x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

The man for the big moments

He may have courted controversy, but the Australian spin bowler Shane Warne was a superb competitor.

Shane Warne, a fiercely competitive performer with bat and ball.
Shane Warne, a fiercely competitive performer with bat and ball.

Who do you think is sport's all-time best? Each week, we will profile a candidate, inviting you to decide who should top our list of 50. All participants will be entered into a draw for the weekly adidas prize and an end-of-contest Etihad Holidays four-day trip for two, including business class flights and accommodation, to a mystery location. We will reveal the full 50 at the end, but this week Paul Radley looks at cricket's Shane Warne.

Shane Warne or Muttiah Muralitharan? The very debate is deemed "poisonously polarising" by cricket's most authoritative commentators. But here it goes anyway: it's Warne, for me. Sorry about that. I realise opting against international cricket's No1 wicket-taker will enrage many, particularly Asian, readers. It is purely a subjective judgement. And I am still struggling to fathom out a sensible argument in favour of the fat remorseless Aussie, against the syrupy-sweet Sri Lankan wicket-machine.

There are few more likable personalities in the history of sport than Murali, the son of a biscuit shop owner in the obscure hill town of Katugastota made good. Clean-living, charitable, humble, perennially smiling: it's not difficult to work out which of history's two greatest spinners those adjectives refer to. By the time Sri Lanka's favourite Tamil hangs up his spikes, there will be a broad sweep of daylight between him and Warne at the top of the wicket-taking charts. He has been a phenomenon.

But Warne just has an unquantifiable, intangible greatness. He also figures strongly amongst my personal cricket memories, which no doubt tipped the balance. I was there, sat on Yabba's Hill in Sydney, when Warne made his return after a long stint out with a dislocated shoulder. He had played no cricket since completing his convalescence, save for a few half-baked overs in the nets. As Steve Waugh handed him the ball in the final Ashes Test, everyone inside the SCG was gripped by anticipation. He was simultaneously the home hero and the pantomime villain.

Four balls later, Mark Butcher was on his way back, lbw b Warne - perhaps the inevitable result. Sachin Tendulkar terms Warne "God's gift to cricket", citing the way he has repeatedly "come back from the dead" as the reason for his greatness. Such as when he took an incredible 26 wickets in just three Tests in Sri Lanka, in his comeback series after a year's suspension for taking a banned diuretic.

Waugh, who has been critical enough of his go-to spinner in the past that we can trust he can manage a certain degree of objectivity on the subject, says: "Warne would sit pretty comfortably as the second best player ever". Another ex-Baggy Green team-mate Jason Gillespie goes one better, saying: "I think he'd be just about the best player that's ever played cricket." Warne greatness stems from his innate sense of theatre. That is not just referring to his triumphs, like timing his run to become the first to 700 until there were 90,000 in at his home ground in Melbourne in 2006.

He could do comedy just as well. When England's Barmy Army first rose as one to chorus "Stand Up if You Hate Shane Warne", the blond beach-bum immediately sat down on the field. He was fielding at first-slip with Brett Lee starting his run-up at the time. Perhaps not a classic, but he does do a good line in self-deprecation. He is also a regular stooge on Melbourne television sitcom Kath & Kim, as the love symbol of tubby, pash-rash victim Sharon Strzelecki. While he was the centre of their jokes, it didn't stop him from eventually turning out as a special guest star on the show.

More than poking fun at himself, perhaps that shows his keen awareness of his marketability. He even does Greek tragedy better than most. When Kevin Pietersen was finally dismissed for 158 after securing the return of the Ashes to England following 18 years of hurt, Warne spied a chance for his own Brett Lee/Freddie Flintoff moment. He raced up to his departing mate, shook his hand, and smiled for the cameras. All very noble.

After reaching 600 wickets in the Old Trafford Test of the 2005 Ashes by taking the wicket of Marcus Trescothick, Warne kissed his white wristband, on which was written 'Strength'. "My daughter gave it to me when the family went back to Australia and said 'you've got be strong, daddy'. That was for her," he said in his close of play interview, recalling his broken marriage, which I found to be moving.

Not a bad effort, but my favourite quote relating to Warne still belongs to Mike Gatting, referring to the Ball of the Century back in 1993 at Old Trafford, in what was his first Ashes Test and first international appearance in England. He said: "I suppose I can say that 'I was there' at the moment he first indicated his potential to the wider world," said the former England captain. "There or thereabouts, anyway." Cast your vote and enter a draw for a weekly Dh500 adidas voucher and a dream trip with Etihad Holidays. If you think Warne is the all-time best, text G13 to 2337 Texts cost Dh5 and voting will end at midnight on Thursday July 17