Shocked Australia mourns cricketing great 'Warnie'

MELBOURNE, Australia/KOH SAMUI, Thailand, March 5 (Reuters) - Australians laid tributes of flowers and beer bottles at a statue of Shane Warne in Melbourne on Saturday, after the country woke to the shocking news the cricketing great had died from a suspected heart attack while on holiday in Thailand.

As many in the sporting world and beyond expressed grief, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison offered Warne's family a state funeral for the sportsman known to his compatriots simply as "Warnie".

"Shane was one of our greatest cricketers of all time ... but Shane was more than this to Australians. Shane was one of our nation's greatest characters," Morrison said in a statement.

One of the finest bowlers of all time whose talent and personality transcended cricket, Warne died at the age of 52 on Friday, a day after arriving on the island of Koh Samui for a vacation. L2N2V71ES

Citing information from Warne's family, Thai police said on Saturday that Warne had suffered chest pains prior to his Thailand vacation and had asthma and heart issues. read more

Police interviewed three of his travel companions for about two hours on Saturday, but were not treating his death as suspicious. His body would be transferred on Sunday to Surat Thani on the mainland for autopsy, police said.

Warne's death dominated Australian media on Saturday, pushing news of devastating floods on the east coast of Australia and the war in Ukraine off the top of news bulletins and websites.

On social media, tributes from fellow players were joined by celebrity fans such as rock stars Mick Jagger, Elton John and Ed Sheeran. read more

Martin Pakula, sports minister of Warne's home state Victoria, said the Great Southern Stand at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), where the spinner took his 700th wicket on Boxing Day 2006, would be renamed the SK Warne Stand. The new moniker references the cricketer's first and middle name, Keith.

A sombre stream of people laid flowers, cricket balls and beer bottles at the foot of the statue showing Warne in full flight as a bowler.

"I came to pay my respects for a guy who just loved sport, who loved all sports, football, cricket," said professional Australian rules football player Tom Mitchell, 28, as he left a football.

David Latta, 64, a local resident who attended many of Warne's matches at the MCG, said "everybody wanted to be this guy. Everybody."

"CHEST PAINS"

Thai police said one of three friends staying with Warne in a private villa in Koh Samui's Bo Phut area went to check on the former cricketer when he did not turn up for dinner on Friday.

Finding Warne unconscious, the friend performed CPR, which was again attempted by paramedics and staff at a hospital.

"He had asthma and had seen a doctor about his heart," Yuttana Sirisombat, superintendent at the Bo Phut police station, told reporters.

"We learned from his family that he had experienced chest pains when he was back home in his country," Yuttana said, when asked about any prior illnesses.

The villa where Warne had been discovered unconscious was under heavy security on Saturday and images shared by police from earlier in the day showed three men wearing face masks and casual attire, sitting together in a lounge area with tourist and immigration police present.

Warne's associates were later questioned at the police station. Police had earlier ruled out foul play said they were being interviewed as procedure.

Australian embassy personnel assisting police on Koh Samui declined to comment, including the country's ambassador to Thailand Allan McKinnon.

COURTED CONTROVERSY

Warne's last Tweet was a tribute to another former Australian cricket great, wicketkeeper Rod Marsh, who died earlier on Friday at the age of 74. read more

Australia's men's and women's teams will wear black armbands in Warne's honour when they play matches in Pakistan and New Zealand respectively on Saturday.

Credited with reviving the art of leg spin, Warne made his test debut in 1992 against India, kicking off a 15-year international career. read more

Warne was rated as one of the five greatest players of the 20th century by Wisden Cricketers' Almanack but his hard living often made tabloid headlines as well.

The wily spinner frequently courted controversy and served a 12-month suspension after testing positive for banned diuretics in 2003. read more

"Of course he was controversial, but also put cricket on the map for a lot of people," Sydney resident Eddie Piazza told Reuters.

"So he did a couple of crazy things, but what a legend and we should remember him for the good things."

Reporting by James Redmayne, Lidia Kelly and John Mair and by Amlan Chakraborty in New Delhi, Patpicha Tanakasempipat and Juarawee Kittisilpa in Bangkok; Vorasit Satienlerk and Jiraporn Kuhakan on Koh Samui, Writing by Nick Mulvenney, and Martin Petty; Editing by Jane Wardell, Kim Coghill and Hugh Lawson

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