The well-worn cliché goes that you shouldn't meet your heroes, lest they fail to live up to your lofty expectations. In the 21st century it is perhaps now worth adding, “and don’t follow them on twitter, whatever you do.”
If your hero happened to be, say, Shane Warne, I’m sure you’d be nodding like a lunatic right now. Warne is currently something of a case study in how to completely to erode a lifetime supply of fan goodwill in the space of a few years of tweeting. And yes, he’s acted like a wanker in other forums too, I know. Having previously been shielded from scorn by his esteemed standing as a player and the rich folklore of his own larrikinism (that others tended to lay out on his behalf), his own glaring intellectual limitations are now laid bare for all to see, one LOL and OMG after the other. Sometimes it really is better to say nothing and be thought a fool than set yourself up a twitter account and remove all doubt.
Once, biographers and media figures enshrined Warne, coating him with a thick, impenetrable veneer of celebrity. No news was bad news, and it was very lucrative business just being Shane Warne. As a player, Warne drew breathless platitudes from even the most hardened cynics in the press pack. As a man, his misadventures stocked the tabloids and gossip mags for years, no scandal seemingly able to dent his star power. A few years ago I spoke to a prominent player manager who was amazed that Warne remained hugely popular with women of many and varied demographics throughout even the most heavily-publicized of his marital indiscretions. To maintain such a strong standing within the game despite both the ‘John the Bookie’ scandal and his failed drugs test was no mean feat, either.
Having spent the previous fifteen years as a walking headline, upon Warne’s international retirement he nevertheless stood at the precipice of a long and fruitful second act in life as a statesman of the game, a well-paid hoarding for advertisers and a reliable quote for the press. But somewhere along the line he began making choices that turned him from a soap opera with high production qualities into a cheap and nasty reality TV show that’s really gone on a few seasons too long.
For many fans of a certain age, even in early retirement, there remained a strong image of Warne the baked-bean-eating Bogan from Brighton. If there was not something of him in us, we certainly recognized traits of someone we all knew, and liked, even if that person was also a bit of a dickhead. He was a sporting genius nonpareil and enjoyed the spoils of fame with gusto. As is not always the case with such a character, he also remained pleasingly tolerant of the way the media handled his stumbles. ‘Yeah, I stuffed up, what an idiot I am’ gives you much more leeway in the court of public opinion than ‘They’re all out to get me.’ Sure he’d slimmed down and gotten into the fake tan, but then there was a lengthy pattern of vanity in the Warne story, so it seemed almost par for the course.
In discussing Warne’s position in the popular consciousness, it is worth noting that in the pre-social media age, the avenues through which we achieved any real or imagined personal connection with sports stars were much more prosaic, innocent even. The fan might arrive to a game early and wait in the hope of spotting the star on the way in. The fan might stand in line at a book signing on the promise of a quick scribble and a few words. Beyond that, stars were transported into our lives via the TV screen, the newspaper page, and often facile, self-aggrandizing biographies. So, outside of the way that their playing performances resonated with the fan on a personal level, the waxing or waning of the sports-person’s legacy owed much to the way it was sculpted by other people; writers, TV producers and the people that surrounded them. The stars themselves were never truly left to construct or spin their own public image and these gate-keepers often served them well.
In Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, record store owner Rob laments that having dreamt of a day where he’d be surrounded by exotic women’s underwear, now he knew that “they just save their best pairs for the nights they know they're going to sleep with somebody.” For years, with the help of the press, we’ve collectively constructed a rock star image of Warne, and now, ironically, it is Warne himself who is destroying any mystery and excitement that Warne-land once held, one tweet at a time. TV news footage of Shane Warne blowing past a pack of reporters in a Bentley is fun. Warne descending into vapid, illegible accounts of where he took Liz Hurley for dinner is most definitely not. It’s Warnie and Liz catching a movie, it’s Warnie and Liz rubbing each other’s feet. And none of it is a good look. Rather than adding to his fame or piquing our interest in his life, it has the opposite effect, infantilizing him. It is a pitiful sight; less the innocence of a schoolboy self-consciously walking through the playground holding hands with his first girlfriend, and more the ham-fisted boasting of an attention-seeking prat.
It’s this jarring sense of reality from Warne’s musings that serves not to add to his fame and cultural cachet, but diminish it by small, nauseating increments. That is not to say this is a fate befalling Warne alone. Ricky Gervais initially derided Twitter (or “Twatter” as he put it. Yes Ricky, we remember that.) users before caving in to his own impulses and turning into Twitter’s resident Atheist enforcer. Gervais’s downturn in fortunes lately can perhaps be traced to the fairly shoddy work he’s started to do, but I wonder how much the tide of negative public opinion about him is down to his relentless, dogmatic vandalization of their twitter feed. How Warne expects to have his concern’s for the state of cricket taken seriously whilst tweeting away like a 12-year-old One Direction groupie is anyone’s guess. It is naïve at a minimum, but more like an act of grand delusion. The ruthless disregard for anything other than his own instincts served Warne well during his playing career, but it’s proving a huge stumbling block in his public life these days.
How else do you explain the embarrassing folly of Part I of the Warnifesto? His twitter ramblings and gauche behavior during this year’s Big Bash gave a fair hint of what we could expect, but it was no less cringeworthy for that warning. It spoke volumes of Warne’s own limitations as a big-picture thinker, but also the image Warne has of himself as an anti-establishment rebel and truth-speaking maverick. He seems to think that friends like Ian Chappell and James Packer are of the same ilk as himself, and in that he is right, but not in the way he thinks. They are all as much a part of the establishment furniture as the leather benches of the MCC Long Room. If Warne realizes this and faces up to the responsibility it entails, he can be of value to the game. If he doesn’t, he can’t complain about the gradual erosion of the esteem in which he was once held by lovers of the game.
Much was made of the Marlon Samuels incident as the main pointer to the fact that Warne had lost all perspective and was treading a credibility tightrope. That is fair enough. A certain amount of the media coverage of this incident focused on the very valid accusation that Cricket Australia were complicit in his embarrassing display. Whilst not wanting to condone Warne’s behavior, there is no doubt that they gleefully accepted the attention and the headlines it brought them. In the end, they gave Warne the proverbial slap on the wrist via a farcical judicial process. A more depressing and realistic reading of the situation is that Warne was possibly not drumming up interest in the BBL on behalf of CA, but interest in himself. There was something synthetic and depressing about the whole affair, Warne seeking more to feed his own considerable ego than damage that of Samuels. It was Warne staying relevant. He didn’t look like an outlaw, he looked like a desperate ex-boyfriend outside a girl’s bedroom, boom-box on the shoulder, butchering a power ballad. Actually, if we’re talking matters of the heart, dare we say it was Warne trying to show off to his missus a little bit, too? It’s heart-breaking that the vision of him tugging at Samuels shirt, screaming abuse like an overgrown toddler will sit alongside ‘the ball of the century’ and his hat-trick ball in video montages for the rest of the time.
For all his bloated acts of hubris lately, Warne has a great knowledge of the machinations of playing the game and it remains possible that he can put this to considerable use. Whether this happens or not will depend on the trust and forgiveness of a cricket establishment whose tents he seems intent on drowning in self-serving piss. From here on, Warne can choose his own legacy, I just hope it’s not a blow by blow account of what he ate for lunch.