Discover more from Kitchen Counter
Shape and spin
An obituary of sorts
Back when I captained the First XV in high school, I’d talk a lot about maths. We were a pretty scrawny bunch – soft, nerdy private school boys more focussed on our exams than rugby. Down the road at The Southport School, boys were bred to be Wallabies from a young age in some kind of Spartanic factory of prowess. At my school, boys were bred to be doctors.
Mercifully, we didn’t play in the same system as TSS, which meant that we were good enough to win our local competition and I, all of 64 kilos, was good enough to captain them as a forward. (If we had played regularly against TSS, as I had the misfortune of doing once or twice with my club team, my illusions of going pro would have been punctured at a much earlier age.)
Rugby, I would say to my team, is basically a maths problem. It involved objects of varying weights and speeds moving in a given area in often predetermined patterns. Finding your way through, or over, or around the other bodies was not a question of courage or of belief or of “mongrel”. It was a question of maths.
Now, some of the equations are quite brutal. They involve concepts like weight, force, momentum. They’re there to help you understand how much force a human body can withstand. And some bodies, it turns out, can exert more force than others. I resented that. By the time I was 16 I was no longer being selected for representative sides, already a good 10 kilos lighter than the next best flanker in the system.
So I used to flatter myself and my team by claiming that those equations – let’s call them the matters of physics - were secondary in rugby to a different set of equations; the matters of geometry. It’s not true, of course. You can’t win a game of rugby on geometry alone, and I ended up losing a lot before I finally gave up. But geometry is what made rugby worth playing.
Every sport has its geometry, and it is in the geometry of each that we find organic expressions of human beauty. Soccer is a game of triangles; of jagged corners; of the right-angled cross; of only the occasional curve. AFL abhors an angle: it is all curve, all fluid; all rounded movement in a concerted system. Tennis has its own geometric logic, and it was Federer’s angelic understanding of that logic that made him, for a period, the most beautiful tennis player of all time. Rugby, for me, was an exhilarating mix of all of the above; of angles and arcs and ins and outs. I adored it because it revealed a kind of intelligence in men who had been written off as buffoons in every other arena. Theirs was a spatial intelligence, one of shape, form, timing. Rugby players have only ever interesting to me to the extent they could create and manipulate shapes of beauty.
This is all prelude to my obituary for Shane Warne. The King of Spin is dead a 52. He died in Thailand of a heart attack, which is somehow extremely fitting. He was both Australia’s most interesting and least interesting man. He was godlike in his mastery of the game – a real cricketing genius – and yet, and I say this with genuine love and respect – a bit of a dipshit. There were frosted tips and affairs and scandal after scandal. He filled our TVs with hair replacement ads and became remarkably smooth over time. In later years his teeth became a nuclear white. Australia loved him because he reflected back to us both who we were and who we wanted to be. Mediocre and ascendant; laid back and untouchable; unimpeachably Australian and internationally respected.
Over the next few days we’ll hear a lot about why he was so good. There’ll be a lot about his sledging, his competitiveness, his knowledge of the game. But underneath all of that, I want to say, is geometry. The man simply conjured the most beautiful shapes. There was angle, and dip, and flight, and curve, and arc, and, of course, spin. He could make the ball drift right, out of his hand, up through the air, in a long, Euclidean parabola, before it would dip down suddenly and jag back off the pitch, to the left, across the batsman or, at times, behind him. Many of these balls were simply unplayable; unplayable not because of their pace or force, but because of their geometry. He was a bloke from Melbourne who used a preternatural understanding of three-dimensional space to brush up against the sublime. There will never be another like him.
Best, I think, to see it for yourself: