Shane Warne has little or no time for swaggering English predictions, as ventured by his old mate Sir Ian “Beefy” Botham, that England will hammer Australia five-nil in the forthcoming Ashes series. Indeed, he meets the English “spouting off”, as he calls it, with some robust forecasting of his own.
“I think Australia will surprise England,” he says. “The Ashes always brings out the best in both teams. No matter how badly they’ve been playing, they almost always produce something special. Go back to 1981, when Beefy performed so well, and which always gets shown here when it’s raining… which is often.”
Warne knows more about the English weather than most men raised in the Melbourne suburb of Ferntree Gully, for he now lives with his fiancée Elizabeth Hurley in a stately pile in Herefordshire. He laughs, though, when I ask if he’s working at being a country squire? “My children and I, we’re Aussie through and through. I enjoy the house in England, but it’s in my DNA to be an Aussie larrikin.”
The 43-year-old ternal larrikin is also, of course, one of the greatest cricketers ever, having practically reinvented and certainly repopularised the dark arts of leg-spin. Moreover, of his 708 Test victims, 195 were Englishmen. No bowler on either side of the fray has been remotely as successful in the Ashes.
So, although I’m keen to steer our conversation back to his life in Britain with Liz Hurley, and to the “makeover” she is said to have initiated, I’m even keener for him to expand on his view that Australia could spring a surprise. Does that extend to the Aussies actually winning?
“It’s hard to judge right now,” he says. “If [England fast bowler] Jimmy Anderson turns an ankle or [Australian captain and leading bats- man] Michael Clarke is not available with his back problems, it could all change. All things being equal, then sure, you’d be barking mad not to say England are favourites. But that doesn’t mean Australia can’t win.”
Any Australian side lacking SK Warne is diminished, but Warne loyally talks up the off- spinner, Nathan Lyon, and lavishes praise on leg-spinner Fawad Ahmed, the former asylum- seeker from Pakistan who is completing his citizenship papers, but might yet be called up.
So once Ahmed has an Australian passport, will Warne consider him as Aussie as anyone else? A mirthless chuckle. “If you want to go down that road, England wouldn’t have had a team for the past 20 years. Even now the team’s full of South Africans. It’d be a bit hypocritical for anyone English to say we’ve got a Pakistani.”
Fair enough. Warne is an engaging interviewee, candid and generous with his time, but it is also good to get a taste of the combative side that served him so well as a player. In fact, let’s get back to his playing days. What were his more memorable sledges – cricketing jargon for the verbal baiting at which Warne excelled – against England?
He laughs. “Sledging was just part of the package. If all you do is shoot your mouth off, like some players have over the years, then you soon get found out. In my case, I used my brain, I used psychology, I tried to intimidate, but I backed it up with my skill.”
There are plenty of cricket enthusiasts who consider sledging to be contrary to the spirit of the game, but in a sense it’s just a verbal manifestation of the psychological warfare that great cricketers have always waged. And now that Warne has hung up his boots, his mastery of psychology, honed on the world’s cricket grounds, stands him in good stead at the world’s poker tables. “I’ve played cards all my life: kalooki, canasta, poker.
My mum and dad used to have card nights, not for money, but just for fun with their friends. Me and my brother grew up with those games, and for the past six years I’ve played tournament poker. I’m the face of 888 poker and captain of their world team, and when you sit at a table with ten people you don’t know, what you have to do is analyse them in the first 15 or 20 minutes. You look around and decide who’s saved money all year, who doesn’t care, who’s there for a fun weekend with his mates, who’s a pro, who’s a bit timid. You have to work all that out quickly and then play for 12 hours a day so patience is key. I love it. I have a lot of weaknesses, but one of my strengths is I can analyse people pretty quickly.”
As for those weaknesses, some of them are showcased in Shane Warne: the Musical, which is still playing to packed houses down under. There is a long, low exhalation of breath when I mention it. “Yeaahh. Look, when it started five years ago, I supported it. Until I get more feedback, I haven’t really got an opinion this year.”
One reason for his circumspection is that the musical has been revised to include references to Hurley, and to his startling physical transformation from, as some have claimed, larrikin to waxwork. Warne vehemently denies that he’s had any work done.
“People can say whatever they want. I’m supposed to have had facelifts, injections in my head, liposuction, new teeth… but I can guarantee you right now that I have not been under a surgeon’s knife. All that happened was that I had my own TV show, and when I saw myself I said, ‘Jeez, I’ve put on a bit.’ So I decided to get fit, which coincided with meeting Elizabeth. And she eats very healthily, so now I do, too.
Don’t believe in those conspiracy theories. I have a good diet, I’ve lost a bit of weight and I’m happy, that’s why I look different.”
Aside from his commentary duties and various business interests, which includes a Shane Warne clothing range, he also has three children on whom he dotes, with his ex-wife Simone.
“They’re 16, 14 and nearly 12, and every five weeks or so I go to Australia for three weeks, then the kids come over here. I have them for between 130 and 150 days a year, which is pretty good for a working dad. Elizabeth’s son is 11, and integrating our families is very important to us.” And when will Herefordshire’s least likely squire actually tie the knot? “We haven’t set a date yet, but soon we will,” he says.
For now, though, the dates in his diary are of the summer’s five Ashes Tests. So, if I were to hand him £10,000 to wager, how would he use it? An uncharacteristic pause. “Well, I love a punt. I can’t give you a definitive answer until I know the teams. But I’d get pretty good odds on Australia to win 2–1, and I like value for money. So let’s go with that.”
How to watch: Every day’s play will be broadcast live on Sky Sports 2/HD, which has been renamed Sky Sports Ashes for the rest of the summer. Channel 5 will also show an hour’s highlights of each day’s play at 7pm.