Australia's enduring infatuation with Shane Warne
Australian cricket great Shane Warne has been beamed into living rooms across the UK as part of Sky Sports' cricket coverage all summer. Trevor Marshallsea takes a look at the enduring popularity of an unlikely megastar.
This year Shane Warne took part in Australia's version of reality show I'm A Celebrity … Get Me Out Of Here! The former cricketer was one of 10 identities put into the South African jungle for the show, but for most of it, you could have been excused for thinking he was the only one who mattered.
If the show made a newspaper headline, invariably it involved Warne. His actions and utterances, however banal or bizarre, became news in Australia. He said he believed that aliens "made" the first humans out of monkeys and built the pyramids, confessed a fear of spiders and was bitten on the face by a non-venomous snake. Seemingly anything Warne-related had news value.
This is despite the fact Warne stopped terrorising Test cricket's finest batsmen in 2007. He has swapped playing for commentating and the allure of the former leg-spinner shows no signs of abating in Australia.
His 708 Test wickets plus 293 in one-day internationals are 1001 reasons why this rough-hewn son of suburban Melbourne should hold a special place in the history of his sport-mad country.
Despite repeated controversies, it seems nothing can dim the headline power of the man teammates used to call Hollywood.
It remains to be seen whether a simmering drama over his children's charity, The Shane Warne Foundation, will tarnish Warne's appeal with the Australian public. The charity recently closed, blaming "unwarranted speculation" about how much of its proceeds reached the needy.
Regardless of the outcome, most would predict Warne to keep barrelling on in the Teflon-coated way to which Australians have become accustomed. Not everyone loves him, but you certainly can't escape him.
"He's Australia's biggest celebrity by far. No-one comes close and no-one ever will," says Dr Steve Georgiakis, senior lecturer on sports studies at the University of Sydney.
"(Australian producer-director) George Miller won six Oscars for Mad Max: Fury Road, but at that time most people here were still talking about Warnie and what he was doing on I'm A Celebrity."
One simple test highlights the Warne fascination. Google Steve Waugh - a revered cricketing hero and Australian of the Year in 2004 - and you'll find 503,000 results. Another Australian captain, Ricky Ponting, will yield 521,000 results. Type Shane Warne and you'll find 7,230,000.
"Kids now don't really know much about Steve Waugh. But they all still know Shane Warne," Dr Georgakis says.
Warne's penchant for off-field controversy is well known. During his unrivalled playing career, he was involved in several sex scandals which led to the end of his marriage to Simone Callahan, and to his sacking as Australia vice-captain.
Among other dramas, the father of three was banned from cricket for a year in 2003 for taking a diuretic, which he maintained was not about enhancing his performance but his looks. He was punished for involvement with an Indian bookmaker and pilloried for snatching a camera from a teenage boy who'd taken his photograph while he was smoking. Warne had signed an endorsement deal with a nicotine-substitute manufacturer.
Another major media moment for the 46-year-old, who retired from all forms of cricket in 2013, was his surprise engagement to British model-actress Liz Hurley. The relationship ended three years ago and Warne has since said he'd like his "good friend" to return her engagement ring.
His net worth is commonly estimated at between A$30m (£17m) and A$50m. And like many Hollywood celebrities, he's turned to doctors to to keep up his looks. He admits to using Botox, but denies persistent rumours he's had plastic surgery.
'Do gooders get stuffed'
But more than anything, it's what comes out of Warne's mouth that generates controversy.
After Australia won last year's World Cup, Warne was slammed for conducting several post-match interviews where he repeatedly asked the "boys" how "thirsty" they were for a celebratory alcohol binge. His response was to Tweet:
"Do gooders get stuffed. Straya (Australia) is the best place in the world, not politically correct, keep it real. Aussies celebrate properly ! #thirsty"
He repeated the "get stuffed" line to critics of his charity upon exiting I'm A Celebrity, in which he also labelled Waugh "the most selfish cricketer I've played with".
"The more PC the world gets, the more he stands out," says Robert Craddock, Australia's most senior cricket journalist. "While everyone else is minding their Ps and Qs, he's as straight as they come and says what he thinks.
"That makes him a very popular commentator, and it also generates part of the fascination with him."
Warne, who's often likened his life to a soap opera, and who was in fact the subject of a stage show called Shane Warne: The Musical, said in a recent interview that he had "always been me".
"I don't think there's been many sportsmen on the planet, really, that have been through some of the stuff that I've been through, both from a personal thing, the ups, the highs and the lows," he told Sydney's Sunday Telegraph.
"Whether you like me or don't like me, people always have an opinion about me, that's just the way it is."
Controversies aside, Warne was probably the most talented bowler international cricket has known in its 139 years - and possibly the most valuable single contributor to any side in history.
"He's also still big because it's really coming clear now as the years pass that he was an absolute one-off," Craddock says.
"Australia's had 12 spinners since Warne, but none of them has come near him for ability, charisma, or his appetite for derring do, and his penchant for controversy."