Cricket: Australia ready to drop weary Warne

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GRADUALLY AND grudgingly, Australia appear to have accepted the irrefutable evidence and are prepared to drop leg-spinner Shane Warne for the decisive fourth and final Test against the West Indies, starting here today.

A month ago, it would have been an unthinkable proposition. That it is now the most likely option - with Australia 2-1 down in the series and needing outright victory to retain the Frank Worrell Trophy they have held since 1995 - accentuates their desperate situation.

Test cricket's most successful spin bowler and the cornerstone of Australia's status as the strongest team of the day, Warne's threat has been so diminished by a shoulder operation nine months ago that he has managed only two wickets in the previous two Tests.

They have been the left-handed wicket-keeper Ridley Jacobs in the second and Courtney Walsh, the No11 with more ducks than anyone in the history of Test cricket, in the third. Both were caught in the outfield and they have come at a cost of 288 runs.

Swayed more by sentiment than statistics, the Australian captain, Steve Waugh, in his first series at the helm, has loyally stuck by his vice- captain. But the use of Warne and fellow leg-spinner Stuart MacGill has unbalanced the attack and thrown too much responsibility on the fast bowlers, Glenn McGrath and Jason Gillespie.

The upshot has been a back strain that has eliminated the impressive Gillespie from today's Test and a workload that left McGrath exhausted after 77 overs in the thrilling third Test in Barbados that captain Brian Lara's masterly, unbeaten 153 secured for the West Indies by one wicket.

Adam Dale, the Queensland swing bowler, will replace Gillespie on the ground where he earlier took 15 wickets at under 10 runs each in two minor tour matches. Colin Miller, the 35-year-old Tasmanian who suddenly emerged from the oblivion of 15 years state cricket to make his Test debut in Pakistan last year, would provide Waugh with two options as he is capable of both lively pace and off-spin

Dale has had one Test, Miller six and MacGill, likely to be preferred to Warne, 11. It is a serious lack of experience.

The issue over Warne has understandably created an intense debate among former Australian players, as it no doubt has among the tour selectors of whom Warne, as vice-captain, is one. A bowler with 317 Test wickets and a reputation to match is not easily discarded.

Whatever decision is taken before the toss at the Antigua Recreation Ground this morning, nothing has more starkly revealed Australia's sudden distress than the conundrum over Warne.

The West Indies, who were in a state of even more chaos and despair following their record-low 51 all out and defeat by 312 runs in the first Test, now have few worries.

Lara's 213 in Kingston and unbeaten 153 in Bridgetown not only inspired unexpected victories but engendered a new spirit that was markedly absent in the preceding 5-0 humiliation in the series in South Africa.

Lara is now back to the scene of his world record 375 five years ago. His and his team's most dangerous opponent now is as much complacency as Australia.

WEST INDIES (from): B C Lara (capt), S L Campbell, A F G Griffith, D R E Joseph, W W Hinds, C L Hooper, J C Adams, R D Jacobs, N O Perry, C E L Ambrose, P T Collins, C A Walsh and C O Collymore.

AUSTRALIA (from): S R Waugh (capt), M J Slater, M T G Elliott, G S Blewett, J L Langer, M E Waugh, R T Ponting, I A Healy, S K Warne, C R Miller, A C Dale, S C G MacGill, G D McGrath.

Umpires: S A Bucknor (West Indies), D R Orchard (South Africa).

India's captain, Mohammad Azharuddin, will miss tomorrow's triangular series one-day final against Pakistan in Bangalore. Azharuddin has not recovered from a shoulder injury that kept him out of India's last two matches and was left out of a provisional squad named yesterday.

"It [the injury] is nothing serious but with the World Cup around the corner we do not want to take any chances," said Raj Singh Dungarpur, president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India.

INDIA (from): A Jadeja (capt), S Ganguly, S Ramesh, R Dravid, A Khurasia, R Singh, N Mongia, H Kanitkar, A Kumble, A Agarkar, V Prasad, N Chopra, J Srinath, G Pandey.