Cricket: Australia in shock at Waugh and Warne

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THE ENGLAND captain, Alec Stewart, last night stepped into the betting affair that has shocked his sport and defended the Australian Cricket Board's decision to keep the matter secret for the last three years.

The Australian leg-spinner Shane Warne and middle-order batsman Mark Waugh yesterday admitted being paid by an Indian bookmaker for giving him details of pitch and weather conditions during the 1994 tour to Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Their actions brought them pounds 7,200 in fines from the ACB at the time but the issue only came to the surface late on Tuesday night.

Now the revelations could have a serious effect on the future of both cricketers with some experts calling for them to be banned while others have been highly critical of the ACB.

Yet Stewart, preparing for the start of the third Ashes test in Adelaide tomorrow, said: "They [the ACB] are not going to publish everything that happens. Some things are public and some things are private."

And, responding to a claim in an Australian newspaper that similar things happened in every dressing-room, he stressed: "I have played 80-odd Test matches for England and I've never seen anything like that."

As the news conference to discuss England's thinking ahead of the third Test at Adelaide on Friday became increasingly dominated by the events, Stewart joked: "I've just offered Shane Warne two beers if he will tell me about the wicket here. This isn't going to affect us at all - we've come here to win a Test and square the series and we will prepare in exactly the same way as we have done before."

The former Australia captain Neil Harvey saw little humour in the situation and was not prepared to be so forgiving. He called for two-year bans for Warne and Waugh and said: "I never ever thought I would see an Australian cricketer slump to these depths. It really hurts me."

Another ex-Australian captain, Richie Benaud, said he was appalled by the actions of the ACB. "One of the most appalling things is that it's been covered up for so long," said Benaud. "I would regard the ACB as being glaringly at fault if they kept it a secret."

Even the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, joined in the condemnation of Warne and Waugh. "Australians love their cricket and anything that looks as though it's knocking cricket off its pedestal is something that's going to deeply disturb Australians," he said. "These things are probably best dealt with more openly and more candidly."

The shockwaves are already being felt by the two players. Warne is in danger of losing a pounds 500,000-a-year sponsorship deal with the American sportswear giants, Nike, who are concerned by their association with a player linked with the murky world of illegal betting.

Warne has been the face of Nike in Australia for the last three years, but a company spokesman confirmed that they were considering their position and would release a statement today.

Nike's concern about the adverse publicity which may be generated by their partnership with Warne is matched by that of the ACB chief executive, Malcolm Speed, who conceded at a highly charged press conference that the controversy may have damaged the world-wide standing of Australian cricket.

The former Australian captain Kim Hughes has insisted Warne's involvement in the matter will damage his chances of ever captaining his country. "It is different to match-fixing but it's still a shock," he said. "Two blokes who have got tremendous records are now tarnished. It's very disappointing for the game."

The former Kent cricketerGraham Cowdrey, who works for the spread betting firm, City Index, said: "In my 15 years of playing first-class cricket in England, I never came across anything like this. For six years, I wrote on cricket betting for the Racing Post but I never said anything about games I was involved with and I certainly never advised anyone to bet heavily on Kent when I did my pre-season previews."

The England chairman of selectors, David Graveney, admitted he was surprised by the situation but felt it had been dealt with correctly.

"I certainly do not believe cricket has an endemic problem with betting," he added.