When the County Championship fixture list was published earlier this year, I perused it with more interest than usual. In fact I actually marked some dates on the calendar - Hampshire at The Oval on the 9th September, Hampshire at Canterbury on the 30th July, even a trip to the Rose Bowl at the end of May to follow Kent - sitting down the 'away end' of course! The reason for this sudden interest - to watch one of the greatest ever cricketers in his last season in this country.
Sadly, with today's announcement that Shane Warne wants to spend more time with the seven of diamonds, it's not going to happen.
It now becomes one of my biggest regrets - I've never taken the, very simple, chance too see Warnie at the County level. It would have been fascinating to see how he played it. To be honest, for those used to performing on the largest stages in the world, and there are few bigger than 90 thousand on Boxing Day at the MCG, strutting your stuff in front of 100 people is hardly going to set your pulse racing. A bit like U2 playing a secret gig in a backstreet pub but forgetting to tell anyone. But read the reports from last summer and you find that he was still the uber-competitor - taking wickets through sheer force of personality, and doing a fantastic job of leading Hampshire.
No other player in my memory has had that impact so close to retirement. Gary Sobers had almost single-handedly dragged Nottinghamshire into the top half of the Championship when he first turned up, but by the end of his career he was really only going through the motions - albeit still at a higher level than many of those around him. Ian Botham joined Durham with great fanfare at the end of his career (but then what has he ever done quietly?) but he was a shadow of the 'Beefy' we knew and idolised. Carrying too much weight, and obviously not fit, he trundled up to bowl medium pace, admittedly with an impeccable line and length in a sort of silent tribute to his mentor Tom Cartwright, but there was only the very rare batting cameo to quicken the pulse. I was actually pleased when he finally called it a day - it made sure that the bad memories wouldn't outweigh all the wonderful ones from when he was in his pomp.
This personal idolisation of an Australian cricketer is slightly odd. After all, I was brought up to hate that particular species - with an absolute passion. Which, truth be told, probably translated to a suspicion of all Australians during my youth - with the honorable exception of Nick Cave and the other members of the Birthday Party. After all, if your main Australian cultural touch-points are Dame Edna and Skippy the Bush Kangaroo, you're going to have a rather jaundiced view.
Later I started developing more of an appreciation and understanding. I learnt about 'Kerr's Cur' and the establishment coup that got rid of the Whitlam Government. I started listening to Midnight Oil and Redgum, and pissed myself laughing at Clive James's autobiography. But even so, I was only scratching at the surface, and Border, Hughes and McDermott quickly replaced Lillee, Marsh and Thompson in my 'list of loathing'.
Don't forget, mine was a very cricket-centric universe. As I've said here before, it was only when Neighbours appeared on our screens that I realised that not all Australians sounded like Alan McGilvray, or looked like Ian Chappell.
It's quite ironic, therefore, that I've now got an English brother in law serving very happily in the Australian army and I'm related to an Australian by marriage - though I'd guess that he probably feels the same way about English cricketers as I do about those who wear the Baggy Green!
Warne transcended all of this. How? Well, in simple terms he mastered an art form that was as good as extinct outside the sub-contintent. Beyond that, he also made it accessible - almost sexy. His ultimate legacy is that almost every club side we play now has at least one youngster rolling his wrist to emulate Warne - throwing in some gestures and a bit of chat after each delivery too. Admittedly it's rather tiresome being sledged by a fourteen year old whose voice hasn't broken yet, but what the heck - without Warne he'd probably be standing on a street corner taking a crafty drag on a B&H and looking for 'something stronger' from the local dealer.
True story - a mate of mine used to work in Sportspages, the bookshop in Central London. They used to have regular book-signings where a sporting figure would come in and sign a load of copies of his recent, ghostwritten, autobiography. Normally the form was that they'd turn up with a couple of minders in tow, shake a few hands and then spend an hour or so signing books before buggering off home. Not SK Warne. He showed up on his own, spent two hours signing books, and then took all the bookshop staff to the pub, and spent the whole evening talking to anyone who wanted to talk about cricket before, as my mate later told me, they tipped him into a cab and sent him home!
I've been casting around for a similie to best describe Warne's approach to bowling. As I've recently watched The Day of The Jackal, the best I can think of is that of a hired assassin. It's an occupation that involves supreme self-confidence and meticulous planning,. Careful methodology based around masterful disguise, silent movement and perfect timing down to the milli-second. Then on the day of the hit, you walk out into the middle of the street, pull out a homemade sawn-off shotgun and blow the president's head off.