. In utter obedience to this pied piper’s wishes, they sat down in single file, cross-legged, and covered almost the entirety of the perimeter. He promised that every child who sat there, waiting patiently, would get his autograph.
Warne spent an age signing and chatting, but every child who wanted his autograph that day — and that was all of them — got it, and spent an unforgettable moment in the presence of a sporting genius, all of which said everything about Warne’s custodianship of the game. The only comparably charismatic figure in Australian cricket is Keith Miller, the great, dashingly handsome all-rounder of Don Bradman’s 1948 Ashes team, similarly beloved by the Poms, who brought sunshine to postwar Britain. Another gambler and womaniser, he, too, would have seen the attractions of Liz Hurley.
I was lucky enough to see Warne on numerous occasions, including all five days of the Edgbaston and Oval tests of 2005, sporting experiences which I don’t expect to be surpassed however long I’m around. But when I heard the news on Friday of Warne’s death at the age of 52 — wretched reward for the joy he gave — and wandered central London in a daze, it was the memory of that hazy afternoon in Croydon that came first, the measure of the man who was the same on stages large and small.
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