Former team-mates of Shane Warne would refer, with bewildered admiration, to “the world according to Warnie”. Even among his fellow Baggy Greens, he acquired a folk-hero status that commanded extra privileges: the ability to jump a queue, to receive a first-class upgrade, to be invited to every private members’ club he desired. He was the first bona fide rock star of a cricketer. Perhaps the only one, given how today’s hair-trigger sensibilities would all but veto his brand of lurid excess. But his off-field persona as the unreconstructed hellraiser was also his armour-plating.
No matter what tumult he encountered in his all-too-public private life, he could brazen it out by staying incorrigibly true to himself. Sometimes, it was difficult to reconcile the sorcerer of a leg-spinner with the non-stop hedonist who wore his ockerisms almost as a badge of honour. In his 2018 autobiography, he defined his life’s credo thus: “Eat. Go. Party.” He pulsed with such energy that he would be vexed even by a leisurely meal in a restaurant, claiming he could quite happily survive on a diet of chips and white-bread cheese sandwiches.
Amid the unspeakable sadness of Warne’s death aged 52, it does not feel improper to explore the rougher edges of his character. His over-indulgence was as essential to his make-up as those 708 Test wickets. Take the relish with which he recounted one infamous escapade in 2006, when, in the middle of a crucial match for Hampshire, he sloped off to London for a night of abandon. “Two drinks and two girls later,” as he put it, he arrived back in Southampton, slept in his car, bragged to a physio about his conquests, then donned his whites, took seven wickets, and led his team to victory.
The episode would ultimately backfire, given that the women in question had set him up for a News of the World sting. But Warne never wanted these tales to be wiped from the record. As he put it once: “I’ve made a number of mistakes in my life, and I will continue to make them. This is what it means to be human.” You wonder about the extent to which this philosophy could have protected him in today’s more judgmental sporting culture. After all, Tim Paine lost the Australian captaincy on the basis of a reheated, four-year-old controversy involving explicit texts. And yet Warne, far from being cancelled, could turn any such indiscretion to his advantage.
I once had a glimpse of this bulletproof image up close. It was 2006, and while his stock in England had never been higher in the wake of the previous summer’s Ashes, he still carried the notoriety of an earlier phone-sex scandal, in which he had left several lewd messages on the answering machine of a British nurse while married. Before I was due to interview him at a London brokerage, a few traders asked if he could man the switchboard for a photo op. “Sure, boys,” he grinned, that glint in his eye. “I’ve always been pretty good on the phone.” You could have heard the roar of laddish acclaim the other side of Canary Wharf.
Warne was fortified not just by his genius as a cricketer but by his irresistible charisma. While many men wanted to be just like him, his legions of female admirers were often left helplessly in his thrall. During a 2001 one-dayer in Bangalore, an insistent noise could be heard from the Ladies’ Stand at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium. “Shane Warne, Shane Warne,” the women were chanting. “You are a big flirt.” They then broke into a Hindi love song, “The Heart Is Very Indian”. At this point he spun around, flashed that roguish smile and blew them three flamboyant air kisses. Warne’s untouchable reputation was sealed.
His priceless value to his sport lay in how he even won over people who did not normally like cricket. This is a man who, despite cultivating the type of bonzer bloke image promoted by Castlemaine adverts, still managed to seduce the siren of London high society, Elizabeth Hurley. Even after the pair split after three years together and a brief engagement, Warne could not help but marvel at the incongruity of it all. “Everyone thought, ‘Who’s this knockabout Aussie with this posh English rose?” he reflected. To his critics, it was this chapter that brought an unhealthy fixation with body image. Warne, for his part, always claimed that the relationship changed him in more subtle ways, leading him away from his pursuit of instant gratification.
Right through to the devastatingly premature end, he could be confounding and complex, but always a figure of electrifying charm. For 15 years, he bestrode international cricket, and for the next 15 he only added to his mystique through a life of compelling extremes. His peers were correct: for as long as he was around, it was, in every sense, Warne’s world.