Shane Warne: More spinned against than spinning

It was never going to be long before Australia's maverick spinner reclaimed the back-page headlines, but recently he's also been splashed all over the front of the tabloids. The man they call 'Hollywood' is still big box office, but for all the wrong reasons. He clearly has balls, but can he hold on to them?
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Warne's career has been an inner dialogue between two competing voices. One urges him to make the most of his unique gifts as the most mesmerising and magical bowler the sport has seen. The other lures him unerringly to his doom. Self-destruction has come as easily as he has destroyed the careers of opposition batsmen. "My life has not always been straightforward, but my cricket has never suffered," he says. Both clauses drip with understatement.

Yet cricket might never have claimed him at all. Growing up in the Melbourne suburb of Black Rock, Warne preferred the rough and tumble of Australian-rules football and the freedom of the surf board to what he regarded as the tedium of cricket. But he discovered that he had the knack of turning a little red ball from out of the back of his hand - the most difficult and least natural of the sport's skills - and at 19 he was on his way to Bristol for a summer of club cricket. Warne reckons he put on three and a half stone during his stint in the West Country. It was precisely this lack of self-control that would become a leitmotif for his career.

His list of misdemeanours is almost worth a book on its own. In 1990, he was expelled from the Australian Cricket Academy for generally being a bit of a scallywag. In 1994, he accepted money from an Indian bookmaker in exchange for information about the state of the pitch prior to a one-day international - an act which at the time he, if not everyone, put down to naivete rather than skulduggery. In 2000, he was accused of bombarding Donna Wright, a nurse from Leicester, with obscene text messages after meeting her in a nightclub. In 2003, moments before Australia's first game in the World Cup in South Africa, he was banned for a year for taking diuretics, which he claimed had been given to him by his mother to help him to lose weight. And only last week, in the aftermath of his split from his wife Simone, a British tabloid printed the latest in a long line of allegations about his sex life.

Rebecca Weeden, a 20-year-old archaeology student, claimed Warne had asked her during the course of their five-week affair to approach him and his wife in a bar, pretend to be a star-struck fan, and casually suggest a threesome. It was, she said, a desperate last-ditch attempt to save his marriage, though possibly only Warne understood the logic of the plan. Time and again, it has been obvious that his struggle has been not so much fitting into his cricket whites as keeping them on.

The contrast with his on-field exploits could not be more painful. After a slow start to his Test career - he was hammered all round the Sydney Cricket Ground by India's batsmen on his Test debut in 1991-92 - Warne announced himself to the world in 1993 when he bowled Mike Gatting at Old Trafford with a fizzing, dipping, turning leg break that immediately entered the game's mythology.

It was Warne's first delivery against England and the start of a psychological grip on their batsmen which has never weakened. In 2000 he was named as one of Wisden's five best cricketers of the 20th century, behind only the Australian Don Bradman, the West Indian Garry Sobers and England's Jack Hobbs. He needs only 12 wickets to become the first man to take 600 in Test cricket.

Like Brian Lara of West Indies and Sachin Tendulkar of India, the two other undisputed geniuses of contemporary cricket, he elevates the game beyond its immediate context by turning milestones and statistics into a source of national pride. "Bowling, Warney" has become almost as symbolic an affirmation of young Australia as the republican movement.

And yet his success on the field is merely the counterpoint to his excess off it. Some sportsmen talk of white-line fever, the phenomenon by which even the most placid character is overcome by a desire to hurt his opponents as soon as he enters the field of play. For Warne, the fever coincides with a sense of release from the turmoil of his private life. On the field he is Shane Warne, all-time legend. Off it he is a warts-and-all human being just like everyone else. It is little wonder that the refuge of the cricket pitch allows him to perform so well even when everything else seems to be falling to pieces.

Seasoned Warne-watchers say he is driven by a desire never to let go of the legend side of his persona, which in turn translates into a fear of growing up. Warne is 35, but his best friend in the Hampshire team he captained in the build-up to the Ashes is Kevin Pietersen, who is 25 and in cricketing terms part of a younger generation. Pietersen regards the relationship as mentor-mentee or uncle-nephew; Warne prefers to think of two brothers-in-arms. The older man has undergone laser treatment to restore his thinning blond thatch, and on the first day of the Lord's Test could be seen puffing on a cigarette on the team balcony like a rebellious teenager.

Through it all - possibly until the moment a month ago when Simone decided enough was enough - Warne has clung tenaciously to the illusion of his own invulnerability. If he misbehaved, it was because part of him believed his misbehaviour could have no consequences. He was simply too famous to come unstuck. And when mud was flung, he would not even countenance the possibility that it might stick. The Australian media have queued up to condemn Warne's refusal to take responsibility for his actions. In Dangerous Liaisons the libertine Valmont constantly seeks to explain away his amoral actions by protesting: "Ce n'est pas ma faute". Something of the same informs the world view of Warne.

He remains hugely popular in the game. A former Hampshire team-mate calls him "funny, polite and considerate". The "Warne factor" has turned many a meandering draw into a famous win and yesterday he played what will probably prove to be a decisive role in the current Test. But with retirement no more than two years away, Warne will soon have to face up to a world beyond the boundary. It will be interesting to see how he gets on.