Few accolades in Australian sporting history are uncontested. However, that Shane Warne was the King of spin, of cricket and of a whole generation of Australians growing up steeped in the country’s strong sporting culture, this one is.
“Rest in peace, king,” was the closing remark from current Australian Test captain Pat Cummins, speaking after the first day’s play of his side’s historic Test series in Pakistan. Shortly after, the Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, announced that Warne’s family had been offered a state funeral.
“We all grew up watching Warnie, idolising him,” said Cummins, whose Test team is the first Australian side to tour Pakistan in 24 years. “And we fell in love with this great sport as a result, while many of our support staff either played with him or against him. We all had posters on the wall, had his earrings.
“We love so much about Warnie. His showmanship, his charisma, his tactics, the way he just willed himself and the team around to win games for Australia. And probably, above all else, his incredible skills as a legspinner. So many guys in this team and squad who still hold him as a hero, their all-time favourite player and the loss that we’re all trying to wrap their heads around is huge.”
The players first heard the news as they were stepping into their armoured convoy to leave the Rawalpindi stadium on Friday evening; the sense of devastation on Cummins’ face, speaking on behalf of his teammates, was visible. That morning they’d put on black armbands to mark the death of another former Australian great, the wicketkeeper Rod Marsh at the age of 74, also from a heart attack. Just hours later they were having to process another. The players’ arrival at the ground on day two was muted, each ashen faced. No longer the waving flags and blazing vuvuzelas which had accompanied the opening day, the second day’s play started almost in silence.
Back in Warne’s home city of Melbourne, Australia, where the news broke at one o’clock in the morning, those waking up registered it first in a sleepy stupor, disbelief the first reaction before the shock set in.
“Just absolutely devastated today,” wrote former Australian seamer Glenn McGrath, who combined with Warne to take more than 1,000 Test wickets together throughout the 1990s and early noughties, the only pair ever to do so. “Warnie was larger than life. I thought nothing could ever happen to him. He lived more in his life than most people would live in 20.”
The tributes have flooded in, ranging from the officially endorsed to the more intimate and personal, funny even. Among the many flowers and placards being lain at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, Warne’s home stadium, lie bottles of Victoria Bitter beer, a meat pie and a pack of cigarettes to mark Warne’s unconventional, often eclectic approach, to professional sport.
Dan Andrews, the Premier of the state of Victoria, announced on Saturday afternoon that the Great Southern Stand at the MCG, which can house almost half of the 100,000-capacity stadium, will be named after Warne. Like so many things in Warne’s life on and off the pitch, the process to do so was accelerated, made possible where for others it would have been impossible.
“I don’t want to talk about the [renaming] process,” said the Victorian Sports Minister Martin Pakula, of the stand in front of which Warne took a hat-trick and his 700th Test wicket. “Whilst there might be a technical process that would normally be gone through, sometimes you need to dispense with that.”
“The sense of loss on the streets of Melbourne is palpable,” one local told Telegraph Sport. “Even if you don’t watch cricket, you know. Everyone’s in mourning.”
News of the stand’s renaming has been met with resounding approval; the MCG is “Melbourne’s cathedral” for both cricket and Australian Rules Football, and Warne was a big figure in both. An avid supporter of St Kilda Football Club, in his early twenties Warne had to decide which sport to pursue professionally.
“In the buffet of life he ate well, but he replenished, he gave back,” said Eddie McGuire, an AFL pundit and administrator, describing Warne as a “citizen of the world”. “Without any doubt in the world, that remarkable 52 years of life, I reckon he goes away a net contributor. People loved him.”
Warne was an athlete who transcended sports as well as nations. Every cricketer wanted him on their team – England’s crowds even chanted as much – while every sport wanted the profile and passion that Warne brought. In the immediate aftermath of his death, it is the positive aspects of Warne’s colourful life that Australia has turned to. The moments on the cricket field that mesmerised teens, the passion Warne had for his sport and his country, and the energy which never seemed to dissipate.
Australia’s PM admitted his nation was “bewildered” by the “sad and sudden loss” of Warne. “He was one of our nation’s greatest characters,” Morrison said.
Praising him as an inspiration to backyard cricketers across the country, Morrison described a larger-than-life character who lit up each Australian summer. “His humour, his passion, his irreverence, his approachability ensured he was loved by all.”
In recognition of Warne’s “national achievements his family will be offered a state funeral,” Morrison said in a statement.
The premier of Victoria, Daniel Andrews, added: “Shane Warne didn’t just inspire a cricket generation – he defined it,” Andrews said. “To us, he was the greatest – but to his family, he was so much more. Our hearts are breaking for Shane’s family and friends – and they are in the thoughts of all Victorians.
“I have offered a state funeral to his family so Victorians can pay tribute to his legacy and contribution to our state, community and country.”
On Saturday morning, former Australia captain Ricky Ponting admitted Warne was the “greatest bowler” he ever played with or against.
“Hard to put into words. I first met him when I was 15 at the Academy. He gave me my nickname,” Ponting said. “We were teammates for more than a decade, riding all the highs and lows together. Through it all he was someone you could always count on, someone who loved his family. Someone who would be there for you when you needed him and always put his mates first.”
Adam Gilchrist was also a central pillar of Australia’s era of dominance and the wicketkeeper-batter reflected with pride that he and predecessor Ian Healy were stumpers for Warne.
He wrote on Twitter: “Numb. The highlight of my cricketing career was to keep wicket to Warnie. Best seat in the house to watch the maestro at work. Have often felt a tad selfish, that Heals and I pretty much exclusively are the only ones who had that thrill and pleasure at Test level. Rip Warnie.”
Former Australia captain Steve Waugh posted: “So many memories and moments that will never be forgotten. It was a privilege and a pleasure to play alongside you. My thoughts and condolences are with the Warne family. R.I.P. Warnie.”
And Australia opener David Warner said in a message on his social channels: “Two legends of our game have left us too soon. I’m lost for words, and this is extremely sad. My thoughts and prayers go out to the Marsh and Warne family. I just can not believe it. #rip, you will both be missed.”
Shane Watson, the former Australia all-rounder, also paid tribute to his “hero, mentor and great friend” Warne.
Watson tweeted: “I am numb!!! My hero, my mentor, my great friend, Shane Warne is no longer with us. Warnie, the impact you had on this great game and everyone around it is immeasurable. Thank you for being so bloody good to me. I am going to miss you so much. Rest In Peace SK.”
Ex-Australia batsman Mark Waugh said his old team-mate Warne was the “ultimate entertainer” both on and off the cricket field, while another former colleague, Jason Gillespie, was another left “devastated” by the news.
Waugh, who played 128 Tests and 244 ODIs for Australia between 1991 and 2002, wrote on Twitter: “This just unfathomable to lose another great of our cricket family. Warnie was the ultimate entertainer on and off the field, never a dull moment who lived life to the fullest. Deepest condolences to his loved ones. RIP mate.”
Former Australia batter and head coach Darren Lehmann described Warne as a “generous, fun-loving superstar”, while another ex-team-mate, Brett Lee, hailed him as the “rock star” of the game.
Former Australia quick Lee tweeted: “Can’t believe it. The greatest bowler to play the game ever! The RockStar of cricket! Gone too soon. RIP mate.”
How the Australian press reacted
Shock and disbelief were the dominant themes as Australia’s newspapers reacted to the death of Warne.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported that former players Allan Border and David Boon fought back tears as they reacted to Warne’s death.
“He made cricket enjoyable for us of all and he was a light for everyone,” Boon said.
“He had a great sense of humour. So confident on the ground but off the ground so vulnerable as well. He and I had a relationship.
“It is especially a shock when you only have recently seen someone and he was in good spirits, he was enjoying life. I thought he looked all right but he said, ‘I have got to lose a couple of kilos again’ and all that at the end of the Australian summer.
“It’s a shock when you know that is not going to be able to happen again.”
Warne’s death came just hours after that of former Australia wicketkeeper Rod Marsh and Border told Fox Cricket: “I’ve shed some tears over the last couple of days with Rod Marsh, it’s going to be hard getting through the next couple of days finally realising I’m not going to see Shane again.
“It’s just so sad.”
A special 2am edition of Melbourne’s Herald Sun was one of several papers to lead with the news that Warne’s friends raised the alarm when he was late for a scheduled get-together in Koh Samui.
The Australian said Warne was due to meet friends for a night out, “barely a day into a three-month break,” when they realised something was wrong.
The Age quotes Warne’s manager James Erskine as saying that the 52-year-old was “on holiday, having a lie down, siesta, he hadn’t been drinking, he’d been on this diet to lose weight.”
The Daily Telegraph said that Australian government officials have met with one of Warne’s friends in Thailand as what they describe as the “battle” to get his body home begins.