TOt Victoria’s first state funeral, a cortege bearing the caskets of Robert O’Hara Burke and William John Wills was led by six black-plumed horses. At John Monash’s funeral, in 1931, nearly 300,000 people, a third of Melbourne’s population, lined the streets. Shane Warne didn’t explore the Australian outback. He didn’t break the Hindenburg Line. I have bowled leg-breaks for Australia.
On Wednesday night, the Melbourne Cricket Ground bade farewell to him. It’s where I dreamed of playing Australian rules football. It’s where I skittled the West Indies. It’s where he took the first Ashes hat-trick in 90 years. It’s where, under temperamental skies and in front of 90,000 people, he took his 700th Test wicket. It’s where, as news of his death filtered through, scores of people gathered – in the middle of the night, and in torrential rain – to pay homage.
Memorial services such as this are often stuffy affairs. This was nothing of the sort. The man being honored was no statesman. It wasn’t a pious occasion. There were no political scores to settle. There was no Bach, no Yeats – just Williams and Sheeran. Instead of an archbishop, ceremonies were conducted by a TV personality. There was no gothic splendor – just a cavernous, concrete colosseum.
In the weeks after his death, there had been a ghoulish fascination with his final hours and the repatriation of his body. There were tut-tutting tweets and tedious opinion pieces. This service redressed the balance. There was a proper sense of who he was, the joy he brought and his prodigious talent and reach of him. From Elton John to the United Nations; from Kylie Minogue to Sachin Tendulkar. How does anybody top that?
But it was impossible to listen to Warne’s three children – Jackson, Brooke and Summer – and not feel a desperate sadness. Their father was 52 when he died. He would stand on the sidelines at local netball games, snore on the couch, secure backstage passes, blare Bryan Adams and embarrass them on social media.
Everyone wanted a dad like Shane Warne. For all his travels, travails and trespasses, he was a wonderful father. Underpinning all their tributes was an aching sense of loss.
His ordinariness, his impeccable manners and complete lack of pretence and malice were recurring themes all night. Over the years, his fame went solar. Some of his partners, as Clive James once said of Grace Kelly, were born with a silver dinner set in their mouths. But Warne never really changed. Not many of us have a bowling alley in our house, date supermodels or are photographed wielding giant inflatable dildos. But he was never one of those superstars at arm’s length. He was instantly familiar to us. He never shied away from his fame or his mistakes. He whinged about the same things as us on Twitter. I have listened to the same music. He loved nothing more, as Gideon Haigh once wrote, than curling up in bed with a good phone.
This just wouldn’t have felt right at Melbourne’s St Paul’s Cathedral. It had to be at the MCG. I have loved this place. When the house was full and the occasion had weight, his eyes would dance and his face would light up. Some days, if he was fielding on the boundary or walking off after another haul, he’d look up at the locals like a big puppy. Before his final MCG Test, he said he was almost “turned on”.
The Great Southern Stand officially became the Shane Warne Stand. Thirty years ago, just after it had been constructed, Richie Richardson marveled that the ground held more people than the population of his country [Antigua]. Some days, Warne would wake up certain that he would score a century. On day five of this Test, with his unbuttoned shirt, gold chains and broad-brimmed sunhat, he was in murderous touch.
At that point, Warne had peroxide blond hair, lime zinc cream and a Test bowling average of 90. But he knocked over the West Indies captain with a flipper. As his brother told us, he had been practicing it for years. Only now did he have the balls to unleash it. Richardson looked down at the pitch with contemplation. Warne’s life of him, and his sport of him, would never be the same again.
Victorian cricket crowds are hopelessly parochial. We claimed Warne, embraced him, forgave him a lot. At the end of a day’s play, after he had torn through a tail, we would file out, a little lighter on our feet, shaking our heads, reliving his wickets from him, imitating his action from him. This time, however, not one quite knew what to do or how to leave. There was no theme song blaring. There was no one on the public address system perforating our eardrums. There were no drunks to step around. There was no win or loss to dissect.
Many stood shyly – at a cricket pitch distance – around his statue. It was festooned with stubbies of beer, champagne magnums, packets of darts, cricket balls and flowers. After the bushfire summer and the two lost years of Covid, it has been a glorious few months in Melbourne.
The wind whipped harder and light drizzle fell. In dribs and drabs, they exited to the various compass points of the city. There were lots of little hands clutching bigger ones. They’d remembered and celebrated a phenomenal talent – an ordinary man whose life was utterly uninventable and cruelly cut short.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism