On Warne
By Gideon Haigh
Penguin, $35, pp 224
ISBN 9780670076604

Which side would hoist that fragile terracotta urn were it contested not by the players on the field but the writers and commentators in the press box? Just imagine: ABC’s Jim Maxwell locking microphones with the BBC’s Jonathan ‘Aggers’ Agnew; the cackling Kerry O’Keeffe in a joke-off with David ‘Bumble’ Lloyd; or the Tele’s gruff Malcolm Conn up against the Observer’s impish Vic Marks. The result would hinge, however, on whether Gideon Haigh opted to play for the land of his birth, England, or the country where he was raised, Australia.

To flirt with a clichéd thought that he himself would avoid, it is tempting to call Gideon the Bradman of cricket writers. Yet he is more of a Garfield Sobers, wielding his pen with the same panache as the game’s finest all-rounder flashed the willow. His latest offering is a lovely late-afternoon cameo of a book, On Warne, which tries to make sense of a cricketer at once ‘extraordinary and exasperating’: Australian sport’s most sublimely gifted boofhead; a star who, rather than reading books, prefers ‘to curl up with a good phone’.

Thematic rather than chronological, this is not a run-of-the-mill biography — there have been more than a dozen of those already — but more a treatise. The material, from the unlikelihood of Shane Warne’s early success to the year-long ban for the use of an outlawed diuretic, will be familiar to most Warnistas. But the analysis, both psychological and arithmetical, comes up fresh.

Some of the most tart observations spring from the parallels with Australia’s greatest-ever batsman. Just as Bradman failed in his farewell innings at The Oval, so, too, did Warnie when he dropped his mate Kevin Pietersen at first slip on the final day of the famed 2005 series. ‘Warne signed off with a kind of Bradman moment,’ writes Haigh, ‘a tincture of fallibility.’ Both were also central figures in the two most pored-over deliveries in Ashes history: the ‘Ball of the Century’ that dismissed Mike Gatting at Old Trafford in 1993, which ‘enjoys a rich afterlife on YouTube’, and the googly bowled by Eric Hollies which shaved that pesky 0.06 off Bradman’s final Test average.

The facets of Warne’s confounding personality emerge from his relationships with contemporaries. His bowling compadre Glenn McGrath (Haigh conflates them as ‘Warneanmcgrath’); his mentor Terry Jenner (I had not realised the extent to which the partnership proved correctional for both); his team-mate rival Stuart McGill (whose 86 wickets in the Tests they played together cost 21, while Warne’s 74 cost 30 runs each); his record book rival Muttiah Muralitharan (‘never effective in Australia’); coach John Buchanan (who brought his petulance to the surface); and fiancée Liz Hurley (who helped turn one of Wisden’s cricketers of the century into a staple of Hello).

At the heart of the book is the sometimes improbable liaison between Warne and his extravagant talent — the Berlin Philharmonic meets John Farnham thing. Haigh carries out a meticulous dissection of the technique, and is particularly good on his mental prowess. ‘Most bowlers at the top of their run are thinking about what they might bowl,’ he notes. ‘Warne’s pause was as much about letting you wonder what he might bowl.’

Deft rhetorical inversions are a hallmark of Haigh’s style, and he can turn a phrase as sharply as Warnie spins the ball. Of Warneanmcgrath’s companionability, he observes: ‘Warne never jeopardised McGrath’s custody of the new ball, McGrath never threatened Warne’s proprietorship of the old.’ Haigh also has a great gift for analogy. To be enclosed by the close-fielding cordon of Ian Healy, David Boon and Mark Taylor, with Warne at the other end, was akin to ‘being cornered in a dark alley by a neighbourhood gang, and having the only escape blocked by the biggest bruiser of all’. The austere Allan Border, who steered Australia out of the cricketing recession it would have preferred not to have, is likened to ‘a child of the Depression who knew what it was like to eat rabbit every night.’

What always makes Haigh’s cricket writing so illuminating is his ability to draw, anecdotally and analytically, from beyond the boundary rope or pavilion bar. In Warne, for instance, he sees traces of Bill Clinton, ‘a man of similar charm, presence and susceptibilities’. One minute he is quoting a New Yorker profile of Philip Roth, the next from the diary of a little-known Irish soccer player, Eamon Dunphy. One half-expects to find in the bibliography Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, though perhaps that lies in store. For in the era of the cricketing franchise, let us hope that there is an On Waugh, On the Chappells, or, for the UK market, On Boycott. Just about my only gripe came with an anti-climactic concluding page that felt like watching the final ball of a tense session drift unthreateningly down leg.

Shining through this book, with the same luminescence as his lucky yellow Speedos, is Warne’s irresistible charm. Though his Big Bash sparring partner, the West Indian batsman Marlon Samuels might disagree, Warnie is almost impossible not to like, as the South African batsman Daryll Cullinan can attest. So debilitating was Cullinan’s inferiority complex that he required the services of a sports psychologist. Why, it provided the inspiration for what was arguably Warnie’s finest sledge: ‘What colour’s the couch?’ Still, when it came to picking the guest of honour at his benefit dinner, Cullinan turned to his tormentor.

During a break in play in a Test match at the WACA not so long ago, Channel Nine broadcast a brief bowling masterclass. In what turned out to be perhaps the most educational eight minutes I have seen on Australian television, Warnie went through his full repertoire of deliveries, from the leg break to the flipper, ‘a perfect piss-take of a ball’. In this short book, Haigh delivers a similar treat for lovers of elegant cricket writing. Warneanhaigh. It’s a winning partnership.

Nick Bryant, a BBC foreign correspondent, is the author of Adventures in Correspondentland.