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Warney plays on

Granted an interview with legendary cricketer-turned-poker-player Shane Warne, Chris Lines finds the Aussie spinner in ebullient mood – and very much looking to the future – as his cricket career winds down and he seeks to establish himself as more than just the token celebrity at the poker table

It’s always a pleasure when you get to interview a sporting hero. The day this magazine landed an interview with Eric Cantona still goes down as one of the better moments of my career to date. However, Cantona was a little cagey, somewhat subdued, with his best quotes being more of the poetic bent he specialises in, as opposed to anything hugely juicy. I had feared it would be a similar story with Shane Warne, given that he was put up for interview by his sponsor, 888.com. But in a single sentence, Warne practically wrote my introduction for me.

For those who don’t know, Warne is sponsored by 888.com to play in major poker tournaments around the world. It’s a coup on their part: one of the most famous sportsmen in the world, playing cards to widespread media attention while adorned with your company logo. Partly out of personal curiosity, I’d asked Warne how winning a major poker title would rank alongside his Ashes triumphs and captaining a team to the inaugural Indian Premier League (IPL). I’d assumed he’d bat away my question with the sort of ease that few Englishmen ever managed when facing his bowling. No. Instead he said this – and I’ll give it it’s own paragraph so you can reflect on it for a moment.

“I was very lucky and successful to play in a wonderful Australian era of cricket. But my passion now is poker – so winning a major poker tournament would beat anything I ever achieved on the cricket field.”

Say what, Shane? The greatest spin bowler the world has ever witnessed – the man who left spin bowling an entirely different art form to how he found it, and was listed by Wisden as one of the top five cricketers of all time – would get more satisfaction from winning a big poker event? Come on.

At the highest level, the amount of skill in sport will outweigh the skill level in poker. Always, always, always. Poker relies too heavily on luck to compare. If Shane Warne wants me to believe that (theoretically) outdrawing Phil Ivey’s pair of queens with Ace-King to take down, say, an EPT Grand Final, would give him more personal satisfaction than all his greatest moments in cricket – winning multiple Ashes against England, taking 1,000 Test wickets, that delivery to Mike Gatting – then he’s less than convincing.

But then perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised? Warne has long been a man who lives very much in the moment, rather than dwelling in the past. He’s got form with outlandish overstatement, as was picked up this March in an excellent article on Cricinfo.org by the esteemed Australian cricket writer Gideon Haigh. Warne had just described Yusuf Pathan’s quickfire hundred for Rajasthan Royals as “the best innings I have ever seen”. To put things in perspective, not only was Pathan’s innings a mere 37 balls, but the Royals didn’t even win the match. Haigh described Warne as “a veritable praise machine” and wrote that, in exalting Pathan, Warne was “simply succumbing to the tumescence of the moment”.

Warne also wrote on his Twitter page that Rajasthan Royals victory in that first IPL season was the high point of his cricketing career. So while he’s very much ‘on message’ with the heavy branding efforts coming out of the IPL, it’s fair to say we should take his words with a pinch of salt. He’s a marketing man’s dream – and you have to say that it’s to 888.com’s credit that they recognised this trait. They saw that Warne wouldn’t just take the money and sit at the tables wearing their logo; rather he’ll shout from the rooftops about how important poker is to him. Even when another company he endorses, Advanced Hair Studio, came under fire with the British Advertising Standards Authority for using a celebrity to promote a hair replacement therapy that using medicine, Warne still managed to crowbar in a plug in response to the investigation: “There’s only one thing that worries me, and that’s hair loss” he said.

So well media-trained is Warne, that when I throw him a ‘fun’ question asking whether he parties hard during the World Series of Poker in Vegas – expecting him to wholeheartedly concur, and perhaps regale me with tales of his favourite nightspots on the Strip – the answer is a letdown. “No I remain very focused whilst playing at the WSOP,” he says. “If I ever win it; then I’ll party hard.”

Warne has long been rumoured to be a bit of a party animal. He even became an official spokesperson for Victoria Bitter (VB) back in 2007. So for him to claim that he doesn’t get stuck into the social side of things in Vegas during World Series time is… well, it’s exactly what his sponsors would want him to have said. Apart from VB, perhaps.

***

Back to the interview, and talk moves to cricket. As an England fan I’d been wrestling at the time we spoke to Warne over whether England captain Andrew Strauss was right to take a well publicised rest during the tour to Bangladesh. “Burnout is a major factor,” Warne concedes, “because these days there’s so much cricket, and different variations of the game around the world”. However, it’s clear he would not have done as Strauss did in the same position. “Captaining your country and playing in a Test match series – no matter who against – should always be your number priority no matter what.”

Captaincy is something that comes naturally to Warne, having captained Rajesthan Royals and Australia in one-day internationals, all with great success. He also captained Hampshire too, during a successful spell in English county cricket. Hailing from Hampshire myself, I was keen to ask him why he opted for the south coast when there were better teams around at the time he arrived.

“I had plenty of offers, and I wanted to experience English domestic cricket so I had to choose one!” he says. “There’s something different about English cricket that you don’t get elsewhere. Probably the one deciding factor of why I choose Hampshire over the other offers I had was the fact that Robin Smith was at Hampshire and he’s a very good friend of mine. Also, I liked the fact that it was a club that was underachieving with the talent that they had, so I saw it as a challenge. I was lucky enough to captain Hampshire for four seasons and I’m glad I played my part in helping the club to dominate county cricket. It’s also a wonderful part of the world and I have very fond memories of the area.”

With the Ashes coming up later this year, I’d be remiss not to ask Warne for his verdict on how it will go, in the light of England scraping a draw with South Africa in their last big Test series. “A drawn series when you play one of the best sides of the world on their own turf is a pretty good result, and England will be disappointed with the way they finished and they let a series slip by,” he says. “The Ashes will be an exciting series as it always is, and I expect a real battle now given what happened last time in England. It will be hard for England to beat Australia down under – you forget that although England have won the last two Ashes series in England, they haven’t actually won an Ashes series in Australia since 1986/1987 when Mike Gatting was England captain.”

Warne was a regular star turn in recent Aussie wins over England on home turf – not only for his wicked leg spin bowling, but also for his slip fielding – an aspect of his game which perhaps never got enough credit. He sits seventh in the all-time list of catches as a fielder in Test cricket. “I prided myself on my fielding in the slips,” he says. “Yes, we all drop a few and I’m no exception but I felt confident and enjoyed fielding in there.” And his all-time favourite? “Catching Nathan Astle off Mark Waugh in Hobart. It was an important catch at the time and also one that brought me a great deal of satisfaction.”

***

Today, Shane Warne is managing to combine IPL cricket with Rajesthan Royals with his love of poker as 888.com sponsor him to play in some of the biggest events around the world. “I’ve played in over 15 major tournaments in a short amount of time. My goal was to make a final table in the first two years and I achieved that, final tabling the $1,100 short-handed event at the Aussie Millions. My highlight so far in my poker career was finishing 701st out of over 7,000 in the 2008 World Series of Poker Main Event in Las Vegas. I can’t wait for the 2010 World Series and I’m hoping to play a few events this year.”

Those hoping to join him have the opportunity to qualify in a rather novel fashion thanks to Warne’s sponsor. 888.com’s latest WSOP promotion offers eight different ways to win packages to play in Vegas, one of which is to knock Warne out in an online tournament. Warne, in a rare self-effacing moment, admits: “There are many ways to win packages to the WSOP. I think the easiest way is to beat me in the weekly bounty tournaments”.

He may not quite be such an intimidating opponent at the baize as he was with the ball, but you can guarantee he’ll give it everything he’s got. And if he wins one of the big tournaments, it will – apparently – be his finest hour.

A fun one to finish with then: cricket players are renowned for their ‘sledging’ of opponents – verbal intimidation of opponents, often humorous in nature – in order to gain a competitive advantage. So does Warne sledge at the poker table?

“Yeah, I always try and gain an advantage. There are a lot of self-proclaimed experts at the poker table that need to be put in their place. I call a muppet a muppet!”

WHAT THEY SAID ABOUT WARNEY

• “It was said of Augustus that he found Rome brick and left it marble; the same is true of Warne and spin bowling” – Gideon Haigh, Australian cricket journalist

• “It's very hard to judge across eras but Warne would sit pretty comfortably as the second-best player ever. He has been responsible for winning more Test matches than anyone else I have seen or played with." – Steve Waugh

• “Whatever you say about Shane Warne it isn't enough. His performances have not only shaped cricket in Australia but worldwide. Most people go through a purple patch and Shane Warne has had a purple patch for 15 or 16 years" – Merv Hughes

• "What he's done for the game, the colour he's added, the character that he's brought to the game, that’s going to be tough to replace." – Adam Gilchrist

• “He was the Donald Bradman of bowling” – Kim Hughes, former Australia captain

• “Warne flopped a flush only to see his opponent improve his set to a full house on the river; after that his Main Event challenge collapsed quicker than an English batting order!” – A (presumably Aussie) reporter for PokerNetwork.com on Warne’s 2009 World Series of Poker adventure

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