Gideon Haigh on Shane Warne. Guardian, 21.12.2006
Cardus, Arlott, now Haigh. A great sportswriter on a great sportsman. Fuck, I wish I was this good. Enjoy. Guardian, 21.12.06.
One was bouncy, beamish, a prankster, a prestidigitator; the other was tall, taut, utterly dependable, the natural straight man. Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath: it was hard to imagine one without the other. And now, it would seem, we will not have to.
Steve Waugh was great. Ricky Ponting is. But no two cricketers so separated Australia from the rest of the cricket pack in the last decade or so as Warne and McGrath: the best slow bowler of all, and the best seam bowler of his era. It is a freak of nature that they should have coincided, and ended up playing more than 100 Tests together. To call them a combination, implying planning and foresight, is not quite right. They were more, as Palmerston described his coalition with Disraeli, an "accidental and fortuitous concurrence of atoms".
When they walked off The Oval together at the end of last year's fifth Test, the sardonic smiles masked a brooding determination. Australia had lost the Ashes. That would never do. The physical expense of going on was acute, but the psychological toll of stopping would have been too great.
Their last two years have been full of personal upheaval: McGrath took time off to be with his wife; Warne, rather more publicly, took time off from his wife. But target 2006-7 became their objective, and is now to be their swansong.
Warne seems to have been around forever, and not long at all, so vivid is the memory of him in England in 1993 as a 23-year-old blond blur with turn to burn. But the man who bowled the ball of the last century has kept serving up candidates for the ball of this, even if they haven't been as rippingly obvious. For all the talk about his flipper and his zooter, his woofer and his tweeter, it was his subtly but scientifically varied leg-break that remained the eternal mystery ball. As Graham Thorpe observed last year in comparing the Australian with his statistical shadow Muttiah Muralitharan: "Warne was always varying the degree he spun the ball, while Murali generally just tried to spin the ball as much as he could."
In his private life, of course, Warne has always been the soul of indiscretion. Even now, Warne marches to a different drum in this Australian XI, listening for his personal bongo while others keep in step with the martial snare. That, though, has involved one of his most amazing feats, persuading Australians to cut him the slack he always thought was his due. He is like the eternally mischievous kid brother: incorrigible to a degree that has become endearing.
The 1993 Ashes series where Warne made his name was watched at the Australian Institute of Sport Cricket Academy by McGrath, also 23, who got by on four hours' sleep a night so he could follow the feats of Allan Border's all-conquering team. Little did McGrath know, but he was watching the opening of the vacancy that he would fill. Craig McDermott was injured; Merv Hughes was injuring himself; McGrath played in the first home Test of the southern summer as a kind of research and development project. His breakthrough tour was 18 months later in the West Indies, when he met the challenge of Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh with his own brand of homespun hostility.
McGrath's bowling career began on a dirt track on a poultry farm with an upturned water trough for a wicket. It retained that unadorned, unrefined, self-sufficient practicality. "Keep everything simple" was his golden rule. "Don't complicate things for the sake of it." He brought to fast bowling the philosophy of the Model T, mass producing deliveries just short of a length, just wide of off stump, just doing enough, just about unimprovably.
Warne and McGrath both epitomised Australian excellence and embodied Australian aggression. Warne was a tease, a flirt, a provocateur, tripping up even the nimble feet of Mark Ramprakash. "Come on, Ramps, you know you want to," he taunted the young batsman in a famous spell at Trent Bridge in July 2001. "That's the way, Ramps, keep coming down the wicket." So Ramps did - too far, and another English Ashes challenge stumbled and staggered to a halt.
McGrath, meanwhile, was the trash talker extraordinaire. In his autobiography, The Wicked-Keeper, a few years ago, New Zealand's Adam Parore took the trouble to transcribe a standard McGrath monologue: "You guys are shit. We can't wait to get rid of you so we don't have to play you. Get the South Africans over here so we can have a real game of cricket. We can't be bothered playing you guys. You're second raters." Rubbish, of course - but annoying rubbish, the kind that one recalls and ruminates on, as did Parore.
Above all, they have been winners, each a talisman for the other. McGrath has been on the winning side in 82 out of his 122 Tests (67.2%), Warne in 90 of his 143 (62.9%). No bowlers with more than 200 Test wickets have played in a greater proportion of victories. It's a safe bet that no bowlers can have contributed so much to victories so often.
The farewells of Warne and McGrath will elicit tributes aplenty. What they mean for Ponting's Australians is less clear. Cricket in this country has nursed a dread of a sudden glut of retirements since the Sydney Test of January 1984, which first Greg Chappell, then Dennis Lillee and finally Rod Marsh chose as the stage for their final curtain call. They left in charge Kim Hughes, who proved unequal to the burden, and Border, who took a while to feel comfortable with it, and the Australia XI for three years marked time when it wasn't retreating.
McGrath now has a near body double in Stuart Clark, who has been probably the most consistent component of Australia's attack this summer. But while Warne has an effective understudy in Stuart MacGill, the wrist spin ranks thin drastically thereafter. Warne made leg-spin look easy - much easier than it was, in fact, as numberless imitators have discovered. No new Warne looms, any more than does a new Bradman.
That is something, however, Australian cricket will have to deal with on its own. McGrath's wife is sick. Warne's is sick of him. Age is only one factor in their decisions. As important as their pasts are their personal futures. These are not simply retirements about where Warne and McGrath have been; they concern where the pair want to end up.