Shane Warne reckons he’s noticed something about Rashid Khan. Perhaps it’s simply the idle rumination of a mind that never stops whirring. Perhaps it’s evidence that, when it comes to spin bowling geniuses, it takes one to know one. Either way, it’s worth hearing.
“If he plays a day game,” Warne observes of the 20-year-old Afghan spinner commonly recognised as the world’s best short-form bowler, “he gets hammered. But if he plays at night, they can’t pick him as much, because he’s got such a quick arm. This is something I tell young spinners. If you bowl with the sun behind you, it’s a lot harder to pick. It sounds weird. But I promise you: it’s so much clearer the other way.”
Were one of your mates to advance this theory in the pub, you would most likely scoff disdainfully before telling them to get another round in. But of course, the beauty is that it’s not your mate in the pub, but the greatest spin bowler of our lifetime. And when the greatest spin bowler of our lifetime advances a theory, no matter how extrinsically outlandish, it doesn’t pay to dismiss it out of hand. It may be 12 years since his last game for Australia, six since he last tossed a slider in anger. He’s 50 in September and the odd crease is beginning to form around his eyes. But when it comes to the art and the science of the world’s greatest game, the mind is still as sharp and as fiercely original, as it ever was.
For those of us who have never faced Warne as a batsman, it’s tempting to wonder whether facing him as an interviewer offers an analogous experience. Over the course of a 40-minute chat, you get the full repertoire: the stock delivery, the conventional spin, the familiar blend of bluster and bravado, and then the occasional flipper or wrong’un that catches you entirely off-guard.
Like when he suggests that Khan’s team Afghanistan – the lowest ranked-side and 80-1 outsiders at this summer’s World Cup in England – should be considered as legitimate contenders. “If they can make some runs,” he says, warming to his theme, “with their bowling, and if it’s a hot summer, and the wickets spin, people won’t want to play against them.”
Warne is trying to make the point that the fourth and final semi-final place this summer is pretty much a toss-up. He has England and India down as the two favourites. “This is the best chance England have that I’ve seen in recent times,” he says. “I love the style of cricket they play. And anyone with Virat Kohli in their side has to be a chance.” The fourth semi-finalist, he says, could be literally anyone. Afghanistan. The West Indies. South Africa. Pakistan. New Zealand are always “there or thereabouts”.
The third spot, meanwhile? Warne is reasonably confident that it will be filled by Australia.
Until a couple of weeks ago, this was the sort of claim that would readily have been attributed to green-and-gold-tinted patriotism. Since beating Pakistan in the 2016-17 home summer, Australia had gone six series without a win in 50-over cricket. They were thumped by New Zealand, by India, twice by England, dumped out of the Champions Trophy at the group stage, beaten at home by South Africa and India. When they lost their first two ODIs in India earlier this month, their record read an abysmal four wins in 29 matches.
But then something strange happened. In Ranchi, Aaron Finch and Usman Khawaja piled on 193 for the first wicket and Australia scraped home. In Chandigarh, an astonishing unbeaten 84 by Ashton Turner saw them chase down 359. And then in Delhi, Nathan Lyon and Adam Zampa spun them to a remarkable 35-run victory in a low-scoring game. Suddenly, Australia were no longer enfants terribles of the ODI game. They were the team who had just overturned a 2-0 deficit to claim their first win in India for nine years.
Warne reckons – of course he does – that he saw the turnaround coming. “I mean, Australia have been pretty ordinary for the last 12 months,” he grants. “They’ve played poorly. But just towards the back end of the Australian summer, a few of the players started to play well. Suddenly, there’s a bit of fear again about playing Australia. No-one has feared Australia – in any format – over the last 12 months. Now, there’s a bit of worry. I think Australia have just started to believe they can win again.
“You look back and – well, Australia’s played in five of the last six World Cup finals, and won four. They perform really well in big tournaments. You add [Steve] Smith and [David] Warner back into that side. They won the last time it was in England [in 1999]. I think they’re going to give it a shake.”
Now, form is one thing. But history – and ancient history at that, given how much the ODI game has evolved since the 1990s? Can that still be relevant to an entirely new generation? Warne believes it can. “It’s like winning your first golf major,” he explains. “Once they win one, they get on a roll and win a few. In my time, we were terrible in 1992, in 1996 we made the final, and suddenly we found what we needed to do to win. What it took in those tough moments.”
At which stage, it seems only fair to point out that any team boasting Warne, Ricky Ponting, Steve Waugh, Michael Bevan, Glenn McGrath and Adam Gilchrist was always going to have a reasonable chance. “It’s more than that,” Warne insists. “It’s a sense of belief. If you believe, sometimes pure will gets you over the line. Go back to the IPL in 2008. We had the worst players. But there was a belief.”
He’s referring here to his stint as captain and coach of the Rajasthan Royals in the inaugural season of the Indian Premier League, which for all he achieved in the international game remains one of his proudest achievements. While most of the teams stuffed their squad with icon players and marquee signings, Rajasthan – the smallest of the eight franchises – was assembled on a relative pittance, relying on bargain basement players like Sohail Tanvir and Dimitri Mascarenhas. Their shock victory ignited the new tournament. “It gave the IPL credibility,” Warne says. “Like Leicester with the footy. Everyone loves an underdog story.”
And now, he’s back in Rajasthan colours. Not as a player or a captain or a coach, but as an ambassador: lending his star wattage to a new cricket academy that the Royals are opening in Surrey, the first IPL academy to be opened outside India. The goal, Warne explains, is as much about education as it is about finding the next Buttler or Bumrah. “We’re seeing the knife epidemic at the moment,” he says. “There was the acid thing a few years ago. There’s got to be some places for kids to go. You might identify a 13- or 14-year-old and who knows? They get involved with a club, a county, and they might become an England player.”
As for Warne himself, he’s got plenty on the go. “I still love the game,” he says. “I’ve got my cricket commentary, I’ve got poker, I’ve got some sponsorship work, I’m a father, I’ve got a few business interests, I’m working with the Royals. Sitting on the World Cricket Committee was really interesting this year. So I’ve got a really good, diverse structure.”
And so as long as there’s blood in his veins, the cogs will keep turning. A few hours later, when you’re playing back the tape and jotting down a few thoughts, you remember to go and look up Rashid Khan’s career statistics on Cricinfo. And there it is, in black and white: in T20 internationals, his economy rate is 6.17 in day games and 5.64 at night. In one-day internationals, it’s 4.09 in the day and 3.59 at night. His average is a full four runs lower, too. And you think: fair play, Warney. He’s not often wrong.
The Independent spoke to Rajasthan Royals Brand Ambassador Shane Warne at the launch of the team’s UK Academy