It first struck you because it was different. Abdul Qadir disco-danced to the wicket. Anil Kumble’s high-arm action reminded watchers of a fast bowler. Muthiah Muralitharan bobbed his way to the crease. But Warne… what did Warne do?
He walked. A few short steps. No drama there. But then he would suddenly explode into action with a jump and put his shoulder into every delivery he bowled. And this is where the drama would begin. You could call it drama but to many, including the batters, it was magic too.
So many youngsters tried the action when they first took up the sport. They tried it because it seemed simple. They tried it because it seemed doable. They tried it because it was fun. They tried it because they thought it would enable them to do what Warne did. But they soon discovered that it wasn’t as easy. For it wasn’t just the walk, it was the man.
To watch Warne bowl was to watch genius. He wasn’t always looking to get batters out with every ball but he made you feel as if every ball he ever bowled was part of a bigger plan... and that too was genius. He got into the heads of everyone watching and made you believe that nothing was impossible for him; nothing was too difficult; nothing was beyond him.
And, in a sense, that is why you wanted to keep watching him. He’d make you wonder about what he would dream up; he would try every ruse in the book; a word here; a word there; a bouncer; a flipper; a googly; a long hop; a top spinner; a smile and of course, the big spinning leg break delivery that launched his career into orbit.
There are deliveries that come to mind readily. Mike Gatting, Herschelle Gibbs, Daryll Cullinan, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Andrew Straus, Basit Ali. Close your eyes and they are right there. You have probably seen each one of them multiple times.
But still, at the end of the day, it was the aura of the man. He was the guy the opposition wanted to take down because they knew he wouldn’t let them rest easy. Warne didn’t believe in taking prisoners. He didn’t seem to rate anyone. Maybe a Tendulkar or a Lara would get some respect. Maybe a Laxman or a Dravid would pop up there too. But almost everyone else wasn’t good enough.. not in Warne’s mind. So he would go out there looking to dominate them and letting them know that he was better. For that was Warne too, the man who let you know what he thought.
Perhaps it was this utter and unshakeable confidence that made him one of the greatest bowlers to have ever lived. Someone might point to his record in India and say that he owed his legendary status to the British, who simply had no idea of how to play him. In nine Test matches in India, Warne took just 34 wickets at an average of 43.11, economy rate of 3.19 and strike rate of 81. Against England, on the other hand, he took 195 wickets at an average of 23.25.
But none of that matters because all those who played him, Sachin Tendulkar included, and all those who watched him knew he was something special. When Warne was bowling he seemed to elevate the game into an art form. There was theatre in every move. The field being adjusted. The gauntlet being thrown down. The chat with the skipper. The slowing down of the game. It all seemed to shout out: ‘I’m coming to get you.’
And at the end of the day, he mostly did too. The 1,001 international wickets are testament to the fact, as are the number of youngsters who, to this day, try and bowl like him. They try so hard but no one has come close and perhaps no one ever will.