Boxing

WHY WARNIE IS THE ONLY STORY IN TOWN

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Reading Time: 6 minutes

VERY few Australians made as many headlines as Shane Warne when he was alive – and none have made anywhere near as many since his shock death.

Day after day after day of front pages and wraparound and lift-out supplements in the newspapers, the lead to every news bulletin on most TV and radio stations, massive social media commentary and endless replays of old interviews and documentaries.

The Herald Sun alone must be closing in on 100 pages.

Since it began, it has been a bigger media event by far than the Ukraine war – and, this being Melbourne, you can only wonder how the respective coverages would have stacked up if this had been the first week of the footy season instead of the last week of the build-up.

And it’s far from finished yet.

The public memorial at the MCG on March 30 will be another enormous event, consuming yet more acres of newsprint and many hours of broadcast air-time. So will the renaming of the MCG’s biggest grandstand.

Even the death of Sir Donald Bradman – the one cricketer , possibly the only sportsman, who outranked Warne for performance, respect and maybe even for fame — in 2002 did not generate this level of sustained tribute.

Why has this been so emotional?

Why has it been so overwhelmingly positive even though everyone is well aware that there have been indiscretions and negatives, some quite serious, that most other public figures would never have been able to shrug off with impunity, forgiven and forgotten almost entirely.

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Indeed, the tone of the mourning has just about elevated him to sainthood.

But a saint is the last thing he would ever have claimed to be,

He was, after all, basically “just” a cricketer – a stupendously good one, to be sure – with a happy knack of making people like and admire him, even if for a long time it was against their better judgment in many cases.

A couple of experienced daily newspaper editors I know attempted this week to put this phenomenon into context.

One likened him to former Prime Minister Bob Hawke, whose early career as a union politician was notorious for lifestyle foibles that were very similar to Warnie’s in some cases but who ended up a hugely popular and admired man of the people, unencumbered by any baggage from the past..

The other suggested he was Australia’s Princess Diana in both scale and impact, a symbol of national identity and pride – flawed though she, too, might have been – and like Warnie, destined to die far too young. Others have since made the same comparison.

Hawkie – that’s what he was known as, just like Warnie – lived to 89, which is more than Warne, 52, and Diana, 36, put together, which just underscores how unfairly short-changed the latter two were. 

They are – were – indeed a trio with a lot in common.

Anybody who thinks they might be a bit out-Warnied already shouldn’t think for a moment that we’ve heard the last of him yet.

His story will be told and retold for perpetuity simply because it is such an interesting, compelling narrative, unique in its capacity to fascinate people whether or not they are sports fans, a source of fascination to vast swathes of the world’s population, especially in the sub-Continent.

There are many books by or about him – four on my shelves alone – and you can probably expect that to quickly increase, while a full-on movie would seem to be a no-brainer given there has already been a  stage musical and a feature-length doco.

There have been calls for him to be posthumously knighted – Australia doesn’t do knighthoods any more, but the Queen most certainly still does – and if that seems to some to be a tad over the top given his earlier proclivities, then his very good mate Ian Botham – now Sir Ian and Lord Botham – is a very relevant precedent.

He, too, was a hell-raiser extraordinaire in his early days in the cricket spotlight but later raised many millions of dollars for charity – as Warnie did for a while with an ill-fated foundation to assist underprivileged kids – and also enjoyed the knack of earning people’s approval as an all-round good bloke, for which I can vouch after a 45 year acquaintanceship.

A forensic examination of Warnie’s less saintly qualities and more regrettable involvements – and there were a few, as there are with everybody – will inevitably surface in due course, but not yet. It’s too early for that.

However, it is not unreasonable, I hope, to mention a few of the more obvious ones in order  to make the positive observation that he may emerge from some of it in a better light than he did at the time.

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The year-long ban from cricket after failing a drug test is a case in point. 

He has always insisted that it was simply a vanity pill given to him by his mother for no more scurrilous reason than to reduce his double chin, and there has never been any reason to suspect that he has ever used any other drugs of any description, performance-enhancing or mood changing.

He was almost certainly just plain unlucky in this case, if a bit careless about what he was putting in his mouth.

His fine, kept secret for four years, for accepting cash from a sub-Continental illegal bookmaker in payment for information provided, also appears – if you take his word for it, and honesty is among his virtues – to have been more naïve than sinister.

Yes, alarm bells should have rung – loudly – when the bloke, who he knew only as an acquaintance of team-mate Mark Waugh,  insisted on giving him free money for no obvious reason. But that doesn’t mean he was consciously and willingly entering into the murky world of match-fixing as a disturbing number of other high profile cricketers from various countries later admitted to doing.

It is worth remembering that when corrupt Pakistani star Salim Malik offered him much larger amounts to under-perform he rejected the approach without hesitation and reported it to team management.

Sure, there was all sorts of other lurid activity long the way – off-field tabloid fodder galore and on-field clashes with opponents, such as the grotesquely ugly send-off he gave South African batsman Andrew Hudson in Johannesburg in 1994, on which he has always looked back with deep regret. “That wasn’t the real me,” he said. Time proved that to be correct.

Most of the negative stuff no longer seems all that important let alone reprehensible when viewed through the otherwise very positive prism of his life and times, his career and his charisma.

But it did add up to reason enough for the Australian Cricket Board to veto the selectors’ recommendation that he succeed the retiring Mark Taylor as Test captain, which may never have happened before and hasn’t since.

The board’s reasons have never been made public, and the decision wasn’t unanimous – but collectively, especially the conservative chairman Denis Rogers, just didn’t trust him not to embarrass them.

Without in any way suggesting that Steve Waugh, who did get the job and did it very well, was not a wholly appropriate choice, it does seem a pity in hindsight that Warne never got the chance to prove that he could have and would have been the excellent captain that many good judges – himself no exception – believe would have been the case.

However, there is little point now in wondering what might have been if anything whatsoever about Warnie’s shortened journey through life had been different.

For better or, sometimes, worse, it was what it was – and that’s why it’s sad and untimely  denouement has had such a profound impact on so many people in so many places. And will continue to do so.

THERE was a lot of goodwill involved in Australian cricket’s decision to tour Pakistan for the first time in 24 years, but a lot of it might have dissipated given that supremo Ramiz Raja has admitted they cynically doctored the wicket for the first Test to make it almost impossible for the home side to be beaten.

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The result was a non-event, tedious almost to the point of farce, and a terrible advertisement for Test cricket. The ICC surely cannot let it pass without taking meaningful action.

NATIONAL white ball captain Aaron Finch’s low-key announcement this week that he was retiring from first-class cricket scarcely caused a ripple, for the very good reason that he has hardly hit a red ball in anger for a couple of years and no longer has anything to offer the Victorian Shield team. Finch, 35, is deep in the twilight of his career full stop and his form has been tapering off for some time. He will be hoping for some decent runs in the white-ball segment of the Pakistan tour or he may not be any certainty to lead the defence of the T20 World Cup later in the year. Cricket Australia is perfectly happy to have him continue at the helm, but nobody is an automatic selection for Australia without performing.

THE tweaks to the Laws of Cricket all make sense, especially removing the stigma of running out the non-striker before the ball is delivered. It has always been in the unfair play category, despite it being a perfectly legitimate form of dismissal given that it is the batsman – not the bowler – who is trying to take illicit advantage. I also like the umpires being given a more flexible interpretation of what is and isn’t a wide, according to how the batsman moves around the crease before the bowler delivers.

INTERESTING call by triple world champion boxer Jeff Fenech on Melbourne TV the other night, when he said he expected the hugely controversial judges’ verdict, a draw, in his first fight with Ghana’s Azumah Nelson to be overturned by the WBO in the near future. Fenech clearly won that fight, for the super-featherweight world crown, in Las Vegas in June 1991 and has always railed against what was probably a corrupt fix under the notorious promoter Don King. To change the result now would be a just outcome – but, geez, what a can of worms it would open. There have been countless such bum decisions in big fights in every country over the years and if you’re going to overturn one, where do you stop? No, not a good idea.

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Author: Ron Reed

RON REED has spent more than 50 years as a sportswriter or sports editor, mainly at The Herald and Herald Sun. He has covered just about every sport at local, national and international level, including multiple assignments at the Olympic and Commonwealth games, cricket tours, the Tour de France, America’s Cup yachting, tennis and golf majors and world title fights.

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