Almanac Book Extract: ‘Media and Me, by Warnie’ from ‘War Games’ by Ron Reed


With the permission of both Ron Reed and his publisher, Wilkinson Publishing, we present this extract from War Games.


Ron will be the special guest at our Almanac/Odd Friday Lunch. Details HERE.






It’s breakfast time on the morning before a Test match at the Gabba in Brisbane back in the nineties. The local paper, the Courier-Mail, is running a column to which, for some trivial reason both of us have long since forgotten, Shane Warne has taken exception.


My phone rings. It’s the Australian team’s media manager Patrick Keane, inquiring whether I would be coming to training because, if so, ‘the leg-spinner would like a word.’ The ‘word’ was unlikely to be all that cordial – Warnie was probably not about to invite me out for lunch (although as later events proved, I could have been wrong there) because at that stage of his stupendous career, and for the majority of it fact, the relationship between him and most of the cricket media was often fragile and rarely stable. There were a handful of exceptions but I wasn’t usually one of them.


Keane was unkeen to have this play out in front of every other player, journalist and passer-by so he ushered us both into the unoccupied umpires’ dressing room, locked the door and said he would release us when we had sorted each other out. I have never heard of a sportsman-journalist one-on-one Q&A being conducted in this manner before or since. Other than Warne demanding to know why I appeared to be publicly barracking for the opposition at his expense, the exact thrust of the lively conversation that ensued has been well and truly lost in the mists of time, although we both recall the event clearly enough. ‘I remember being pissed off but not what it was all about,’ he laughed when we got together not long ago to reminisce. After we’d both had our say on that steamy morning, each running out of points to make, I said to him: ‘Shane, you’re not going to stop playing for Australia any time soon and I’m not going to stop writing about it, so why don’t we draw a line in the sand, start over and see where that gets us?’ ‘Sure,’ he said, shaking hands – and banging on the door to signal to Keane that a truce had been established and he needed to get back to the nets.


Some time later, Warne rang me himself. He invited me to join half a dozen other senior cricket writers for lunch at one of Melbourne’s best Chinese restaurants. The agenda was simple: why do I get such a hard time in the Press? A full and frank exchange of views followed, constructively and without hostility and it’s probably fair to say that from that day on relations improved. It was a smart move on his part, possibly inspired by an expert on such matters. At the height of his dissatisfaction with his public portrayal, he had consulted commentary doyen and former Test captain Richie Benaud, a lifelong professional journalist himself, and was told that if he had an issue with people who mattered to him, and who he respected, he should go and speak to them. If ‘they’ didn’t matter, don’t worry about them.


Hopefully that’s why we ended up in the umpires’ room in Brisbane.


Today, Warne is very much on the other side of the fence, spending much of his working time as a TV commentator – perhaps the best one in Australia, in my view, probably in a dead-heat with his old team-mate Ricky Ponting – as well as a very readable newspaper columnist, and a prolific user of social media, where he has well over a million followers around the world. He is deriving enjoyment and satisfaction from it, knowing that his opinions are well respected and more influential than most.


He appears to be on very good terms with most people who are part of his professional life, or used to be, and from where I sit it is a good example of how time often heals all wounds, and a welcome one.


But it has been a roller-coaster ride.


On one hand, Warne has been dream fodder for sportswriters, probably never surpassed in his capacity to provide good copy. He is, by some margin, the best-performed Australian sportsman of my time, and the one I most enjoyed watching. In any sport, not only cricket. His 705 wickets from 145 Tests and 293 from 194 one-day internationals is evidence enough of his superior status, but there’s much more to it than that.


He was just different, a one-off, with a confidence and charisma that would have set him apart even if he had been less successful. The skill he brought to the contest was both physical and psychological. He was a match-winner like no other Australian player of his generation – although he had some extremely influential team-mates who weren’t far behind – and everything he did on the field was usually interesting and often exciting, and everything he did off it was controversial, if not always in a good way. Not for him, anyway – but for compilers of news lists he was (and remains, for that matter) manna from heaven.


On the other hand, it wasn’t always easy treading the fine line between the on-field genius and the off-field larrikin. Not for him and not for those employed to observe him.


From almost the moment he arrived on the Test scene as a virtual unknown, overweight knockabout from Melbourne’s beachside suburbs, who would rather have been playing football for St Kilda, he was made to endure a level of scrutiny with few precedents for a sportsman not long out of his teens.


He readily admits that he made his fair share of mistakes coming to terms with it.


It was the early 1990s – he acquired his first baggy green cap against India in Sydney in 1992 – and attitudes were different, partly because social media wasn’t yet a ‘thing.’ Sportsmen and other celebrities didn’t have to worry so much about their public images being, well, quite so ‘public.’


There was (and probably still is) also a certain conservatism within what might be termed the Establishment cricket community that did not necessarily approve of some of Warne’s more baroque behaviour.


I was at dinner in the Melbourne Cricket Club committee room on one occasion when it was made clear around the table – off the record, of course – that there would be little support for any attempt to install him as Test captain, which was certainly a contingency favoured by a lot of other people.


That venerable old institution does not control cricket but it wields considerable influence among those who do, so that was a clear clue to where any such ambitions were destined to die. Warne never did captain the Test side, despite many believing – with considerable evidence to back them up – that he would have been an unqualified success at it, just as he was on the 11 occasions he was put in charge of the one-day team, winning 10 of them.


Then in 2001 the MCC appointed a panel of selectors to decide who should be immortalised in statue form around the MCG and in a split vote after lengthy argument it was decided to omit Warne.


This was largely my doing. As a member of the panel I suggested that as he was still playing it might be wise to wait until he had retired in case he still had an embarrassing scandal or two left in him. Hey presto – next thing we knew he had tested positive for a drug and been banned from cricket for a year, which made our decision look justified, inspired even.


The statues of Don Bradman, Keith Miller, Dennis Lillee, Bill Ponsford, Ron Barassi, Leigh Matthews, Dick Reynolds, Hadyn Bunton, Betty Cuthbert and Shirley Strickland-Delahunty were installed between 2003 and 2006, and then in 2011 more began to be added – and the first of those was, to unanimous approval, Shane Keith Warne, retired cricketer.


Now a long way into that retirement and having recently turned 50 – a reflective milestone for anybody – Warne comes across as a far more mellow version of the hell-raiser he was during his twenties and probably well into his thirties. Contentedly single and a father of three grown-up kids he adores, he is relaxed and comfortable, which is no surprise given that he continues to earn huge amounts of money just by talking and writing about the game that has always been his passion and because he no longer feels the need to worry about what people might think of him.


He used to, he admits.


While he was always admired and lionised for his ability to play Australia’s favourite sport – perhaps only the immortal Bradman did it better – there was always an element who viewed him as a bogan lair with whom they would prefer not to identify. He wasn’t a hero to everyone. And he couldn’t have not known that.


Asked if his public image was important to him, he pauses thoughtfully before replying: ‘I used to worry about it a lot more than I do now. When I was a young player trying to find my way, I did worry about what people thought about me. Not so much now because I am happy with who I am.


‘At 22 or 23 you’re still trying to find out who you are. You act on instinct, don’t think too far ahead. Kids changed me to some extent. If you’re a father you’re their hero. If I do something wrong, it’s like ‘my hero, my dad’s messed up and it’s hurt me.’


‘I was slow to mature, to grow up, and I’m still a big kid in a lot of ways. But through all the ups and downs, and luckily I’ve had a lot more ups than downs, I’ve become comfortable with who I am. If people say he’s a dickhead or a wanker, that’s OK. I’m not out to prove them wrong because I know I’m a good bloke. I’m pretty easy to deal with, pretty chilled about most things. Opinionated, yes. But a good father. I’ve had a pretty amazing life, so I’m lucky.


‘I’m not trying to impress anyone. If people like me, great. If they don’t, I don’t care. I think the more you understand how it works the more you realise that not everyone will like you, even if you’re the most likeable person in the world. It took me a long time to realise that before I stopped trying to make people like me.’


Warne says he has many acquaintances but only four or five close mates, people who would drop anything if he needed help and vice versa. One silver lining of his drugs crisis in 2003 was that he found out who those mates were and who were not. There were some surprises in both directions. ‘It was an interesting thing to go through,’ he says.


When he looks back at the Warnie of old there are … well, not exactly regrets, perhaps, but certainly elements that he would adjust if he had his time over. That includes the way he sometimes dealt with the media.


He has probably never really admitted this publicly before, but he says he definitely went through a stage where he got a bit too big for his boots. He wasn’t the first or the last sportsman guilty of that, of course,

‘At some stage during the mid-90s I became a bit of a big-head, a bit arrogant, cocky,’ he says. ‘I started to get a bit far ahead of myself. I got a bit like, well, fuck you blokes, stop nailing me, I’m just trying to win games for Australia.


‘The way I handled the media was a bit ordinary. I think I could have been a bit better than that. It became a bit like me versus them because I felt I was getting nailed all the time and some of the stuff was a bit unfair. Some of the off-field stuff was strictly untrue, just lies.’


He says he was forced to grow up in front of the camera – partly because he was signing lucrative sponsorship deals and had to submit to greater exposure to provide value to the brands – and had to learn to deal with it as he went along.


‘I wasn’t a pioneer because it was happening long before me but the level of attention on sportsmen in Australia, I think I was a bit ahead of the pack. I know we’ve always had big sportsmen but not on such a global scale, perhaps, and with all the new-age media there was just so much more stuff.


‘Everyone was trying to work out the balance between right and wrong. Is this newsworthy, is that newsworthy, what are we allowed to say?


‘I made some mistakes along the way but I think some of those mistakes were magnified. I saw other people doing similar stuff but nothing was ever said. I would get nailed for stuff, get crucified, and I’d go, ‘hang on, I don’t think I handled that well.’’


It wasn’t necessarily fair on the other side of the fence, either.


‘What some people get wrong,’ he said, ‘is that you bunch everyone in together and say those Press pricks but it’s not all of them, sometimes it’s just one or two.’


And, he discovered, the problem wasn’t always all that big anyway.


‘At one stage I decided I would read everything that was written about me and what I found was when family and friends would ring up and say ‘have you seen what so and so has written about you, he’s nailing you for this and that,’ and I’d have a look and it usually was never as bad as your friends thought.


‘If it was about cricket and factually wrong, I’d go and have a chat to the journalist and if they took offence or disagreed all I could say was that you’ve got it wrong.


‘If I’ve done the wrong thing and you nail me, that’s fine. But I don’t have to like you. If they get something wrong and I take the time to tell them and they say they’re standing by their source or just don’t believe me, I just move on. Next time they ask for an interview, you just say no.’


Unsurprisingly, Warne didn’t enjoy being taken advantage of when he was trying to do the right thing. Case in point: against England at the Gabba in 1994, he took his career-best figures of 8-71 in the second innings to give Australia a 1-0 lead in a series they won easily.


‘I spent 45 minutes straight after the game doing the electronic media and all I wanted then was a beer and a fag so I asked the print media to wait for 10 minutes while I did that. But they all had deadlines, so I said I was happy to talk for as long as they wanted while I had the smoke – but I didn’t want my picture in the paper smoking.


‘Next day, there it was – cigarette in hand. That really pissed me off. I tried to do the right thing and still got shafted.’


Looking back almost wistfully, Warne says: ‘They were different times. I think back in the day there was a bit more reporting of the facts and some of the off-field stuff, well, no-one was really interested in that, we just cared about the sport.


‘But there became more of a mentality in the magazines and the papers of get it on the front page and get a bit more sensationalism. The thing that started to happen in my time was the off-field stuff started to be just as important as the on-field.


‘When I started, it was all about the cricket and some of the stuff that was going on, the journos were doing it with the players, that’s why it was never in the papers.’


Well yes, there was a time when journalists and players did drink together – even in the dressing rooms sometimes, which would never happen now – but Warne is correct when he says that largely died out during the ’90s, and the developing distrust over the reporting of after-hours activities was largely the reason for that.


No-one was more at the epicentre of that extra-curricular agenda than he was. Was that unfair? He thinks about the question for a long moment and is unable to come up with an answer he’s happy with, so he tails off with: ‘I don’t know…’


But he says: ‘I was very young, just 22 or 23 when it all started happening, the Gatting ball and all that (a reference to the famous ‘ball of the century’ with which he clean-bowled the England captain with his first delivery in an Ashes match in 1993) and there was just so much attention.’


To this day, long after retirement, Warne feels he has to remain wary about where he goes and who he is seen with. Sitting in the loungeroom of his mansion in the upmarket Melbourne suburb of Brighton, which was about go on the market, he tells me he hasn’t been to a pub or a nightclub for 18 months.


‘If I want to have a drink with people, I bring them here – I’ve got my own version of a nightclub downstairs,’ he says. ‘It’s a quandary for a lot of modern-day sportsmen. People pretend to talk on their phone but they’re actually videoing you, no matter who you talk to or how innocent it is. Then there’s this story about Warne flirting with someone, anyone can write it and it ends up in the women’s magazines or anywhere at all.


‘I don’t blame modern sportsmen for being reluctant (to put them themselves on show.) We cry out for characters, not robots, and for people to be themselves and show their emotions and passion. But sometimes if they overstep it we crucify them, absolutely nail them.


‘It’s not easy.’


It would be an exaggeration to suggest Warne’s after-life as a commentator has been as successful as his playing career – nothing could match that – but he has certainly earned more applause for it than most of his contemporaries who have tried their hand.


That’s because he not only has a fluent insight into what is, or is not, happening but because he does not settle for sitting on the fence, afraid to say what he really thinks.


‘Some people I know are very careful about what they say and don’t want to offend or criticise anyone,’ he said. ‘We don’t just sit up there and bag people all the time, we try to be constructive – but it’s not enough to just say a player who dropped a catch is having a bad day or a batsman played a bad shot.


‘The punter wants to know why – the reason he played a bad shot was that he was scared of the bowler or didn’t know which way the spinner was going. Kerry packer told me not to tell him what he could see, but to take him out to the middle.


‘It can be difficult but it’s your job to say what you feel and if you feel a player has done something wrong and you don’t say so, you’re not being true to yourself.


‘I’m not saying I’m a great commentator like Richie Benaud but I like to think I give insight and enhance the coverage, and I have had a lot of great feedback about it.


‘I’m lucky I’m passionate about the game of cricket so there are a lot of worse things I could be doing for a job.’


Benaud, of course, was always the doyen – the role model – for cricketers looking for media work after they stop playing, and that was largely because he was a professional journalist himself before he became Test captain.


That’s why one of his first initiatives when he took over the job in 1958-59 was to invite cricket writers into the dressing room after stumps for a beer with the players so that they could get their stories straight from the horses’ mouths and not have to resort to guesswork or gossip.


In those faraway days, of course, it was a completely different environment. There was very little TV coverage and absolutely none of the squadrons of media managers that inhabit every dressing room these days – that was one of the captain’s many jobs – so there was much less chance of being fobbed off with artificial answers of the ‘it was a great team effort and everyone played their role’ genre.


From his current perspective, it is one of Warne’s pet dislikes. ‘Give us a break! You want someone to say ‘I worked my butt off this Test match, I worked on this and that and it really helped because I bowled to so and so and was able to drag him across the crease and got him out, which was really satisfying.’ That’s what you want rather than the stock standard line.’


Hear, hear!


Benaud’s professionalism across all the traditional, mainstream platforms was as impressive as his prodigious output – as well as his year-round TV work, he wrote or edited well over 20 books while working simultaneously for multiple newspapers around the world.


One of them was The Herald afternoon broadsheet when I was the Sports Editor there, and an annual highlight was the Perth Test match because the three-hour time difference meant that in order to meet the first edition deadlines I needed his copy by about 7am – or 4am where he was. So you would have to ring and wake him up, whereupon a sleepy voice would inquire what aspect of the match you were interested in, then ask to be transferred to a copy-taker. Twenty minutes later, you had 500 words of crisp, concise comment straight off the top of his head that needed little or no editing. It was a skill he learned as a junior newspaperman chasing police cars and ambulances around Sydney and getting the information to print ahead of the opposition, if at all possible.


Later, when I stopped editing and started writing about cricket myself, the great man was even more helpful. If you were agonising over which way to tackle an issue or needed informed background, he would always take a phone call, even at night, and you would never hang up without suggestions, advice or wisdom to go on with.


Benaud’s own hero, the flamboyant, friendly all-rounder Keith Miller, was just as generous in exactly the same way, if not necessarily as erudite. Miller had a million stories, as you would expect, and was happy to share them, especially if they were about any of his many mates.


The one touchy topic with him was Bradman, but even so when I rang to ask for help with preparing an obituary in advance Miller gave me plenty to consider, most of it strictly off the record – but highly valuable.


Like Warne, and for much the same reasons, Miller never became Test captain, which was a pity. He might not have been the greatest strategist of all time – ‘just spread out you blokes,’ was one of his field-setting instructions when he was in charge of NSW in the Sheffield Shield – but there would never have been a dull moment.


A romantic old cliché insists that the Test cricket captaincy sits alongside the Prime Ministership as Australia’s most important job but let’s just settle for saying that the ones I worked with, one way or another, were without exception interesting people to know.


As well as Benaud, they included two others who wrote columns for The Herald in my time, Bob Simpson and Ian Chappell, as well as Ian Johnson, who did so years before I met him when he was secretary of the Melbourne Cricket Club. Then there were Bill Lawry, Greg Chappell, Graham Yallop, Kim Hughes, Allan Border, Mark Taylor, Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting in their various on and off-field roles and it is fair to say they were all a pleasure to deal with – most of the time.


Taylor was the most helpful, never losing his cool or his sense of perspective no matter how much pressure he was under.


Waugh was the only one who went out of his way to formally spell out the terms of the relationship. His first series in charge was the tour of the West Indies in 1999 and on arrival he called a meeting with the half-dozen writers who were there and told us he would answer the phone or a knock on the door at any hour, within reason, to respond to legitimate queries.


But he would not be seen fraternising with us in the bar. ‘We are not here to be mates, we all have jobs to do as professionals,’ he said. He was as good as his word, in both respects, then and for the rest of his tenure, in which he earned unqualified respect from the media. The bar ban didn’t bother us. As far as I could tell it was never his natural environment anyway, and some team-mates were occasionally known to amuse themselves – I did see this happen one night – by waiting until he made an early exit, possibly without having got around to shouting, and then charging their drinks to his room, making sure they were on hand at checkout time the next morning to witness his annoyed response.


There was no bar ban when Hughes led the rebel team on a sanctions-busting tour of South Africa in 1985. One night, after a typically cavalier hundred that afternoon, the white wine was flowing copiously when he declared himself to be ‘the best white batsman in the world.’ The reference to white was an acknowledgement that the West Indies’ Viv Richards had no equal, but it was also a shot in the direction of Border, who had inherited the official Test captaincy after Hughes had resigned in tears, and who was at that moment preparing to lead his team into battle against India at the MCG.


I was well aware, of course, that quoting in print what players might say while relaxing over a few beers was a sure way to burn your contact book irretrievably, but in the context of the unspoken rivalry between the two Australian teams, official and unofficial, this was irresistible grist for the mill. So I asked Hughes if I could use it, and he not only gave permission, he encouraged it. He clearly enjoyed the thought of the response it would get. Within an hour or two of it being printed in Melbourne, a clipping had been pinned to the dressing room wall at the MCG and studied with intense interest by all occupants.


Some of those rebel players made it back into Test cricket – but the outspoken Hughes never did, or even attempted to. The sad way his captaincy and his career finished at Test level – mentally shot and literally unable to score a run to save himself – is one of the game’s more melancholy stories.




For further details about the book and purchase options click here.


For details of the launch of War Games on Friday April 23 click here.


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  1. Kevin Densley says

    Top quality sports writing from a real pro.

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