HE’S THE PERMA-TANNED PLAYBOY WHOSE LIFE RESEMBLES A BOND FILM. BUT THERE ARE SIGNS SHANE WARNE POSSESSES BOTH A CALCULATING BRAIN AND A KIND HEART, WRITES ANDREW RULE
He’s happy to camp it up in our plastic-fantastic Ken-doll shoot, but behind Shane Warne’s playboy image lies an astute businessman with a generous heart.
When a suddenly serious Shane Warne admits he does his “best work late at night”, it sounds as if he is about to let slip a kiss-and-tell showstopper.
Wrong. He means the notebook he keeps next to the bed to jot down thoughts that strike overnight. There’s plenty on the to-do list – some for good causes, and some for Warnie Inc’s many ventures.
Which is why, on his 47th birthday last month, the Peter Pan of the cricketspeaking world is spending valuable time on an interview and photo shoot in Melbourne, 15 minutes by Ferrari from the Brighton trophy house he recently bought back for much more than he sold it for a decade ago.
Birthdays come and go, but business is business. Warne is launching a new venture, the King of Spin game and app, a virtual-reality offering that gives online cricketers a chance to bash one of his leg spins into the bleachers. “I bowl up to you exactly how I would in a game,” he says. “It’s as close as you’ll ever get to facing me in the middle of a packed stadium.”
His enthusiasm to promote the game means he’s almost happy to be dressed like Barbie’s boyfriend, Ken, even if it means squeezing into eye-wateringly tight clothes.
“I haven’t fit into size 32 pants since I was 10,” he says. He looks doubtful about the Stellar stylist’s insistence
that he wear no socks with sky-blue pants and a shirt so yellow it would make a canary blush. But he starts changing, causing the women in the room to leave. Warne grins, “You don’t have to go; I’ve got underwear on.”
Safely trousered, he poses with a giant blow-up duck, but is not keen on wrapping his legs around its neck.
“Sorry… it will look all wrong. Don’t want any more trouble with blow-up toys,” deadpans the man whose bedroom antics, real and alleged, have horrified and amused millions of Warnie watchers around the world.
Next, he pulls on a cream skivvy with a mulberry jacket, prompting Stellar reporter Ruth Lamperd to note he looks like “some weird cross between Austin Powers and a white Wiggle”.
“It’s OK,” says Ken-doll Warnie through gritted teeth. “I love taking the piss out of myself. Really… it’s great.” Then he winks.
THE GREAT BOWLER is good at fielding questions and batting others away. Some, especially relating to criticism of the Shane Warne Foundation, fire him up. Why has the foundation copped it?
“Why is there a stage musical, a telemovie, 13 unauthorised biographies?” he retorts. “People are interested.”
It’s “really hurtful” to suggest he would do anything underhanded in running a charity that raises money for sick children. So hurtful that from now on Warne will instead donate directly or make guest appearances to help causes.
“There has been some insinuation implying some untoward things have been going on,” he fumes. “How it’s been written is just totally factually incorrect.”
One reason Warne is so angry is that criticism, no matter how strongly he refutes it, can affect his children (daughters Brooke, 19, and Summer, 15, and son Jackson, 17), now too old to be sheltered from hostile publicity.
Recently, he says, he spent three hours on the phone with “Elizabeth” (Hurley, his former fiancée). Before that he went to a function with Emily Scott, his ex-girlfriend, because she was keen to catch up. They often (surprise, surprise) text message each other. As for Simone Callahan, his ex-wife, she produced the three kids they both adore, so what’s not to like?
Part of the secret to getting unmarried and living happily ever after, he says, is not to use children as bargaining chips. The other part is to be generous when it comes to assets and alimony because, in the end, it’s about looking after the children they both love.
He admits to missing the kids when he’s away six months of the year. But he has come up with Warne’s Whiteboard Theory: identical whiteboards in Callahan’s house, his Melbourne home and his London pad, each synchronised with his movements so the children can contact him anytime, anywhere.
“I’m a very planned person,” he says. “I know exactly where I’m meant to be, hence the whiteboard. Like, I’ve already done 2017. I’m on February 2018 [now].”
IF YOU HAD to pick an event that turned a suburban boy into a superstar, it might be an accident at a kindergarten in Sandringham, Melbourne, in 1974.
It went like this: Keith and Brigitte Warne’s little boy scrambles through a concrete pipe in the playground – just as another child jumps off it, hitting him so hard, it breaks his leg. The break is so bad, doctors plaster the boy from chest to knee, and he spends months trundling himself around in a little trolley. His forearms, wrists and fingers strengthen with the constant exercise.
“I can hardly remember it now,” confesses Warne. But sometimes he wonders if that long-ago accident helped make him the best leg spin bowler in the world. Not that he’s big on looking back. Too busy juggling fun and financially rewarding commitments.
An example: Campbell Brown, AFL footballer turned channel swimmer and commentator, was having a drink with him in Melbourne last summer when Warne’s phone chirped. It was Ed Sheeran, in town on his world tour. He wanted to catch up with Warne to have a hit in the nets at the MCG.
“Bowling to Ed Sheeran,” says Brown. “That’s when he’s not in Vegas playing poker with Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.”
IN CRICKET COUNTRY, Warne is as instantly recognisable as Brad Pitt. He’s the perma-tanned playboy who globetrots in five-star luxury, a celebrity guest from Lords to Las Vegas, hopping from commentary box to casino to championship golf course.
His life plays like outtakes from a Bond movie, except it’s not a gun in his pocket – like Mae West, he has never struck a good time he wasn’t pleased to see. His mates tell the yarn that, after leaving school, he briefly had a job delivering beds and got to test them with real housewives of Melbourne. Nudge nudge, wink wink.
Not all such tales can be true, of course. What is true is that all sorts of people love meeting Warne, especially in England.
Former ace bowler Rodney Hogg recalls seeing the late Sir David Frost fawning over Warne at a society match.
“Sir David would have cleaned Shane’s shoes if he’d asked,” says Hogg, who noted Australians marvelled that Warne was going out with Liz Hurley – but the English marvelled that Hurley had Warne. Over there, he’s the bigger star. Hogg saw Warne mobbed at Lords: “It was a stampede. Hundreds of people with Shane in the middle. He’s the Bradman of leg spin.”
But whereas Bradman kept the world at a polite distance, Warne is a celebrity like a soapie star. Mention him and people smile. He’s seen as a scamp but no scoundrel; the favourite uncle or brother who stays out late. When he played his first Test, he looked like someone’s mate filling in until a proper player turned up.
It’s deceptive, of course; he seems like one of us but isn’t really. That illusion is why millions of people who have never met Warne think they know him.
But as the man behind the myth nudges middle age, you wonder if he might be shrewder and more sensible than he appears.
There are signs of both a calculating brain and a kind heart. Some might find this surprising. I did, until a colleague suggested I call Rebecca Buchanan.
The Buchanans, Ross, his wife Rebecca and their children, lived at Kinglake, north of Melbourne.
Black Saturday ended that, in 2009, when wildfire killed 173 people.
Like many others, Warne wanted to help. That first day, he and other TV personalities took sports equipment to the emergency centre at Whittlesea, hoping it might distract the dazed and distressed children. That’s where he met Aiden Buchanan. When Warne mentioned the hat the 13-year-old was wearing, Aiden started to cry. “It’s Macca’s hat”, he sobbed. “Macca” was Aiden’s older brother, Mackenzie, who had perished along with their little sister, Neeve, and their uncle.
More than seven years later, Aiden’s mother speaks highly of Warne. Of those who turned up “when the hype’s on and everyone wants to be buddybuddy”, she says, Warne is one of the few who came back after the cameras left. “He’s been incredibly supportive,” she says. Warne has taken Aiden to cricket games, watched him play football and has had the Buchanans to his house for lunch. “He’s kept in contact with us all the way through.” WARNE’S KINDERGARTEN INJURY is an obscure footnote to his life, but it’s intriguing. Overcoming childhood injury or illness has dictated the destiny of many a high achiever.
Warne reckons that because he and brother Jason went to school a suburb away from their bayside home, they had few schoolmates living nearby and had to entertain each other. That meant sport and lots of it.
The brothers honed each other’s skills with hours of kick-to-kick and net practice. “Jason reckons I never managed to bowl him out in the nets, and he’s probably right,” says Warne. Their father, once a handy footballer, liked tennis and swimming more than cricket, but played alongside the boys until they outclassed him.
Shane was an all-rounder, but even as a schoolboy-footballer he showed the loner instincts associated with his favourite games, cricket and golf – and, later, poker. He played with the St Kilda under-19s, but coaches decided his talent lay in his strong hands, not his slow feet.
As a schoolboy-cricketer he was a batsman who could bowl – an all-round ability that had won him a scholarship to Mentone Grammar. The school’s director of cricket told Shaun Graf,
“It’s deceptive; Warne seems like one of us but isn’t really”
St Kilda’s captain-coach, about the tubby kid who could not only bat but bowl.
Someone suggested wily veteran spinner Graham Smith might help the rookie’s technique. Smith watched the boy bowl a few balls and deadpanned: “He might be able to help me.”
IT WAS A POST-WAR love story. Brigitte Szczepiak, the migrant girl, married Keith Warne, the almost-dinkum Aussie (his mother was English, his father from the outback) on her 21st birthday. Shane was born two years later in 1969.
Keith had been a cane cutter, fruit picker and rice bagger but quit the road to return to his father’s Coburg garage. He liked cars but grew tired of being a grease monkey and talked his way into an accounts job at the H.G. Palmer electrical store in Flinders Lane. That’s where he met the blonde girl with the tricky surname, working a ledger machine.
She had stepped off a migrant ship in 1950 with her sister and parents, refugees from Germany. Growing up on a dairy farm near Apollo Bay, Brigitte was brought up milking cows. She left school at 14 to work in a pub and then made her way to Melbourne.
JOHN DACRES THICKNESSE, known as “Thickers” in the press boxes of every Test cricket nation, looked to be everything “Warnie”, the ear-ringed Aussie, was not.
But Thicknesse, an Oxbridge man in a linen suit and Panama, was delighted by the whiz kid on his first Test tour in 1993. The friendly Warne talked cricket to him for nearly an hour. Thicknesse was impressed but not completely unscathed: the cheerful Aussie botted a heap of cigarettes.
Another journalist, Jana Wendt, would say it was “uncommonly easy to like Warne and a little harder to explain why”. She also noted that he used words like “stupid”, “dumb” and “dummy” about himself.
Warne is too smart to claim a big intellect, but those who know him say he has a gambler’s nerve, survivor’s cunning and performer’s timing.
When actor-writer Eddie Perfect staged Shane Warne: The Musical, Warne went to the opening, smiled and applauded. Instead of coming across as a surly prima donna, he played the good bloke who accepted being the butt of a two-hour joke.
Simon O’donnell, who played both AFL and Test cricket before succumbing to breeding horses, says Warne “is the smartest ‘dumb’ bloke I know”.
O’donnell recalls Warne rushing from the commentary box during a Sydney Test to fit in a televised “master class”. Warne pulled off his business shirt and tie and put on a Wide World of Sports polo shirt above his suit trousers and “car-salesman shoes”. He put three markers on the pitch: one for each of his pet shots. Then he stepped off his mark and hit all three spots with consecutive balls, live to camera, explaining it as he went.
“It was the most extraordinary thing,” recalls O’donnell. “Glenn Mcgrath didn’t have that much control. No one did.”
Warne fits O’donnell’s theory that cricketers are “nicer blokes” than footballers. You don’t see “packs of cricketers” causing trouble, he says. They aren’t herd animals.
Spin bowling is cricket’s loneliest job, but Warne disguised it well. Watchers noticed that his corner of the changing room was the most cheerful; at functions he gleefully accepted drinks but discreetly poured most of them into pot plants. He was one of the boys without getting rat-faced to prove it.
A Warne confidant recalls him supporting Indian taxi drivers in Melbourne when they were under fire from the public. He was no doubt sincere, but news of his support – amplified by India’s domestic media – didn’t harm his business interests there. Likewise his decision to play Indian Premier League cricket. All part of a bigger game.
Still, Warne doesn’t always let business interfere with pleasure. He is a 9-handicap golfer and rates himself about the same in poker: good enough to mix it with the big stars but not yet to beat them.
A friend recalls him at a world tournament in Las Vegas – virtually unknown, but not intimidated by the likes of Mike Tyson, Hollywood stars and others who follow big-time poker.
“They’re back at the hotel with all the big names, and the professional card sharps are doing tricks, but Warnie isn’t fazed. He does a card trick – then a smoke trick – then says, ‘See ya, boys,’ and walks away, cool as you like.”
“It’s easy to like Warne and a little harder to explain why”