By Gideon HaighNon-fiction Penguin Group
Gideon Haigh is recognised as one of the world’s great cricket writers: he has long covered the game for the Guardian. In On Warne, he takes as his subject a man known more for his off-field antics than his status as a truly gifted world-class sportsman. The portrait he paints is of an ordinary man with extraordinary gifts, elevated by them to the international stage.
‘Haigh’s is an exquisite treatment of a much-discussed subject,’ wrote Waleed Aly in the Monthly. ‘Warne’s wizardry is rich enough to unleash Haigh’s, and Haigh’s wizardry brings Warne’s to life anew.’
This is not a traditional biography, nor is its interest confined to cricket tragics. Divided into five thematic sections, this is presented as a series of interlinked essays. Drawing on interviews conducted with Warne over the course of a decade, and two decades of watching him play, Haigh assesses this greatest of sportsmen as cricketer, character, comrade, newsmaker and national figure – a natural in an increasingly regimented time, a simplifier in a growingly complicated world.
‘Throughout the voice is perfect, the writing a consummate mixture of cricketing knowledge, astute observation, genuine flair, an unerring capacity to hit upon just the right simile and ironic, dare I say it, poetic reflectiveness,’ wrote Steven Carroll in the Age. ‘There are lines here that Larkin would have happily owned.’
The result is a whole new way of looking at Warne, at sport, and at Australia – a book that seems certain to remain a sporting classic.
This superbly written biography marshals discipline, wit, evidence and cheek in a fearless examination of Warne and of modern cricket. Haigh puts an elegant spin on his restrained yet rich narrative, thoughtful phrase after airy insight, flipping through his vocabulary and delivering both the insider’s view and the offerings of a considered and perceptive observer.
The non-fiction judging panel also wished to commend Traditional Healers of Central Australia: Ngangkari, by Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Women’s Council Aboriginal Corporation.
Is Gideon Haigh the ‘finest cricket writer alive’, as dubbed by the Australian? Certainly, when it comes to prolificacy of cricket writing, Haigh has runs on the board. Apart from his widely published, and much lauded, cricket journalism, he is the author of seventeen other books on cricket, including the very entertaining The Vincibles which chronicles one of Haigh’s seasons at his beloved South Yarra Cricket Club. But is he the ‘finest’? Reading On Warne, you could easily believe so.
One approaches a book about Warne with certain expectations, especially when it comes to the subject of his personal life. Haigh helpfully states in the very first chapter: ‘This is an examination of Warne’s craft, an analysis of his career, and a survey of his phenomenon, while I’m still able to remember what it was like to live through all of them.’ He does this through five incisive chapters: ‘The Making of Warne’, ‘The Art of Warne’, ‘The Men of Warne’ (where he examines Warne’s career through his relations with ‘four other pivotal personalities of his era’), ‘The Trials of Warne’ and ‘The Sport of Warne’.
Throughout, Haigh maintains a balance between erudite enthusiasm and clear-thinking commentary. While it is obvious that Haigh has great admiration for Warne’s skill and quite likes him in person (Haigh quotes Jana Wendt who, after interviewing Warne concluded that it was ‘uncommonly easy to like him and a little harder to explain why’), Haigh doesn’t shy away from confronting Warne’s excesses and follies and analysing them without hysteria. Refreshingly, instead of labelling Warne an ‘enigma’ or ‘just a boy from the suburbs’, Haigh manages to portray Warne as a realistic, fallible human being – albeit one with extraordinary skill on the cricket field. Haigh employs his specialist knowledge of cricket to give the reader a comprehensive view of Warne’s accomplishments, statistics and all, but also manages to wield that same specialist knowledge lightly enough to make the book an engaging read for those not so familiar with cricket. His intelligent and lively prose elucidates his subject, Warne, through anecdotes as well as cultural observations about Australia and its relationship with sport and sporting heroes. On Warne is cricket writing, or writing, of the highest order, a biography that is so much more than a biography.
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist