Cricket: Keeping up with ways of Warne

Shane the bane of England: Three witnesses to the wiles of the legendary leg-spinner talk to Stephen Brenkley
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The spin watcher: Ian Healy

Without Ian Healy the great Shane Warne might not have waxed quite so lyrical. When the definitive work on the world's most potent partnerships comes to be compiled the pair should be right up there with Rodgers and Hart, Mason and Dixon, Hobbs and Sutcliffe, fish and chips.

Healy and Warne - always in that order for the purposes of dismissal on the scorecard - first got together in late 1991 when Australia played India and have been that way for 54 of 55 Warne's Tests since. But it was not until their seventh Test in harness, more than a year later, that they combined to send a batsman packing. K L T Arthurton st Healy b Warne 13, read the card. And two games later came the first catch: R B Richardson ct Healy b Warne 72.

They have been at it ever since. But it is not simply that the wicketkeeper has had a direct hand in exactly a seventh of the leg spinner's 252 Test wickets (26 catches, 10 stumpings), a record for his type which he set at Old Trafford last week, overhauling Richie Benaud's figure of 248. It is the deep understanding that has evolved between them. Healy, unlike plenty of batsmen, knows what Warne will bowl.

"I could tell that Shane was coming back to form," said Healy last week as most of the Australians took a few days off in Scotland and Warne returned to Australia to see his new-born daughter. "He had put a lot of work in with different people and it showed in the way his work-rate and intensity picked up straightaway. Just a little thing like the way he was spinning the ball in his hand as he went back to his mark told a difference."

The partnership is not of the silent variety. Healy is forever coming up with suggestions of where Warne might like to try bowling, how the batsman is playing, what ploy might work next. It does not make for an easy life.

"On the fourth and fifth days particularly, it isn't always something to look forward to when you know he's likely to bowl outside the leg stump from round the wicket and turn it a lot," Healy said. "Then you have to be aware of everything. Although Michael Bevan can sometimes bowl some unbelievably bad balls the batsmen usually hit them so Shane is a bit more difficult to keep to. And he's bowling long, long spells."

Healy kept imperiously to the leg-spinner, then just ascending to greatness, on Australia's 1993 tour where their relationship was probably cemented. He still lists as his best piece of stumping that which he claimed at Edgbaston to get out Graham Thorpe where the ball turned and lifted sharply and Healy had to make several swift decisions while on the move, before gathering. He places narrowly behind that his superlative work to dismiss Mark Butcher at Old Trafford last week off a leg-side ball of the fullest length.

"Shane's length is the important thing over long periods of bowling," he explained. "We've chatted so much over the years about what's happening. I suppose I learnt as I went along but I'm not sure I can better the way I kept wicket to him on the 1993 tour here. Things are going pretty well this time. Reading him is one thing but you still have to get there."

Healy, 33, wore a helmet during much of England's second innings in the Third Test. This was not for self-protection especially but to give him more confidence as Warne turned it out of the rough. "There were holes there so I just felt wearing it gave me more confidence in staying down."

He envisages being around a while yet with his blond-haired fellow assassin ("I'd like to make the decision when to go rather than the selectors"). Healy and Warne could still continue to have the sort of effect on English batsmen that Burke and Hare had on Scottish graveyards.

The spin doctor: Peter Sleep

IF THERE is a mood which characterises the effective leg-spinner, the effervescent Warne has it. So did Peter Sleep. He played 14 Tests for Australia in the late Eighties and was a lively, determined purveyor of the most mystifying of bowling arts. He is now devoted to ensuring the supply grows.

"I would say that batsmen are getting more familiar with it, but not necessarily that they're playing it any better," said Sleep. "England know more about Warne this time because they've played him so often, but it hasn't stopped them getting out to him.

"The leg-spinner always has to stay one step ahead. The idea really should be to get them to hit leg against the spin instead of on the off. That's what can get them out."

Of course, Warne sows such seeds of doubt that during his renaissance in Manchester two England batsmen - the adept Nasser Hussain and John Crawley - both got out dabbing timorously with the spin.

"He is still the best at it around by some way. The distance he turns it will always make him extremely difficult to handle. After him comes Paul Strang," said Sleep, who is second XI captain and coach at Lancashire, and has advised on how Warne might be countered. "More leg-spinners will come through, I'm sure of that. We've got a couple here at Lancashire and I've got really high hopes for Chris Schofield.

"Familiarity won't breed contempt either, but English batsmen will get much more used to playing it. The thing about Warne is that he'll always be dangerous while he turns it such a long way and the England batsmen worry about him. Confidence is a two-way thing."

Sleep provides compelling evidence that shows, for all the video tapes and coaching, England might not have learnt all that much about leg-spin over the last decade. In January 1987, Australia won the final Test of the series by 55 runs. England were bowled out in the second innings by a leg-spinner who took five for 72. His name was Peter Sleep.

The spin student: Amer Khan

AMER KHAN never tires of Shane Warne's bowling. He watches him as an apprentice might watch his master, with awe and respect. Khan is no mean leg-spinner himself but he is aware that Warne has transformed the craft.

"There are two things I would say you must have above all others to be a success as a leg-spinner. The first and most important is confidence to pitch the ball, to let it turn and know you can beat the batsman. The second is the control that only confidence can give you."

At 27, Khan is only two months younger than the Victorian and knows he is tweaking in the footholes of genius. Khan was born in Pakistan where he learned the rudiments of his craft and came over to England to hone it when he was 19. Until he went to Sussex this season, he had spent two fruitless seasons at Middlesex where he had one Championship game in which he bowled only two maiden overs. It gave him immense satisfaction to dismiss his former captain, Mike Gatting, earlier this season.

"Warne has obviously made sure there is a future for leg-spin, but I still feel there aren't enough people doing it in this country. Only me and Ian Salisbury on a regular basis, I think, apart from the ones from overseas.

"What makes Warne different is his bowling variation. I can bowl the leg-break and googly all right but I'm still working on the flipper and looking at the way he bowls it... I haven't actually tried it in the middle yet."

If that admission is indicative of the true wonder of Warne then Khan is convinced leg-spin will survive and prosper. Warne, he said, had brought it to a new audience. "I'm regularly coaching it to youngsters down in Sussex and there are plenty who can bowl it. They have to be given a chance so that they then have the confidence. The great thing about Warne is that he's so relaxed when he bowls. That's the only way to be as a leg- spinner so that the ball comes out right and goes in the right direction.

"I'd never say it's easy but you certainly have more fun. Batsmen, by and large, definitely don't like it."