Cricket: Australia's smoking gun Shane

Warne emerges as challenger to Waugh in the Taylor succession stakes after vibrant captaincy displays
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AS THE exalted Mark Taylor abdicated his throne last week he made no great claims of where he ranked. Taylor was asked how the unbeaten 334 he had made in a Test match against Pakistan late last year had changed his life. "It's taken me to another level," he said. "It's taken me from Australian cricketer and Australian captain to almost Shane Warne levels."

Such a candid assessment was typical of Taylor, of course. He would have found it almost impossible to avoid that adverb. But it served as a precise reminder of who is the most famous of all Australian cricketers of the present, probably of all Australian sportsmen, possibly of all Australians.

Shane Warne's fame has become entwined with notoriety. He lives permanently under a microscope and frequently under a cloud. As he has it, his existence is a soap opera. His behaviour and attitudes are scrutinised. His dietary regime and his present (sponsored) attempt to give up smoking are the focus of constant attention. They have been joined lately by renewed analysis of his bowling and his leadership. He is, it is clear, remarkably adept at the latter but may not, it is feared, be as phenomenal as he was at the former. It is in Warne's nature that he has refused to be cowed by any of this.

Sometime later this week or early next he will learn if he is to be the 40th Australian Test captain in succession to Taylor. The chances are that the job will go to Steve Waugh, the senior player, the most proficient batsman in the world and a wholly respected man and cricketer. But it is not quite a shoo-in. Waugh may be odds-on but Warne is not so far out of the frame that the balance is beyond tipping. If there are huge detractors in the corridors of Australian cricket power there are also massive, unashamed supporters. Victory for Australia in the finals, beginning on Wednesday, of the Carlton & United Series , in which he has so far marshalled his side with enchanting gusto, would not harm his case.

The year is barely a month old but already the legendary leg-spinner has had enough action to fill some lifetimes. It has contained revelations about a fine for receiving a cash gift from an Indian bookmaker five years ago, a recall to Test cricket following a nine-month lay-off with an injured bowling shoulder, testimony to a match-fixing inquiry and elevation to the captaincy of his country's one-day side. It is in the last role that his actions have made him a realistic contender to follow Taylor.

In the past month of the Carlton & United triangular tournament, Warne has shown himself to be a leader of boldness, vision and daring. He has attacked when others would have defended, he has gambled when the majority of men would have played it safe. He has rarely, and unsurprisingly for a fellow of his admitted propensity for a flutter, hedged his bets. He recognises that such an approach will not perpetually work.

"Some days I attack a little bit too much," he said after one of those matches when it had been notably successful. "It doesn't always come off but at the moment it seems to be working." There is evidence to suggest that Warne is not only an audacious captain but a lucky one.

He is unafraid to change his bowlers regularly. In the match against England at Adelaide when it looked as though England were assembling a routine one-day victory he used eight bowlers, not out of panic but because he knew that the Englishmen's rhythm might be disrupted. It was at least worth a go. "I like being captain and I like attacking," he said. "I like to try a lot of stuff."

The demeanour with which he has conducted himself during the series may have given his snootier critics reason to regroup their opinions if not to remain silent. Steve Waugh was to be Australia's captain in the triangular tournament but he has missed all but two of the matches with a pulled hamstring. Warne was named as his deputy at the outset, amid much consternation in many quarters.

Much of this was caused by details emerging of the $5,000 gift Warne had taken (under pressure) from a man he met in a casino on Australia's tour of Sri Lanka three years ago and to whom he later gave information on pitch conditions.

Although he was fined at the time by the Australian Cricket Board they decided then that the public should not be informed. Warne appears successfully to have overcome the shame by the sheer magnetism of his personality, by the calling of Muttiah Muralitharan for throwing and the retirement of Taylor. For once, he was overshadowed by other events, which is, again, the sort of luck a captain needs.

But other aspersions had already been cast on whether he was an appropriate captain, even in the limited-overs game, because some observers simply did not like the cut of his jib. He was, they said, a larrikin and a liar, a bleached blond with a sponsored earring who could not help his exhibitionism.

Warne rather neatly circumvented that by saying: "We can't like everybody else. I might like him but not you. It's just personalities. I'm just going to go out and be myself as I have been for 30 years and some people might not like that. They might not like the way I am or conduct myself."

If that smacked of diplomatic qualities he virtually became an ambassador in quelling crowd trouble at Melbourne during a match between England and Australia. Bay 13 was in uproar, they were raining bottles and billiard balls on to the field with no particular preference. Alec Stewart, the England captain summoned Warne on to the pitch and the crowd listened. Perhaps they recognised one of their own.

He did not make the mistake of simply condemning this small outbreak. Rather he pointed out how the vast majority of the 80,000 had behaved and enjoyed themselves. "They're right behind us. When the heat is on your side it's a big advantage."

At 29 he has not been outwardly changed by the responsibilities of parenthood. There is still the glint of a rebel in his eye and he looks as though he can still cavort on the dressing-room balcony with a bottle of champagne.

But it is not the volatility of his temperament or his occasional abrasiveness which will ultimately influence the selectors. It is his form. Warne is not yet the versatile bowler he was before his shoulder operation last March. He remains accurate but he may not be turning the ball as much, his googly is as yet ineffective. Warne, it is said, is no longer guaranteed his place.

This, as much as anything else, is likely to be crucial in determining Steve Waugh as the next Test captain. But, as Mark Taylor knows, it will not erode Shane Warne's fame.