Shane Warne played Croke Park once. He'd have been as surprised as anyone to find this out, if only the few of us who were watching had ever been lucky enough to get to tell him. But he did and we couldn't take our eyes off him.
It was the summer of 2005 and the GAA season was coming to its apex. We were getting to that point in the summer where the privilege of getting to cover the games for a living starts to pickle ever so slightly and you only half-joke about bringing a sleeping bag to Croke Park along with your laptop.
Saturday was Dublin v Tyrone in football - the one with Owen Mulligan’s goal. Sunday was Cork v Clare in hurling - the one where Clare were huge underdogs but still led for every minute of the second half except the last one. One of those elemental weekends that come along every once in a while to give GAA followers notions. Sure why would we need any other sport when we have this?
Except, that summer, there was another show in town. The 2005 Ashes series began in July and ended in September and among the thousand other laurels thrown at it down the years it was, without question, the greatest obstacle to a productive day’s work ever devised. It was on terrestrial television, the two sides were matched to the nearest inch and it seemed you couldn’t go 15 minutes without something happening.
Cricket wasn’t supposed to be like this. Cricket is a sport for putting on in the background and getting on with your day. Cricket is maiden overs, third-wicket longueurs and a last trundle before lunch. Cricket is playing for five days and ending in a draw and nobody thinking this is odd.
Cricket is not exciting. But this was exciting. So much so that in those pre-smartphone days, those of us who wanted to keep up with it had to be a near a TV with it on at all times. Thankfully, the third test had had a big rain delay on the Saturday, allowing us to attend to sundry personal matters - hygiene, nutrition and the like.
But the rain stopped in mid-afternoon, just as we were arriving in Croker. And so, in the hour before the Dubs played Tyrone in the All-Ireland quarter-final, a few of us started tricking about with the TV in the ante-room behind the press box. Usually, this time would be filled with the RTÉ build-up to the game with nobody listening to a word of it. Instead, about a dozen of us were horseshoed around the box, watching Warne dig in with the bat and manfully hold the English attack at bay.
He eventually got out on 90, an innings that nobody had seen coming, least of all his opponents. The tide had turned against the Aussies but Warne was still plugging on. England were used to him terrorising them as a bowler so to find him doing the same now as a batsman was deeply, viscerally irritating to them. Which, naturally enough, only spurred him on.
The absolute joy he was taking in compiling a score to turn the match back Australia’s way radiated out from the screen. You didn’t need to know a single thing about cricket to understand it. Any sort of casual sports fan would have only had to watch five minutes of it to catch on to what was happening. He was unignorable - and he wasn’t even bowling.
For people who know their cricket intimately, Warne’s death over the weekend at the unspeakably young age of 52 must have felt like seeing one of the planets deleted. For the rest of us, the shock is maybe not as personal but it’s still completely stunning. Shane Warne can’t be dead. Shane Warne was what we’re all here for - to live, to play sport, to be.
These are dark times and sport has never felt so small. We often make big claims for it and it certainly shouldn’t take footage from Kyiv and Mariupol to remind us to wind our necks in. But if we have any defence, it’s that every once in a while, someone turns up and gives us no option but to get carried away.
Because at its best, sport is sorcery. When you watched Warne bowl, the commentators talked about flippers and zooters and wrong ‘uns and most of us sat on our couches not having the first notion what they meant by any of it. But the glory of him was that you didn’t need to. All you needed to know was that the batsman standing 22 yards away was equally in the dark.
There was always such theatre to a Warne bowling spell. He would pause at the start of his run-up and flip the ball a few times out of the back of his right hand into his left, as if showing the batsman that all he had to do here was click his fingers and magic would happen. He would lope up to the crease and send one down and it might do nothing or it might do everything.
But whatever it did, he would react. Sometimes in wide-eyed disbelief, sometimes with a tight grimace, sometimes with a wry smile. All the time building a narrative, telling a story. All of it said: I am the best who has ever done this and I am coming to get you.
Pace bowlers are all about aggression and speed and are obviously thrilling to watch in their own way. But Warne’s bowling was all about disguise and feint and sleight of hand. And when he was in the zone, the delight and pleasure he took out of it all was no added extra. It was a fundamental part of the show. Warne never forgot that sport is about fun, that it’s right there in the name.
Sport has nothing really to offer in a time of catastrophe. But whatever we had, we have less of it today.