Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Book Review - On Warne by Gideon Haigh

On Warne by Gideon Haigh

Melbourne : Hamish Hamilton, 2012             ISBN 9780670076604

This may be the best cricket book ever written - it is the best I've read for a long long time (in fact since The Cricket War, also written by Haigh). As always in his writings, Haigh is incisive, thoughtful, and wide-ranging in his insights.

Not a biography of Shane Warne, On Warne is more a meditation on Warne the player, Warne the man, and on the "business" of cricket and fame. Divided into five sections - The making of Warne, The art of Warne, The men of Warne, The trials of Warne, The sport of Warne - Haigh has written a paen to Warne's ability as a bowler, an essay on other important players of Warne's era, an expose of the short-sightedness of Cricket Australia and other administrative bodies, and somewhat of a polemic against the shallowness and prurience of the media.

The opening pages of the book relate Haigh's first meeting with Warne - Haigh making the point that the media image of the man is not necessarily accurate - where he found him polite, helpful, and only too happy to chat for hours. Other reports throughout the book bear out this image of a polite suburban boy, who wants to be liked. Haigh's description of Warne's time at the Academy puts the lie to the generally accepted view that Warne was a disruptive influence, but does explain how cricket found Warne, rather than the other way around.

The second section of the book, The art of Warne, is perhaps the finest piece of cricket writing ever printed. If you don't know anything about Warne, about why he is possibly the best cricketer ever, one only needs to read this section, and it will become clear. Not only does Haigh describe with perfection the technical skill of Warne, he perfectly encapsulates his gamesmanship, his competitiveness, and the aura he built about himself, which made him a most formidable opponent.

Warne's relations with Australian cricket are dealt with in The men of Warne, via his relationships with a few key people - Glen McGrath, Stuart McGill, Steve Waugh and John Buchanan. Haigh's judicious use of statistics show how McGrath and Warne relied on each other, and that somewhat surprisingly McGill was a much more successful bowler in tandem with Warne, whereas Warne suffered in the partnership. The contrast between Warne and Waugh is thoughtfully put, with the decision to drop Warne in the West Indies in 1999 seen as the beginning of their rift which their opposing personalities did little to arrest.

Warne's identification with the "hard nuts" of the Australian teams of the 70s, especially his good relationship with Ian Chappell, comes to the fore in the discussion of Warne's relationship with Buchanan, which also looks at the idea of coaching as a whole - Warne agreed with Chappell that coaches were a waste of time - Haigh points out that was where the similarities with the older generation might end, as the travails of cricketers of that earlier and harder era were not something Warne had to deal with - Haigh suggests that Warne may not have handled them as well as he might think.

Inevitably in a book about the Warne phenomenon, there is discussion of his "indiscretions". However, what we think we remember may not in fact be the whole story. The Australian cricket authorities certainly did not cover themselves in glory during the whole betting saga, and Haigh shows how Warne was hung out to dry for something that in hindsight was obviously a stupid thing to do, but perhaps not so much at the time - the authorities lack of action over the Malik betting allegations worse than anything Warne may have done in his relations with "John".

As for Warne's personal "issues", Haigh notes that Warne was caught between two tabloid cultures in Australia and England. Whereas the redtops in the UK would expose Warne and then move on to the next titillating story, here in Australia the story would roll on and on. Warne was always bemused by the attention he received for his extra-marital activities. On more than one occasion he stated that it was a private matter, and, as Haigh points out, he was right - it's none of our business, and how important was it anyway?

I'm writing this review the day after taking my young sons to the MCG to see Warne in action in his T20 guise, so that they can at least say later on in life that they saw him bowl - I will be making sure when they are older they read this book, so that they can understand what it was like to see him in his glory. It's a cricket classic.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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