There’s a Warne-shaped hole in this Ashes

Whatever happens during the men’s Ashes series it will be notable for a significant absence. For the first time in 30 years Shane Warne will not be involved either on or off the field, although his legacy will never be far away.

Roughly half of those years were spent with ball in hand, mesmerising and tormenting a generation of England batters. That period was bookended by two of his most famous moments: the delivery to Mike Gatting at Old Trafford in 1993 that saw the legend born, then the one he spun between Andrew Strauss’ bat and pad for his 700th in front of his home crowd at the MCG, not long after conjuring the miracle in Adelaide.

He bowed out of Test cricket a few days later, in Sydney – the ground where his career had begun with 1 for 150 against India. That 2007 SCG match was a relatively quiet game with the ball for Warne (two wickets) although he did briefly threaten to go out with a century before being stumped for 71. A Test hundred was one of the few things to elude Warne, although only by one run and a missed no-ball.

The on-field career brought to a close (although there was still the occasional story about him being lured out of retirement for another Ashes tilt), Warne became a presence in commentary boxes on both sides of the world, even if his appearance during the 2009 series in England was delayed a Test by a poker tournament in Las Vegas – which was entirely fitting of the man. Last year, shortly after his death, the Sky Sports commentary studio at Lord’s was named in his honour. Warne had a brilliant cricket mind and he did some of his best work with Sky, where they managed to balance mateship, banter and tactical analysis.

During the 2013 Ashes they filmed one of their masterclass series with Warne in the indoor nets in Durham, where he bowled to Strauss and Nasser Hussain under the expert anchoring of Ian Ward. The segment remains available online and makes for viewing that is as compelling now on Warne’s brilliance as a bowler as it was then. Occasionally he would be over the top, but when Warne talked – or demonstrated – legspin, there was nothing better.

Did I entertain you? Warne bows out of Test cricket in Sydney, 2007

Did I entertain you? Warne bows out of Test cricket in Sydney, 2007•Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Of course, that all came from what he had achieved on the field. To suggest Warne’s career was just about the Ashes would be grossly incorrect, but the rivalry played an integral part and was often where he produced his best, beginning with a single delivery forever etched in the game’s history.

“Thirty years on, Warne is gone, but his signature feat and its impact abide,” Gideon Haigh wrote in this year’s Wisden Almanack. “One of the most remarkable features of the Ball of the Century is that nobody had imagined such a notion until it happened. We were seven years from the new millennium before it was proposed that a single delivery could stand out from everything before it. Baseball had its Shot Heard Round the World, football its Hand of God. But cricket had never so isolated, analysed, celebrated or fetishised a single moment.”

After that unforgettable Ashes start, he would finish with 195 wickets at 23.25 in 36 Tests against England, comfortably the most in the rivalry (the fact that Glenn McGrath is third on that list is a reminder of Australia’s dominance in that era). There would have been potentially another six Tests to add if not for injury in 1998-99, where he only played in Sydney, and then 2002-03, where he missed the final two.

His away Ashes record was superior to that at home: an average of 21.94 compared to 25.81. There is daylight from his 129 wickets in England to Dennis Lillee in second among all visiting bowlers.

Each of his four series in England had a different story: 1993 was the shaping of his career; 1997 was when he quickly put to bed any thoughts of England working him out after their win at Edgbaston as he found his way back from finger and shoulder injuries; in 2001 he was part of one of the greatest teams (albeit just beaten in India); and in 2005 he lost his only Ashes series but collected a heroic 40 wickets. The Greatest Series would not have happened without him.

At home, it was his first and last Ashes that left indelible marks. There cannot be many finer examples of the flipper than the one that hurried through Alec Stewart at the Gabba in 1994. Warne took what remained a career-best 8 for 71 in that innings. In the next Test, at the MCG, he claimed a hat-trick. And with bat in hand he thwarted England when they scented victory in Sydney.

Twelve years later, in the twilight of his career, when for a mere mortal the powers may have waned, there was the suckering of England into losing the unloseable Test in Adelaide before his valedictory lap continued with the Ashes-winning wicket in Perth and the coup de grace in Melbourne.

Warne only lost seven of the Ashes Tests he played – and two of those were the Edgbaston and Trent Bridge epics in 2005. Though the Compton-Miller medal already exists for the player of a men’s Ashes series, perhaps in time something can carry Warne’s name as well.

Alec Stewart is bowled and bemused in Brisbane in 1994, Warne's first home Ashes series

Alec Stewart is bowled and bemused in Brisbane in 1994, Warne’s first home Ashes series•Graham Chadwick/Getty Images

“It’s going to be very different and have a sadness around it, not hearing his voice. He was becoming someone like Richie Benaud behind the mic, with the knowledge that he was able to pass on to us and also the public,” Nathan Lyon told ESPNcricinfo. “He will be missed, like he’s missed every day in the cricket world, but hopefully as Australian cricketers, and Australian spinners, we can go out there and make him proud.”

For all his dominance, Warne loved being challenged and appreciated a good contest, even the ones he would occasionally lose. He had the utmost respect for Graham Gooch, who made 673 runs in the 1993 series, and whom Warne rated as the best England batter he bowled against. When Mark Butcher steered England to victory at Headingley in 2001, Warne can be seen applauding the winning runs as they are hit. He had nothing but admiration for the way Kevin Pietersen played during the 2005 series. One of few times Warne looked beaten as a bowler was when Pietersen made 158 in the first innings of 2006 Adelaide Test and he resorted to bowling defensively around the wicket, but as history shows, Warne had the last laugh.

One of the great sadnesses of his passing is that he has not been around to see England play Bazball. He would have embraced everything about it. There are even touches of Warne in how it has come about – Rob Key, England’s transformative managing director, forged a close bond with Warne during their playing and commentary days. “He’s a guy that, because of who he was, lived a hundred lives in the one that he had, and that’s so infectious. And that’s what people want to follow,” Key said recently.

“People, they have probably got managers at work or something like that, and all they do is talk about what you can’t do. That’s so uninspiring and that’s the thing you sort of learn. Brendon [McCullum] and [Ben] Stokes and Jos [Buttler] and Motty [Matthew Mott, England white-ball coach] – all these people they’re not people that just tell you the trouble all the time. That, to me, is what leadership is about.”

Warne (far right) films a segment for TV with fellow commentators (from left) Michael Vaughan, Michael Hussey and Adam Gilchrist at the Hobart Test in 2022

Warne (far right) films a segment for TV with fellow commentators (from left) Michael Vaughan, Michael Hussey and Adam Gilchrist at the Hobart Test in 2022•Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

Another thing about Warne, particularly in his post-playing days, was how much he wanted to help and encourage legspinners, although as if to prove how difficult an art form it is, Australian men’s cricket has not really had a production line of them since. After Warne’s retirement, there have been eight men’s Ashes wickets taken by Australian legspinners: seven by Steve Smith and one by Marnus Labuschagne.

There was, however, some of Warne’s advice at play for Labuschagne when he removed Jack Leach at Old Trafford in 2019 to put Australia on the brink of retaining the Ashes. “With Warnie, we were just working on coming wider on the run-up to give myself a better angle at the rough,” Labuschagne said at the time. “It seemed to work out perfectly.” There he was, 12 years after retirement, still managing to toy with England.

Now the flag is being proudly flown in the women’s game. Georgia Wareham and Alana King will be part of the Women’s Ashes that runs in parallel with the men’s, and both have spoken of Warne’s influence on them. The day after Warne’s death, King produced the perfect legbreak to defeat Tammy Beaumont at the ODI World Cup. Beaumont had been on the end of another, too, when in 2017-18, Amanda-Jade Wellington produced a wonderful delivery at North Sydney Oval that drew comparisons with Warne.

Warne, legbreaks, England and Australia: they will forever be linked.

In recent months a clip has resurfaced from a TV segment in 2017 where Warne spoke to a 13-year-old Rehan Ahmed. “That’s awesome, man, really, really good,” Warne said after watching Rehan in the nets. “I will be keeping a close eye on you, I think we will be commentating on you very soon. I think you will be playing first-class cricket by the age of 15.”

Rehan claimed a five-wicket haul on his Test debut as an 18-year-old in Pakistan late last year and subsequently became England’s youngest male debutant across all formats.

It would seem unlikely that he will break into the XI during the Ashes, but with this England side it’s best not to rule anything out. And 30 years after Warne imprinted a lasting legacy on the game, it would be fitting if a legspinner played a role in this series, even though, tragically, Warne won’t be there to call it.

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