Dubai philanthropist mourns Shane Warne: 'It is difficult to lose a friend'

Shyam Bhatia recalls 'a great human being' who will be missed by many

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In the basement of a private museum choc-full of cricket memorabilia, Shyam Bhatia absent-mindedly flicks through the pages of a 170-year-old book on the sport.

He pauses, and his fingers run their way across the screen of his smartphone as he searches for a more recent memory instead. He types “Shane” into the chat search of WhatsApp, and browses his timeline.

In his received messages, there is one with two green tick emojis, and three thumbs-up ones. It was February 17, and it was the last time he heard from Shane Warne.

“I was planning to invite him out here to present the awards this year,” Bhatia says.

Every year since 1998 – bar the past two, Covid-interrupted ones – the Dubai-based businessman has celebrated the leading performers on the domestic cricket scene with prizes for merit.

A wall in the museum, which is housed in a specially-designed outhouse in the garden of his villa in Jumeirah, is devoted to memories of the awards.

It is a wall of fame, undoubtedly. Imran Khan, Sunil Gavaskar, Michael Holding, Andrew Flintoff and Ian Chappell are among those who have presented the prizes in the past.

Warne himself is widely celebrated elsewhere in the museum. There are six Warne books on the shelves of the library. The four that were penned by the man himself are all signed.

One specially commissioned painting of him and Muttiah Muralitharan has an annotation form the Australian great saying: “Keep spinning, Shyam. Lots of love, Shane Warne.”

Another says: “Thank you, Shyam. You’re a legend, and thank you for your support.”

Shane Warne memorabilia at Shayam Bhatia's cricket museum. Victor Besa / The National

Bhatia, the founder of Alam Steel, which is one of the oldest steelworks in the Arabian Gulf, has been adding to his collection since the first major cricket arrived in Sharjah in 1981.

The most recent addition is a framed tribute to Warne, assembled within the time since his death on March 4.

“Somebody messaged me to tell me, and I said, ‘What are you talking about? That’s not possible,’” Bhatia said of hearing the news for the first time.

“I put on the news immediately, and I was in shock. I got in touch with our common friends. We were all wondering what had happened.

“Everybody was shocked it could have happened. It is difficult to lose a friend, especially when you have loved them. He was one of the ultimate legends of the game.

Shayam Bhatia at his cricket museum. Victor Besa / The National

“Apart from being a great cricketer, he was a great human being. He was a magician as a spinner and will be missed by all cricket fans.”

There are videos on Bhatia’s phone of Warne giving an audience at the museum for a few, handpicked guests, back in 2020.

Although, given that it is his own residence, the collection remains only for private view, Bhatia is hopeful he can find suitable premises to recreate it for the public in the future.

In the videos, Warne extols his love for all versions of cricket. He likens Tests to a three-course meal, or Sunday roast, and T20 to picking up fast food from a drive-thru – each of which would suit him just fine, he says.

Bhatia recalls someone who was larger than life, but who was serious in his devotion to the game that made him a superstar.

“When the Australian players in South Africa were caught with this sandpaper issue, I was at the match,” Bhatia said of the 2018 ball-tampering scandal.

Shane Warne signing memorabilia at Shyam Bhatia's museum. Photo: courtesy Shyam Bhatia

“We came to know what had happened. That evening, [broadcasters] Supersport invited all the commentators – who were mostly ex-cricketers – for dinner, and I was invited, too.

“The room was very sad. Warnie and [former South Africa captain] Graeme Smith were talking, and you could see the sadness on his face about what had happened.

“Usually when you meet like that, all cricketers are very jovial and laughing. But here, everyone was only talking about this subject.”

Bhatia remembers that the non-cricketers among that party all drew lots to ask one question each to the cricket stars in their midst, and a Cricket South Africa administrator picked out Warne’s name.

“He could ask him one question,” Bhatia says. “He could have asked him anything about cricket – but he asked about his relationship with Liz Hurley instead.

“Even then, he was so nice, and gave an honest answer. That was the type of man he was.”

The signed painting of Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan. Victor Besa / The National
Updated: March 11, 2022, 5:02 AM