The hole and the monolith: Shane Warne and his MCG grandstand
By Daniel Brettig
Shane Warne signs autographs during Victoria’s Sheffield Shield match against New South Wales at the SCG in December 1993.Credit:Mark Ray
Thirty-two summers ago, half the MCG was a hole in the ground. The gulf was commensurate with Australia’s search for a leg-spinner of top quality, more or less unrequited since the retirement of Richie Benaud in 1964.
There was to be a cosmic symmetry to how those two gaping holes were filled: the MCG was to witness the construction, completion and celebration of the Great Southern Stand in about the same length of time it took for Shane Warne to go from the outer fringes of the Victorian squad to the centre of world cricket.
That the stand is now named after Warne, following his death earlier this year, is altogether fitting, as the two monoliths took shape in something like parallel.
Watching Warne closest of all were his Victorian teammates, members of a squad that had lifted the Sheffield Shield in that 1990-91 season when workers threw the ball back from behind the fence where the stand was being built.
For many, their first meeting with Warne had taken place the previous year, when he was invited to state training and made an immediate impression, less with the fizz of his leg break than with the plonk of fast bowlers smashing his stumps.
“No one has ever been bowled more times in one net session,” Damien Fleming recalls. “Richard McCarthy and Denis Hickey are just knocking him over repeatedly, and that makes noise when the ball hits the stumps. John Chambers, our chairman of selectors, was standing behind him. He looked a bit like WC Fields and had a real chortle as a laugh, and ‘Warnie’ was getting bowled that much.
“The back of the Albert nets weren’t tightly knitted nets, so the stumps would get caught in the netting, so it took a long time to get them out of that. After about the fifth time he’s stopped actually going to get the stumps, so he’s left with one, and then John’s gone ‘ohh, better get those two stumps back in there, young fella’.”
Shaky beginnings aside, teammates agree that Warne always had charisma. He was, even before he had played a handful of Shield games, among the biggest characters in the squad. Part of this was drawn from his time at the edges of St Kilda’s V/AFL squad and a friendship with Craig Devonport – the pair would leave teammates shaking their heads by cruising down the Nepean Highway and calling each other from their car phones at each set of traffic lights.
“‘Chuck’ [Darren] Berry was at Warnie’s house and we were going to the Star Bar. I was with ‘Devo’ and Chuck’s with Warnie,” Fleming says. “This is when car phones had just come in. We’re in these hotted-up cars because they had to have the best cars. And on the Nepean highway there’s so many lights.
“Every time we get to a light, one would ring the other. ‘G’day mate, how you going, I’m going to beat you at this one’. So they’d race to the next lights, and keep ringing each other. Me and Chuck are just looking across at each other. I just vividly remember that.”
The old Southern Stand and its Bay 13 had been ceremoniously demolished with the help of Sir Richard Hadlee in late 1990, in a nod to his treatment by spectators in that very bay. By the time of the 1991-92 season, the new stand and its amphitheatre effect on the MCG were closing in on completion.
Mike Gatting stands in disbelief after falling victim to Shane Warne’s “ball of the century” in 1993.Credit:Popperfoto
Warne, too, announced himself to Victoria’s players with a dismissal that stuck with them much more assuredly than anything he was to do on Test debut against India in Sydney a few weeks later. It was when bowling to Jamie Siddons, who had moved from Victoria to South Australia that winter.
“Jamie was like the tree cutter lopping down trees for spin bowling all around Australia,” Fleming says. “One of the first shots I ever saw Jamie play was hitting Tim May inside out over cover for six at the MCG.
“So Warnie’s bowling to Jamie and I’m at point thinking ‘this is only going to go one way’. But not only did he get him out, he just did him in the air. Jamie got stumped down the leg side by Chuck. That was so significant that a young leg spinner had dismissed the spin slayer. He’d not just dismissed him, he did him all ends up …”
Moments like that help to define a cricketer in the eyes of teammates. The braggadocio, the fashion sense, the words out of turn – none of these things matter quite so much once a player’s cricketing qualities have been glimpsed properly.
Warne, like the Great Southern Stand, was getting it all together. The Victorians listened intently to his 7-52 against the West Indies on radio from Shield training in Hobart.
“Even if you’d told me in 1992-93 that he was going to be one of the greatest leg spinners of all-time, I wouldn’t have truly believed,” Fleming says. “But then the Boxing Day Test happens. We were down in Hobart for a Shield game, at training the day before, and we were listening to the last day of the Test on the radio. We wouldn’t have done that much at all, but he was only a few Tests in, very popular and we wanted him to do well.
“When he gets that seven-for it was ‘oh this has changed’, and it’s not against a fledgling nation, it’s against the best in the world. That flipper itself that he’d been working on, it’s got out Richie Richardson. We were just pumped listening to that. We didn’t even do that for Merv [Hughes] or ‘Deano’ [Jones] as they were pretty established, but for Warnie it was special.”
That summer, with Warne away on Australian duty, Victoria’s selectors tried another wrist-spinner. Craig Howard was 18, tall, wiry and with few batting or fielding pretensions. But his wrong’un was like a gift from heaven or a curse from hell, depending on whether you were an opposing batter.
Howard found himself training, playing and rooming alongside Warne just as all the components coalesced into the legend. They worked in tandem either side of the epochal 1993 Ashes tour and the Gatting ball.
“Incredibly fortunate. I didn’t realise at the time how lucky I was. No one does at that age,” Howard reflects. “Because I was the leg-spinner I roomed with him and got to know him. I got to hear how often he talked to his family on the phone and just how much he loved them.
“And from my point of view as a teammate, he would just give you everything. There were times when we were both on and feeling a million dollars where it would have been fun to watch. Especially on some of the wearing training wickets and the ball’s spinning past the bat every two balls.”
For Fleming, who missed a few early season games with a hamstring issue, the arrival of what he calls “Terminator” Warne, back from England and fully matured as a leg-spinner, was as revelatory as the night the Great Southern Stand was officially opened, ushering in more than 87,000 to the MCG for the 1992 World Cup final.
“He was a superstar character, he just needed his cricket to catch up to it.” Shane Warne with Michael Hutchence in 1993.Credit:Getty Images
“Merv was always our enforcer, our man who was going to get into the opposition, intimidate them and then me, ‘Pistol’ [Paul Reiffel], ‘Doddy’ [Tony Dodemaide] would just go about our work,” Fleming says. “But Warnie just took over that role. Even though you’ve got me and Pistol playing, Warnie’s our alpha male in the lineup and he’s into them physically and verbally, which stood out for me.
“We’ve got this Dennis Lillee, Merv Hughes-type enforcer, who’s bowling leg-spin. Leg-spinners, you felt sorry for them, you were hoping they’d do well. But we’ve got this charismatic guy, and the sheer quality of the bowling. It was just insane to see where he got to by the end of the 1993 Ashes.”
Howard, Fleming and others agree that they were privileged to watch Warne up close when he put on one of his great performances in a non-televised match – the second of two full-strength Sheffield Shield games between Victoria and New South Wales in the first half of the 1993-94 season.
Warne had already made a few waves that summer. He encircled Western Australia at the MCG, plucking 6-42 while flummoxing players as good as Tom Moody and Damien Martyn. Then he rumbled through New Zealand in Hobart and Brisbane, scooping 17 wickets in consecutive Tests.
In the words of his captain Dean Jones at the time: “I’m not that worried about how many wickets he takes but it’s his sense of being off the ground with the team. It’s been sensational. He’s accepting the fact that he’s become a senior player. He’s urging everyone on and he just won’t back off. He just loves to have a tussle. The way he’s come on in 12 months is phenomenal.”
NSW, though, was different.
“Full-strength NSW v Victoria was like a war,” Fleming says. “It was tough, always a lot of Australian players playing. The Blue Baggers, they were arrogant, they were sledgers, they had a lot of faith in their ability, and they liked to intimidate you when you were batting or even when you were bowling.
“There were crowds at Shield games and they were into you as well. I think it was this game where, U2 had released Zooropa that year, and one bloke every now and then would just yell out ‘Flemmo’, like Bono singing Lemon. I remember Pistol laughing at that.”
Watching on day two, Howard got a glimpse of Warne’s sheer determination to find a way through a team comprised of most of his Test teammates.
“He was just battling, they weren’t coming out right, so he started bowling this crappy off-spin to Mark Taylor, just to try something different,” Howard remembers. “He bowled one about a metre outside off stump, and Taylor somehow dragged it onto the stumps.
The Shane Warne Stand is unveiled at his memorial service, March 30, 2022.Credit:Eddie Jim
“In that moment Shane was just up and about, and then to Phil Emery he ripped a leg break, got him lbw and he was away. He ended up taking five-for in that innings and it was that ability to find a way.”
Five wickets taken in spite of a century from Mark Waugh that featured masterful play of Warne, whether finding avenues to score or using his pads to be impervious whenever the spinner pitched outside leg stump. Suitably impressed, Warne remarked after play that his opponent was, “bar none”, the best in the world.
“He’s just dominating this full-on NSW attack, apart from Mark Waugh. Two unbelievably gifted cricketers at their peak and the other 20 players just along for the ride really. Genius taking on genius,” Fleming says.
“I couldn’t believe how much he was just into them. And every ball had power behind it, and bitingly sharp drop and spin. It was great, because besides Mark Waugh, who makes this sublime 119, I just remember at mid-off, I barely fielded a ball for the whole game off a leggie, which was insane.”
Fleming did finally get to field a ball in the second innings, when Warne finally deceived Waugh and drew a skier that the swing man did awfully well to catch, running back with the flight. It was one of many arresting moments on a day when Warne and NSW hurled everything at one another.
On an overcast final day, Warne was everywhere. In rain breaks he could be seen signing countless autographs, and at one point even dressed up as an umpire to go out and try cajoling the ground staff into a resumption.
When they did, the game whirred towards a frantic conclusion. All results were possible as the light began to fade.
“The umpires offered the light to Glenn McGrath and they took it,” Howard says. “I just remember how much it hurt him. I’m pretty sure a glass fridge might’ve copped it when he came into the rooms. He’d built it up against his mates in the Aussie team and that sort of stuff. He was absolutely sapped of all will and competitiveness and so frustrated he couldn’t win a game for Victoria. That said everything about him.”
Something else, too, said a lot about Warne. It related back to the return fixture in Melbourne a few weeks before.
“We won with a no-ball,” Howard says. “We were nine down and I was batting with Warnie. We needed two to win, he got run out and Simon Cook came out. It was two runs for a no-ball and I remember thinking ‘imagine if he bowled a no-ball’. So I looked down at the crease as the non-striker and he bowled a no-ball.
“So I looked at the umpire and said ‘he bowled a no-ball!’ and the umpire said ‘no he didn’t’. Next ball I looked down again and he bowled another no-ball, and he didn’t call it again and I just said ‘he’s bowling no-balls’. The very next ball he bowled it and smashed Simon, plumb in front and the arm came out for the no-ball. I walked off and told a few people.
“The coach at the time, because it was home umpires at that stage, said ‘make sure you tell them the balls before were no-balls as well’. So I think I did a TV interview where I told them that.”
Shane Warne is given a standing ovation after claiming his 700th Test wicket at the MCG on Boxing Day 2006.Credit:Fairfax
Howard’s role in the no-ball call went down predictably badly with the Blues. Warne’s reaction to the NSW attack on Howard, however, has always stayed with him.
“When we played them the next game, when I came out to bat I got met, just got abused by everyone,” Howard recalls. “And Wayne Holdsworth was bowling absolute thunderbolts in there too. So they were telling him to run through the crease and beam me and all that sort of stuff, big mouthing.
“But that’s another true test of Warnie’s teammateship. He went into their rooms after that night and absolutely reamed them for getting stuck into me. I was only 19 at the time, and he stuck up for me. It’s another example of what an amazing teammate he was.”
Warne’s achievements, great as they were, can sometimes feel as though they were inevitable. Certainly some of their telling has the air of fate. But in the span of his evolution from 1991 to 1993 there is something magical, unexplainable and dramatic. It was all so very unlikely.
“Going through it and thinking about it you just go ‘wow’,” Fleming ponders. “It is a Hollywood story. Looking back to the bloke who rocks up at training. No one knows him but he had the charisma. He was a superstar character, he just needed his cricket to catch up to it.
“He was never a gym head, but he loved training in the nets. He loved the competition at training. That skilful side he had with his footy, cricket is a very skill-based game. And through sheer work and good advice he mastered leg-spin. But how it happened that quickly is still mind-boggling to me.”
The Shane Warne Stand, then, is still more fitting than first meets the eye. There was a hole in the ground, and then there was a monolith.
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