Warne walks tall among greats

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Shane Warne

Shane Warne stands alone as the greatest bowler of his generation © Getty Images

When the retiring Shane Keith Warne inevitably becomes the first cricketer to take 700 Test wickets he will join a club whose members transcend their sports.

Put simply, he will become a sporting great.

Up there with Pele and his 1,281 first-class goals in 1,383 matches.

Up there with Carl Lewis' eight Olympic gold medals, Don Bradman's Test average of 99.94, Pete Sampras' 14 grand slams, Michael Schumacher's seven Formula One titles and Jack Nicklaus' 18 golf majors.

One could never argue that Warne possessed the appeal of Muhammad Ali or Pele, who plied their trade in sports with far greater global following than cricket.

Walk down East 42nd Street in mid-town Manhattan or Wangfujing Street in Beijing, and Warne would not raise a ripple of interest.

But that does not diminish his achievement in pushing back the boundaries of his chosen sport – one genuine definition of greatness – while resurrecting the dying art of leg-spin bowling.

Mike Gatting

Mike Gatting looks back in disbelief after Warne strikes with his first ball in England

The fact is the leg-spinner was going the way of the stegosaurus before Warne bowled what became known as the 'Ball of the Century' to Mike Gatting in the summer of 1993.

‘That ball’, as it has also become known, was Warne's first against England.

No cricket lover could ever forget it.

The ball drifted in to Gatting’s pads, pitching outside leg stump but deviating so sharply that it avoided the considerable girth of Gatting and hit his off stump.

The nonplussed look on Gatting's face, mouth contorted into an 'O' of bemusement as he stood motionless for several seconds before accepting his fate, is one of sport's iconic images.

So much so that former England captain Graham Gooch observed: "He looked as though someone had just nicked his lunch."

No-one had spun a cricket ball quite like that before.

And so began a career which has been part Christmas pantomime, part fairytale. Full of women and gambling and a battle against weight.

Full of headlines on front page as well as back, including the 12-month ban he received for taking forbidden diuretics for which his explanation was that he was only doing what his mum had told him. Only the mischievous Warne could come up with that one.

Shane Warne

Warne's burning desire to take wickets has been central to his success © Getty Images

On the pitch, however, it has been full of straight balls, flippers, sliders. The top-spinner. The zooter. The wrong 'un.

It is Warne's extraordinary ability to tweak and develop his art which has been the secret of his longevity. That, supported by a simple, smooth action and an uncanny control of line and length.

Technically, Warne is brilliant. He has had to be, considering so many of the wickets he has played on were prepared specifically to suit fast bowlers in Australia.

But the Warne story, which has spawned seven books already, would be nothing without his hunger.

Warne gives the impression his every moment on a cricket field is devoted to getting batsmen out, whether he is bowling himself, chivvying his team-mates or chirping away at opponents from his position in the slips.

He is the first person Australia captain Ricky Ponting consults in the field. He has been described as the best captain Australia never had.

He has taken a Test hat-trick, won the man-of-the-match prize in a World Cup final, took on England more or less by himself in the 2005 Ashes - in which he claimed 40 victims - and has scored more runs than any other Test player without making a hundred.

Now, at 37, he has announced his decision to retire after the current Ashes series - and surely after taking the magical 700th wicket to secure his claim to be called the greatest cricketer, and one of the greatest sportsmen who ever lived.

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