My Shane Warne Years

I am working on another piece on Warne, but I had this in my drafts and was going to put it out in a few weeks. But sadly, I've had to use it now.

Shane Warne changed where my family sat at the cricket; he also changed pretty much everything else about cricket in the era I was growing up.

My cricket story starts in the northern suburbs of Melbourne, a cricket club called Campbellfield, but who at the time was called Kimberfield as so many of our family played, scored or were on a committee. Depending on who is telling it, I went to a Campbellfield match before I had turned one or two weeks old. I grew up in the club; many of my first memories are there, watching my dad or uncle play.

That is where I started playing too, starting as a seven-year-old, and by 1990 I was a ten-year-old leg spinner. The real reason was my father. He was the coach of our team, and he told my friend Dom and I that neither of us were ever going to bowl fast. And if we both chose a different kind of spin, our team would have one of each. Dom picked off-spin, I picked legspin.

The entire idea came to my dad - career club number 11 - because even though he couldn't bat, he could at least handle pace bowling. Against spinners he was completely mesmerised. And he figured that if that was the case for him, a grown man who had played cricket for near on 30 years, then chances are young kids would feel the same.

Why I chose legpsin and Dom off-spin I don't know. There really weren't many role models in Australian cricket at that time for spin. Greg Matthews was really more of a batter, which an extravagant action. Peter Taylor was an extravagant action, more than anything else. Peter Sleep was the other Australian spinner you saw a lot in that period. He was arms flying around like he had double dislocations.

But in truth I don't think Dom or I copied anyone, at least at first.

What we had almost instantly was success. I took wickets every game, and Dom took a five-wicket haul early on. I was the keeper and kids were just dancing down and getting lost against him.

I remember playing a non league game with adults. Every team had 9 adults and two kids. And I took four wickets, which was a pretty big deal for some who had just turned 11. Everyone was happy I was bowling spin, but few people had any idea about it at club level. Players, coaches, anyone. So for a few years or so I just bowled my legspin and was pretty happy.

Our club usually only had one junior team, and so teams with one side usually got put down the lower divisions. It meant that even when we dominated, we often didn't get the call ups that other players did.

But Dom - a far better cricketer than me - got asked to a better club as a batting all rounder. And he would go on to play district cricket for Northcote. My path was never that simple. Dom's offspin was neat, I bowled like a kid trying to get the ball out the back of my hand. I was pretty accurate for a leg-sinner, but I was still a young leg spinner, so things went wrong. I felt like I was always fighting to be a leggie, rather than actually being one.

But I continued to get better, in part because I watched a lot of Mushtaq Ahmed. And so I remodelled my bowling a bit more on him, got a decent wrong'un and took consistent wickets. I read about legspin in coaching books, and listened to everything Richie Benaud said on spin. I was usually the only leg spinner in the match, at one point the only one in my league. I was having a great time slogging some sixes and picking up wickets.

In 1992 I went to the Boxing Day Test at the MCG, early in the Test, my dad told me I could go to either day four or five, and I knew enough about cricket to choose the fourth day as I'd see more cricket. I saw a young Damien Martyn make some runs. On day five - which was my dad's choice - Shane Warne took seven wickets.

That was the beginning of it all, there had been a flash of something at the end of a Sri Lankan Test. But Shane Warne didn't exist really before that flipper to Richie Richardson. And because of me, my old man missed it.

That is when it started, I turned 13 just over a week later, and almost straight away all the senior players who had nothing to ever say about my bowling were now suddenly obsessed by it. Legspin was the thing to talk about in Australian cricket, put your moustaches and chest hair away, it's flipper time.

If an adult asked me about cricket, everything was about Shane Warne once I mentioned spin, not even the leg kind. Less than a year after Warne's seven for, I realised I was in a new world. The under 16 and senior coaches had plenty to say about my bowling. When I would bowl, the opposition umpire would be asking about Warne. The language of cricket changed almost every time Warne got a wicket.

At the MCG I went to a coaching camp and we were taught the flipper. 10-year-olds trying to click their fingers with a ball in their hand. Warne was everywhere as well, he almost instantly went beyond a cricket star, so it meant that people who didn't know about cricket knew about Warne.

All this time my bowling kept getting better, and as this happened, there was more advice. I filled in for the under 16 team in a final, took many wickets, and then every adult at the game talked to me.

It was no longer my legspin, it was Warne's, and therefore everyone's.

This was all made worse when I turned up to a season and could only bowl wrong'uns. Because everyone was an expert and no one was, I couldn't deliver two in a row without someone trying to fix me. And I was in the middle of a big growth spurt, which only years later I worked out affected me more.

Basically I went from starting the ball low, letting it go high and then dropping down. Like many young leggies I saw after me, it gave me perfect flight. When I had my growth spurt I was bowling from another height, and I either bowled too flat or too flighted. My bowling fully fell apart. Again, many people had advices based on something they'd half-heard Richie say. It didn't help. I went from the best average in the league to bowling off cutters as a third change specialist.

This was all worse, because now everyone was a leg spinner. I didn't need to bowl mine because we had another in our team. In my family you could see what was happening. All my uncles were seam bowlers, I was the first spinner in the family. But then two of my cousins took up legspin. I could see the Warne effect in backyard cricket matches.

And the next year my bowling fell back into place. I was bowling better than ever. By Christmas I was taking so many wickets that I got offered to captain my league's representative team. Then I was asked to join the Dowling shield, which is the under 16 teams of district clubs in Melbourne. I got picked for North Melbourne, which was a bit of a laughing stock at the time, but a couple of decades earlier had players like Ian Chappell, Paul Sheahan, Alan Hurst and Alan Connolly.Also  Pakistani opening batsman Sadiq Mohammad and West Indians Garry Sobers and Rohan Kanhai played there too.

It wasn't really that club when I went there. Weirdly, that club has moved to Greenvale, which is just down the road from Campbellfield.

At North Melbourne we had a 15 boy squad, and I was one of four leg spinners. We also had an offie. But no one much cared for him. They were all really batters, who would come in and rip the ball in the nets, and then picked up a few bags, and here they were. I was probably the only specialist front-line bowler of the lot.

And I saw this a lot. In my high school cricket team I was picked as a batter, because they picked another leggie. They had no real idea what he was doing, but he could walk in and spin the ball a long way. In the nets it looked amazing as everyone tried to run down and smack him everywhere. In a game though, players tend to hit squarer or milk you. And he didn't know how to handle that, because he wasn't a bowler, he was a ripper.

That was the most common leg spinner I would be compared to. I'd take more wickets than most, rarely ever get hit, and some bloke would bowl a leggie in the nets that pitched outside leg stump and takes off, and I was basically invisible, or worse, an off-spinner.

Out of the four legspinners for North Melbourne, I was probably the worst batter, and so I missed the first game. But when the two leg spinners they used failed, I got called up for the second. The captain of the team came from my school, and he didn't rate me at all. For 48 overs (of a 50 over game) I didn't bowl, until he got his sums wrong, he brought he on for the second lady over of the innings either the opposition already near 300.

My first ball was a drag down and the batter missed it and was bowled. Everyone laughed. My next ball the batter came down the wicket and missed a big slog, the keeper missed it too. The next four balls we're plays and misses. I'd bowled a good death over by starting with half-tracker and somehow taken a wicket maiden.

It was my only over of the tournament even though I played another game. I was told it was because I had a bad attitude, which I assumed came from two things. I questioned why I was brought on for one death over as a leg spinner. And when I went out to bat I was told to bat through the lasy ten overs while we were nine wickets down and 150 runs behind. Instead, I slogged, because if there was one thing from Warne I could master, it was his ability to try slog spinners.

Sadly, that was the only thing of his I could master.

That year I played senior cricket full time as well, taking a couple of big hauls in between bowling 30 to 35 over spells. Usually into the wind. If I was bowling well I wouldn't get too much advice. The minute I bowled a bad ball, they told me to walk in and just rip it.

I didn't walk in, and I felt like I was ripping it. But I didn't bowl like Warne, and that's why my last ball was short. If I bowled too many wrongus I'd be told Warne didn't need them. If the ball wasn't spinning, I'd need to try harder. If I did, their advice would be to work on accuracy. There was no right answer, because trying to replicate Warne with a different body type and action was impossible. I would loved to have bowled like Warne, but I couldn't. And no one could help me actually do it, just tell me about it.

After my juniors finished my dad asked if I wanted to try a bowling coach. I'd taken a lot of wickets, but I think he knew it was all self-taught and I knew how to get wickets but not really bowl. If I wanted to get better then I needed proper guidance. So I found a number for spin bowling coaching and called it.

The person who picked up was in a truck company, or something like that. And quickly I worked out that this was probably Ray Bright. The former Australian spinner. I have no doubt he could have improved my bowling. But he would ask a question and then I'd give an answer, and he'd suggest the remedy. And it was all the same; he wanted to turn me into a Shane Warne like bowler. I knew this would cost my dad money we didn't really have, and that it would be a waste. I couldn't become a Shane Warne type bowler. I was rake thin, had no shoulder strength and small hands, plus the wrong'un was my best ball. I needed momentum through the crease like Mushtaq Ahmed, or the other less famous victorian leg spinner, Craig Howard.

I wasn't a bowling expert, but the one thing I knew was I couldn't be Warne. In fact, I had the theory that no one should copy him. Most of the players who did in club cricket were shit. They didn't have his strength, they could all rip it, but they were usually slow. And I was already slow, when I tried to bowl like Warne it was even slower.

None of this stopped me going on to play cricket at a higher level. But even as I got better as a bowler, there was always a ceiling for me. And it came from a biomechanics problem with my action. I had a solid front arm, but it went out to the left instead of looking through the gap, which meant that I wasn't getting the rotation through my action when I pulled. So as I got to the higher level, I had to bowl a bit faster, but it just meant I got no spin.

I could have bowled more like Kumble or Mushtaq, but if I ever bowled more than a wrong'un in an over, I'd get told off. Warney doesn't need em, mate. One captain once started screaming at me from slip that if I kept bowling wrong'uns he'd have to change the field to one of an off-spinner. Legspin was everywhere, but only one kind, his kind, and I couldn't do it.

We had good cricketers, but the coaches weren't experts on spin, as many of them viewed it as offspinning darts, or just coming in and ripping it.

I kind of identified as a leg spinner at this point, which is hard to understand. But I felt like I found this magic way of doing things, that I knew more about than others, and I was part of a movement. And I loved every long hop and wrong'un. Plus it sorted my personality, the bowling, but also discovering it before it was cool. It was like seeing Kings of Leon when they made sweaty southern rock before becoming a pop band with guitars.

My amateur legspin career died out, because I couldn't fix my action, or wasn't good enough to blast a new path as a different kind of leggie. But in truth, having small hands and slow arm speed, I would never have even got near to making it even if I was biomechanically perfect. I wasn't that good. Eventually I played less and the only work I could find as a high school dropout was shift work or weekends. This was no great loss to anyone. There was little chance of me ever becoming a Bryce McGain type player who in his late 20s worked it all out.

Really by '98, the novelty had disappeared, if Warne had any effect, it was ultimately just making legspin a normal part of cricket in Melbourne and most of Australia.

There was a period of everyone looking for the next Warne, but even that seemed to disappear when all the spinners that came after him were not at his level. The best one was probably MacGill, who was roughly the same age as Warne. He inspired thousands of people to try his forgotten art, and none of them mastered it.

Warne was such a big deal though for years to come. He became cricket's Elvis. A freakish talent who became a genuine freak, sideshow, headline. It's weird watching the guy who affected you so much became one of the most famous people in the world for being famous. He wasn't really a legspinner anymore; he was the guy who a bookie paid, failed a drugs Test, had affairs, got caught in a threesome sex tape, dated Elizabeth Hurley, and thought we descended from Aliens.

The legspin eventually became second, or even third to Warne the champion and Warne the celebrity.

My life changed as well. Going from a fan to someone in the media. Shane Warne was once a face from Mount Olympus, now he was behind me waiting to get his free pres meal. I interviewed him a couple of times, and spent some time with him. I still remember the night he bought me a drink, while complaining my order was too confusing. I never really got to know him, but you could sense that overgrown boy energy was still there. Even as a professional stylist now dressed him, and his face made shapes it never had before.

I could have got to know him better, but it all would have been too weird. I never even knew how to handle someone who had such a big impact on my life is now on TV talking ancient astronaut theory. In the same way, I don't know how to process his death.

It would be right to focus just on his cricket, but Shane Warne wasn't cricket, he was Shane Warne. And I lived a life with him being right there.

And yeah he changed where my family sat the cricket. My dad liked to sit square of the wicket and see the speed, bounce and carry. I still remember at my first Test us being square of the wicket and seeing Wasim Akram bowl so fast that for the first time in my life I couldn't see the ball.

A couple of years later we were heading to the fifth day of Tests to see Warne from the straightest angle we could. That was our new view, we had to see what he was doing. While we missed the seven-wicket haul, we saw the hat trick. For that, we were as straight as our cheap tickets could get us.

As I left junior cricket, my dad would occasionally come down and watch me play in the seniors. I wasn't Warne. But he always did the same thing. When I would finish a ball, I'd turn back to my mark and he'd be sitting at mid off. Where Shane Warne made him sit.