Heroes Are Only Human

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AFTER THE BALL: Foolish off the field, phenomenal on it

Shane Warne retires this week. this may mean nothing to you, but it means a lot to me. Warne is an Australian cricketer, one of the greatest in the history of the game and a revolutionary in his own way. In cricket there are two types of bowlers: fast and slow. The former tend to blast batsmen out with pace, the latter to bamboozle them, spinning the ball off the pitch so as to deceive and induce batsmen into a false shot. In the 1970s and '80s, when I was a kid growing up in Australia, my friends and I idolized the quickies, most of them from the unbeatable West Indian team that dominated the era. Tall, toned, with a swagger and menacing smirk that spoke straight to a 13-year-old boy, the finest fast bowlers were as cool as we could ever hope to be.

And then along came Warne. From his international debut in 1992, the stocky blond-haired Australian almost single-handedly made spin-bowling fashionable again, reviving the arcane and difficult craft of leg spin-bowling (in which spin is imparted mostly through a snap of the wrist rather than via the fingers) and proving that slow bowlers can be just as aggressive and flamboyant as the fast men. In the years after Warne hit the big time, kids in backyards across the cricketing world stopped trying to fling the ball as fast as they could and began learning the subtler art of spin-bowling. His skill — and his appeal — was not just in bowling his opponents out, but in cajoling them, getting under their skins, berating them and ultimately outsmarting them. Sometimes a microphone on the ground would pick up Warne telling a young opponent what he thought of their technique. "You have no idea, mate," was a common phrase. Yes, it was arrogant. But often it was also true.

He never stopped. With the ball in Warne's hand you felt that Australia were always in with a chance of winning. Even when you didn't, he still did. In a match against England two months ago that looked headed for a boring draw (on the morning of the last day, bookmakers had the odds of an Australia victory at around 50-1), Warne engineered one of the most remarkable wins ever, attacking batsman after batsman until one after another they raised the white flag and surrendered.

No wonder I ached to hear the great man was stepping down. We are unlikely to see Warne's kind again. He is a phenomenon, unique, and it seems natural to recognize the fact that his passing will leave cricket fans the poorer. But it's more than just that. We love our greatest athletes because they remind us of what we are not: artful, instinctive, faultless. In their most sublime moments — think a Nadia Comaneci routine, a Michael Jordan leap, a Tiger Woods swing, a Zinédene Zidane pass — sportsmen and women seem to channel the divine, so perfect are their skills.

Off the field, though, their humanity all too often pokes through. We know — how could we not in these days of blanket coverage? — that even the greatest stars have faults. Warne epitomizes this sad fact better than most. His off-field antics sometimes seem lifted from a soap opera script: fined for giving a bookmaker information about "weather conditions"; suspended for using a banned drug that can mask steroid use; divorced after a series of lurid extramarital affairs. Little wonder that Warne's early teammates nicknamed him Hollywood. He is, noted cricket writer Peter Roebuck recently, "an unusual blend of immaturity and insight."

While Warne was playing we could forgive him his faults because he was so brilliant at his game. But when he finally goes — when any of our heroes step down — we are left with memories, highlights of former glories and all the blemishes, with none of the moments of genius. Retirement makes mortal. You could feel the humanity creeping in when Zidane lost his cool in the dying seconds of his career last year and head butted an Italian opponent. Where were the finesse, the flair, the skills we had grown to love so much? Who was this thug laying out his opposite number? Zidane was changed already.

I like to think that decades from now I will tell my grandchildren about Warne, regaling them — perhaps even boring them — with tales of the bowler's relentless, ruthless ability. But there is part of me that wants them to be able to experience the drama and splendor for themselves. At his best Warne seemed immortal, as if he could play forever. In stopping, he becomes too much like us.