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The Mozart of spin bowling

It would be unwise to undervalue a Rembrandt masterpiece because a thin film of dust has formed on it, writes Nirmal Shekar

Now that Shane Warne has decided to quit international cricket, it is unlikely that a cricket ball will ever again willingly commit itself to absolute slavery in a human hand. For, the sheer variety of tasks that the Australian showman's right hand — allied with a brain in which the neurons fired away as in a hungry cheetah's on a dinner run behind a springbuck — demanded of a cricket ball is something that is unmatched in the entire history of the great game.

There are few sports in which the human hand wields such an enormous influence on the ball. In cricket itself, among the bowlers, the relationship between the hand and the ball is the most intricate in the case of leg-spinners. And, no man who bowled with the back of his hand has ever managed to coax the leather sphere to cooperate and co-author such a dazzling repertoire.

Awe-inspiring tango

There may be quite a few instances of such awe-inspiring tango featuring the human hand and an inanimate object in life itself — Van Gogh and the paint-brush, Pandit Ravi Shankar and the strings of a sitar — but in the world of sport these are vanishingly rare.

The most outrageously gifted cricket talent of our times — and arguably the greatest bowler of all time — Warne virtually redefined the game at a time when world class leg-spinners were about as easy to find in cricket as the Yeti in the Himalayas.

A raging cyclone of energy, the Aussie genius has been an object of centripetal gaze every time he has held the ball on a big stage. With a ravenous appetite for wickets, a bag of tricks unmatched in the sport's history and an enlivening dash of theatrics, the lovable rascal from Melbourne has always managed to grab our attention.

Sport has a way of reducing everything to the basics; that is part of the reason for its enduring appeal. Winners and losers. Heroes and villains. Ecstasy and agony. It's all quite simple, most of the time.

In an otherwise complicated world where nothing is what it seems to be, where the lines are disconcertingly blurred quite often, sport appears to be an island of sanity. A hero is a hero. A villain is a villain. There is no confusion of identity.

Contradictions

Then again, in such a simple, cosy world of sport, what do we make of Warne? A flawed genius? An enigmatic anti-hero? A law-breaking, convention-shattering prima donna? Over the years, fans and critics have wrestled with the seemingly many contradictions in the Warne persona; they have struggled to come to terms with the fact that one of the greatest players in the game's history should have such a messy private life.

How can a heroic champion bowler and a celebrated match-winner turn out to be such a fallible human being, one prone to well-documented off-the-field excesses that are part of a riotous private life? But, frankly, I have always failed to spot this contradiction. Where is it? He is a bowling genius and a very ordinary man. Is that a contradiction? Why should it be?

To be sure, sportsmen don't train as choir boys and then profess saintly ambitions before picking up a ball or a bat to perform in the cauldron of international sport. It is because we often confuse sporting achievements with superior morality that the conflict arises where there isn't one, in the first place.

Role models

Then, legendary high-achievers who stay on the straight and narrow — players such as Pete Sampras, Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid — offer us the hope that great athletes can be role models for children.

But, in reality, that is just an accident. Even these men did not set out to be role models. They just wanted to be successful sportsmen, just as Warne himself did. It is just possible that a Sampras or a Dravid was hard-wired for greater personal discipline than was the Aussie superstar.

In the event, it may be inappropriate — especially now, when the maestro has announced his retirement — to judge Warne the cricketer with input from his track record off the cricket field.

To do that is to undervalue a Rembrandt masterpiece because a thin film of dust has formed on it.

There are few things quite as elevating in modern sport as the sight of Warne trying to bamboozle a great batsman with guile and variety. To watch the master spinner at his best has been an enormously fulfilling aesthetic experience for the game's connoisseurs.

Not long after he leaves, Warne's world record (699 + Test wickets) will certainly be broken by Muttiah Muralitharan. But, then, to judge the Aussie genius on the basis of such numbers would be as big a folly as attempting to determine Mozart's place in the history of western classical music on the basis of the number of symphonies he wrote (41).

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