Warne, Warner, Warnest
David Warner (AAP Image/Tony McDonough)
Dave Warner was excited. As his cut shot hit the rope at deep point yesterday, his blocky shape leapt fist-first into the air with the urgency of a penniless Mario.
Photographers snapped the now-traditional suspended celebration, an early Christmas ornament in smudged cream. It was a fifth Test century for a man whose selection was deemed beneath the dignity of the sport.
David Warner is the most important player in Australian cricket. Michael Clarke may be prime batsman and statesman, Mitchell Johnson more a match-winner, Steve Smith more photogenic. But Warner is box office.
Throughout his innings, an excitement burbled around the WACA unique in its intensity. He is both the man the fans identify with, and the player they most want to see.
He’s the batsman who’ll make you put off leaving the house, or the one who’ll hurry you home.
So it’s not entirely strange to say that David Warner is similar to Shane Warne. This isn’t about him landing the odd leg break, even if he is on his way with four Test wickets. Warner generates something, an atmosphere.
In Warne’s era, both he and Adam Gilchrist had the ability to do what shouldn’t be possible. It wasn’t about anomalies: we’re not talking Tino Best’s 95 or Nathan Astle’s world-fastest double century.
We’re talking about ridiculous accomplishments, in ridiculous style, carried out regularly and with assurance. This is Warner: a career all about full confidence in the implausible.
I was at the MCG when Warner made his first foray into top-level cricket. It was 2009, and the recent proliferation of Twenty20 was making all sorts of things possible.
People were even going to domestic matches. An unknown 22-year-old joining the T20 side on a reputation as a smasher, Warner was the first man in 132 years to debut for Australia without having played first-class cricket. Even if we’d known more, we never would have expected what happened.
Facing a South African attack of Steyn, Ntini, Kallis, Tsotsobe and Botha, Warner smashed them all over the park. I’ve seen specials from Gilchrist, Sehwag and Lara, but never any cleaner striking than that night.
The strokes sounded like whipcracks, the ball so fast and flat you thought you could hear it buzz. My smudged memory insists that one ball hit the second tier of an MCG stand and bounced back.
When Steyn came on to bowl 150-kilometre swing, Warner flipped six over fine leg – like a glance, but the bat face actually coming up from beneath to lift the ball – then shuffled back half a step to cream a pull shot into the crowd.
He took 89 from 43 balls that night, so abruptly that we didn’t get the chance to feel bad that he’d missed a hundred. That was Warner’s beginning.
He played more T20s, got an 18-ball 50, got another in the domestic competition, played a few ODIs. He stayed in mind as someone whose next step we wanted to see.
In December 2011, after back-to-back hundreds in the Champions League, they took a punt on him for the Test team. People lamented that he was a slogger.
But he gave the sense that something was about to happen. He pinballed around the field like a bug-sprayed blowfly. He had a catch dropped with his first ball in Tests.
By his second Test, he’d scored his first century: on a green top at Hobart where no other Australian got out of the 20s, he carried his bat to score 123, over half the team’s total as they mustered 233 in a fourth innings chase to fall eight short of a win.
Six days later, he was playing in the Big Bash League, walking out in the puke-green pyjamas of the Sydney Thunder.
It was their first game of the season, the first season of the new format, Warner’s first match as captain.
Shane Warne was bowling in this match, Shane Warne at 42 years of age on some last hurrah, still imbued with enough latent charisma and rosy historical glow that he was the focus of the season, an antipodean Beckham, with enough skill yet in his famous wrist to put most of Australia’s young spinners to shame.
Warne bowled to Warner. Warner smashed it back over the bowler’s head for six. Then he did it again. He went on to 102 not out, chasing Melbourne’s total with ease.
He played absurd shots, obscene shots, uniformly successful shots. The excitement around his innings was electric, especially as he worked toward his century.
Warne, on the other hand, would only bowl two of his allotted overs, conceding 19. It was a changing of the guard: one on his way out, one had just arrived.
From Warne to Warner: the man who was now more than Warne.
Whatever the frustrations with his off-field behaviour or form, the fascination with Warner has not abated.
Not long after, he scored a 69-ball Test century against India, the fourth-fastest of all time. He ended on 180 off 159 balls. People were impressed, but by then it was kind of expected.
Like Warne, Warner’s appeal was based on preternatural powers married with an everyman personality. Both have a lack of guile, a character rough around the edges.
There has been visceral excitement this series watching Johnson’s pace, but Johnson himself has never captured the public imagination. He is quiet and unremarkable in aspect.
Warne and Warner, though, are the kind to speak out, to get themselves in trouble. They’re also stoic about wearing any repercussions.
There is a casual swagger, an impression – notably false – that success at their chosen pursuit is down to carefree natural genius.
In fact both work extremely hard. Warner does play more circumspectly now: this hundred came off 127 balls, which would once have been enough for him to score 250.
He’s happy to leave and wait, the way he glared contemptuously at Graeme Swann’s deliveries wide of off stump.
But when he does attack, it’s the same expression of power: the same explosive movement of his short limbs, like the uncoiling of a spring wound to unbearable tension, the same outward release of energy, at the ball and through it.
And when he attacks, there’s the same expression of delight from onlookers. “Warner’s the batsman Lance Klusener could have been,” wrote Greg Baum today. In terms of intent, he’s spot on. Both shared a brutal purity, a viciousness, a controlled violence.
Physically, though, Klusener’s was a jangly, awkward-limbed style, like someone shaking a sack full of coat hangers.
Matthew Hayden always gave mind of Little John bludgeoning the skulls of forest foes. Warner is shorter and sharper than both, the application of bat to ball more expertly judged. He is, perversely, a touch player, just with the dial cranked up to 11.
When I first saw Warner, slaying South Africa at the MCG, I prayed that this kid would somehow become a Test player.
His style inspired awe, and was all his own. When I saw him dispatching Warne, however meaningless the game, I felt sure he was being handed Warne’s torch as cricket’s great public attraction.
From Warne to Warner: not that Warner is more Warne than Warne, but at their best they are increasingly as Warne as each other. If that chap named Warnest does show up, we’ll have a hell of a third chapter.
Geoff Lemon is a writer and radio broadcaster. He joined The Roar as an expert columnist in 2010, writes the satirical blog Heathen Scripture, and tweets from @GeoffLemonSport. This article was first published by Wisden India, in a new-founded Ashes partnership.