The following speech was made by Australian Test cricketer Ed Cowan at the launch of Gideon Haigh’s new book, On Warne.
Can I just say what a treat it is to finally be welcomed to Como Park? This is actually the second book launch with which I have been associated here but as many of you know, the first one I have actually attended. Somewhat embarrassingly, I had to sadly send three proxies last year to help launch my own book In The Firing Line, as I was whisked off at the last minute to play a tour game against the New Zealanders—the beginning of a path that led indirectly to my opening the batting for Australia on Boxing Day. Most people like to use the past to predict the future. Is it too early (or late) to suggest a Cowan/Haigh partnership against Sri Lanka come December 26?
My own experiences of Warnie, the subject of Gideon’s new book, are limited. I have played against him but never faced him. I have been in a room with him on a dozen occasions, although it has always surprised me that he is the one to come up and say g’day. As a young cricketer, I was once 13th man at the SCG in the dead rubber of a Test series and surprised he stubbed out his ciggies on the history-laden table that sits in the change room. The only thing he required of me each morning was to run him out a coke—in a Gatorade bottle—and three Nurofen, to help cure what seemed like a hangover.
That is not to say I don’t feel like I know him. We all do, don’t we? Our imaginations are overrun with Warnisms and stories. The ‘where were you’ moments that you vividly remember? Elite company; man landing on the moon, JFK being shot, the death of Lady Diana, 9/11 and Warnie’s 700th Test wicket.
When I first heard from Gideon that he was going to write a book about Warne, I was initially surprised. It was very un-Gideon. His interests, as we all know, could hardly be described as ‘mainstream’: he is an old mind in a young body living in a new world—73000 handcrafted pages on the history of the office; pure joy in bringing essays to the world of the administrative struggles of the ICC; a beautiful book about another Australian leg spinner—this time, unknown and forgotten—Jack Iverson.
Gideon is not just a journalist, author or wordsmith, he is a teacher. When I read anything he has written, I expect to learn something. He usually informs me of people I did not know existed or describes events I did not notice at the time. I was a little concerned that his new subject, Shane Warne, might fail to deliver such an education—he was the most talked about, written about, watched, imagined, imitated, pored over cricketer not only of the modern generation but perhaps since Bradman. Surely there was nothing left to tell. I knew it all already. Had Gideon finally sold himself out to the mainstream? Shane Warne…really? I was left in a state of confusion.
I mentioned this to Gids, and he just muttered the words, ‘trust me, this one intrigues me’. I think he saw it as a test—of taking what we know and making us re-think. Gids it seems wanted to write the unwritable—which sounds ridiculous when talking about Warnie—but there must be a reason why no one in his echelon of cricket writer had attempted it. He was on a hiding to nothing. It could only be boring or speculative. We were meant to know the rest.
What Gideon has given us, in my opinion, is his best book yet. It struck me almost immediately that this is not a cricket book. It is a book about a man who played cricket. What Gideon has on his side is perspective; he is not a cricket journalist, but a man who writes about cricket. This is not a biography, but an examination of his art, his relationships, and his place in our lives. It is a social snapshot of our time, our culture—cricket and otherwise—and how Shane Warne helped sculpt it. This book gives Shane Warne context. It goes beyond ‘when’, and asks ‘how’ and ‘why’. That is what makes this book so enjoyable—it does not fill in the gaps on our knowledge of Warne, but creates new layers.
How has Gideon managed to do this? My take on it it that the answer is here at Como Park. He still plays the game. Counter-intuitively so much about describing ‘why’ is done through feel. Of battling to find the answer yourself on a Tuesday and Thursday evening, so that it can attempted, perhaps even perfected, on a Saturday. The challenge of creating vivid descriptions and analysis about cricket is to translate what you feel into words.
Perhaps that is why retired players now commentating lose their way the further they get away from their playing days. They are simply forgetting how it feels when the uncoiling of wrists and impact of the ball are in harmony to create the perfectly timed cover drive. I have a theory that the best coaches were most often average players. Nothing came easily to them, so they had to learn to find a way, often describing these battles to others. The same can be said i think of commentator and writers. Not trying to discredit Gideon’s cricket credentials, but I dare say if the game came more freely to him, then we would be deprived of his brilliant descriptions and analysis. It is as though cricket journalists are the coaches of public opinion. This is why Roebuck and even Mark Nicholas, had the ability to outshine Chappell and Grieg with the pen and microphone. Cricket was hard work for them, as I know it is often for Gideon. Thankfully writing for him is not. That is why his fusion of cricket experiences and writing talent make the perfect match.
In a sense, Warnie and Gids are more similar to each other than you might expect. Apart from being a definitive character in their respective fields, what you expect and what you get are poles apart. Before I met Gideon, I expected him to be a mid 60s man with a penchant for sports coats. Clearly I was wrong. I expected verbose and over-powering in opinion. What I got was a direct and heartfelt listener. A man of the people.
Warnie, referred to by cricketers as ‘The King’, I expected to be brash and loud and rude. Too big to give me the time of day. When I met him, he was the first person I can genuinely say had a tangible positive aura about them. Perception and reality are not as often closely linked as we like to think. Perhaps that is what drew Gideon subconsciously to the subject. He could see a bit of himself in Warne or vice versa. What ever the reason or motivation, one thing is for sure: We are left with a masterpiece of a book.