Warne takes final bow
And so, at last, after farewells to international cricket and the first-class scene spread across four years and three continents, Shane Warne will finally end his blockbuster of a professional career with a whimper when the Rajasthan Royals slip out of the IPL reckoning in Mumbai on Friday.
Glowing eulogies will fill the air, and perhaps a few relieved sighs from martinets among the game's administrators. For English cricket watchers there will be a mixture of both.
In two decades of devilish tweak, extravagant celebrations and tabloid-filling good times, Warne had a hold over English batsmen and fans like few others before and none since.
Some have described him as a magician, conjuring the impossible from those twirling arms and wrists, foxing onlookers with sleight of hand and tricks of the finger but to a generation of player and fans in Blighty he was always more of a torturer - breaking hearts, plucking prize scalps and forever tightening the thumbscrews, his mere appearance at the end of that skip of a run-up enough to trigger waves of foreboding and fear.
Visits from Liz Hurley have kept Warne in the headlines during his final IPL campaign - photo: Getty
Now, at his valediction, it's fascinating to go back to the very start, before the storied successes, 143, 838 deliveries, 708 Test wickets, two World Cup medals, Wisden Cricketer of the Century award and the single most famous delivery in the history of the game.
Warne's first impact on the English psyche came in 1991, when Accrington Cricket Club's manager Eddie Robinson - himself a former leggie - took up a tip-off from Aussie spin guru Terry Jenner and gambled £5,000 on the signature of a tubby 19-year-old from the other side of the world.
Andy Barker was the club's captain that summer, and has irreducible memories of the teenager who turned up "carrying a fair bit of timber".
"I still remember his first game," Barker says. "We'd had a 'meet the pro' night the evening before, and Shane had been buying all the committee members drinks.
"We batted first. When I was out I passed Shane coming in, and wished him the best of luck. I was still taking off my pads when I heard this great roar outside - he'd got a first-baller, stumps everywhere.
"The committee members didn't mince their words. Some of them had enjoyed a few drinks by then, and as Shane was walking back in, all he could hear was, 'Send him back! He's bloody rubbish!'"
If those early forecasts were to prove short-sighted, the members weren't the only ones struggling to comprehend what was in front of them.
Warne had arrived in an era defined by fast bowling, where 15 years of West Indies pace dominance meant leg-spin was a weapon not just mothballed, but seemingly outmoded by the bigger guns and Big Birds.
Aggressive, wicket-taking and match-winning bowlers were tall, muscular and rapid, not tubby, fat-fingered smokers.
Warne's genius was such that, within just a few years, that paradigm had been turned upside down. Where once England had picked Greg Thomas as a poor imitation of the world's most dangerous bowler, they would soon be placing similarly unfair expectations on the shoulders of Ian Salisbury and Chris Schofield.
For Warne's team-mates in the Accrington side, it took time to adjust.
"Our wicketkeeper was the best in the league, but he just couldn't read Shane at all," says Barker. "You couldn't stand up to him, because he turned it so much and with so much variety. He made him look silly. We ended up going through three keepers that season.
"You saw batsmen who'd never played anything like that, but then neither had our fielders. In the end, we had to come up with a series of signals so Shane could warn us what was coming. We worked at it on our practice night - if he was going to bowl the googly, he'd bend down to fiddle with his shoelace, and so on."
As an international cricketer Warne flourished in the toughest situations, filling his boots when others shook in theirs and refusing to let go of a game when even team-mates had long since given up the ghost.
In that giddy summer of 2005, when the Aussie Ashes hoodoo was finally laid to rest by Michael Vaughan's equally aggressive England side, Warne's were the last fingers to be prised off the urn, his 40 wickets almost singlehandedly keeping his country in the contest, that defiant rearguard assault on the final morning at Edgbaston nearly stopping the fairytale before it had begun.
Fourteen years before, the same characteristics had been evident in less lauded surroundings.
"For the first few games it was really tough for him," says Barker. "We were going through a transition, and lost three of our first four. Shane was only 19, but a lot was expected of him.
"Then we played Ramsbottom in a cup match. Shane took six wickets, and he never looked back. He had that fighting quality, and he had a leadership quality. His cricket brain was unbelievable - it was a pleasure to watch and captain him.
"He had the same belief with his batting, too. Every practice night he used to convince me that he was brilliant, that he was going to be on par with the Australian greats, even though watching him bat was terrible on the nerves. We had a standing joke in the dressing room - when Shane went in to bat, we'd all get the cigarettes out, even the non-smokers."
Warne bids farewell to his adoring Aussie fans after his final Test appearance in 2007 -photo: Getty
In his pomp, and then into his cricketing dotage, Warne has never lost his appetite for trouble. For every 10-wicket haul there was a scandal to undermine it, from undisclosed liaisons with unlicensed bookmakers to dabbles with diuretics, sneaky fags and pizza obsessions to flings with supermodels and fines from those in charge.
Warne being Warne, he managed to make even those public embarrassments iconic and defining of the era. He was the first cricketer to get in trouble for texting, the first to see his Tweets turned into news stories and the first to turn a growing gut and shrinking hairline into a lucrative source of endorsement income.
It earned him larrikin status back home and made him a pantomime villain in England. But no matter how many unflattering headlines he created, or how shameless the plugs for poker sites and fast-food chains, he did it with sufficient charm and chutzpah to retain his place in the public affections.
"He loved the beer," says Barker. "And once he got off the mark he certainly got on well with the females. It was also a standing joke in Accrington that we broke even on our investment in him, as he put most of his money back over the bar in the clubhouse.
"But he won everyone over. He made friends with so many people, and was a real hit in the town.
"He stayed in digs in Accrington, nothing glamorous, and used to invite us round and offer us Vegemite on toast. It was the only thing he could eat.
"He was just one of the boys, and he always kept in touch. The experience of captaining a young Shane Warne, and then watching what he's gone on to do - I'd say it's one of the highlights of my life."
Warne took 73 wickets at 15 apiece in a truncated summer in Accrington. ("He would have ended with 100 wickets, but he left with eight games to go," says Barker.)
Two years later he was back in England, a few miles away at Old Trafford. Listening to the Test Match Special commentary as he is thrown the ball by Allan Border, you can almost hear the old world being replaced by the new.
JONATHAN AGNEW: "Warne coming on, taking off his floppy hat to reveal a shock of blond hair... there's an earring in one ear as well, certainly a member of the new generation of international cricketers....
TREVOR BAILEY: "No ponytail though...
AGNEW: "No ponytail, but one of these new shaved jobs, a number two or three razor round the back and rather more hair on top... I just wonder, Trevor - there must be a little bit of pressure on young Warne's shoulders here, because he will know that his team is expecting him to come on and take some wickets here."
BAILEY: "Well if he doesn't turn the ball, England will have a very good time indeed."
He did turn the ball, more than most of us had ever seen before. England, far from having a very good time, would be in for a very bad one for a very long time indeed. Warne would relish every second of it.