The wizard of Oz

Last Updated: Wed, Jan 23, 2013 20:10 hrs

Anyone who has followed cricket writing in the last 15 years would testify that Gideon Haigh is one of the finest writers around. Not only does Mr Haigh understand the nuances of the sport better than most writers, but it is his analysis that puts him above his peers. Similarly, most cricket fans would acknowledge that Shane Warne was perhaps the greatest spinner of all time. Muttiah Muralitharan might have more wickets in Test cricket against his name, but the genius of Mr Warne is unmatched. In the book On Warne, a gifted writer analyses one of the greatest cricketers of all time.

It is not easy to write about a man whose life and career have literally been an open book. Consider this: Mr Warne’s life has been a subject of three official autobiographies, several unofficial biographies, TV shows and even a musical. But this is where Mr Haigh’s brilliance as a writer shines through: he doesn’t take the orthodox approach — in fact, calling it a book in the literal sense would be doing it gross injustice, because it doesn’t read like one. It doesn’t chronicle the journey of a cricketer; On Warne is more like a long essay. It contains five parts: “The making of Warne”, “The art of Warne”, “The men of Warne”, “The trials of Warne”, and “The sport of Warne”. Mr Haigh’s writing, peppered with great anecdotes, quotes and his own inferences, creates a unique portrait of Mr Warne. He breaks down the player’s art, craft, aura and life incisively in these five chapters and weaves a fascinating tale.

The second chapter, “The art of Warne”, is arguably one of the most brilliant pieces of cricket writing. When Mr Warne had retired, Mr Haigh had written, “It was said of Augustus that he found Rome brick and left it marble: the same is true of Warne and spin bowling.” In this chapter, he scratches underneath that marble and sees what made Mr Warne the bowler he was. For instance, while talking about Mr Warne’s approach to batsmen, Mr Haigh writes, “He presented his opponent with a narrative. I am better than you, he said; everybody knows this, but circumstances decree that we go through the motions of proving the obvious. I am better than you, he repeated; therefore I dictate the terms of our engagement, bowling my overs at my own pace, moving my fielders as much or as little as I desire, treating you as very nearly an irrelevance, because I have eaten alive better players than you will ever be.”

If you’ve seen Mr Warne bowl and bamboozle batsmen for 15 years, you will marvel at this description, simply because it is frighteningly accurate. Mr Warne knew he was better than the rest and it was just a matter of time before he would outfox the batsman. Take his brilliant spell in the 1999 World Cup semi-final against South Africa. “Eight overs, four maidens, three for 12. Very seldom can the word spell’ in cricket have lived up so fully to its dual meanings,” the author writes. Mr Warne’s eight overs in that match literally held everyone spellbound.

Mr Haigh delves into Mr Warne’s relationship with four people who had the maximum impact on his career, and they aren’t his coaches or mentors. He analyses how Mr Warne’s equation with Steve Waugh changed when the latter became Australia’s captain. They used to be drinking buddies earlier, but it all changed when Mr Waugh was allegedly chosen over Mr Warne to lead his country. He also discusses in detail the impact of Glenn McGrath, his partner in decimating the opposition all around the world, and fellow leg spinner Stuart MacGill, the man who always lived in Mr Warne’s shadow. He talks about Australia’s coach John Buchanan and the fractured relationship he shared with Mr Warne.

Mr Haigh reminds us of the dark side of Mr Warne as well: he was banned from cricket for using prohibited substances, was a serial womaniser and even took money from a bookie. The author defends Mr Warne to a great extent and makes a pertinent point that none of these ever came between Mr Warne and cricket.

One of the best things about On Warne is Mr Haigh’s aversion to the use of statistics. Statistics often dominate a cricketer’s career, but Mr Haigh resorts to them only to prove a point and he is actually apologetic when he does that. Statistics would never do justice to Mr Warne and Mr Haigh knows that. He is the second best bowler in the history of the sport, according to statistics. But Mr Warne was more than that; he was an entertainer and a fierce competitor who was too much in love with the sport.

For someone who has read two of the three biographies of Mr Warne and followed his cricket career almost obsessively, On Warne comes as a delightful surprise. You need a writer like Mr Haigh to do full justice to the outstanding talent of Mr Warne. Mr Haigh not only reminds you what a great cricketer Mr Warne was, but he also tells you how exciting cricket used to be during the time of that great Australian team. On Warne is one of the best and most insightful cricketing books to have come out in recent memory. Mr Haigh’s writing and Mr Warne’s wizardry — that’s a combination not to be missed.

Gideon Haigh
Hamish Hamilton
224 pages; Rs 499

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