Cricket: Legend leggie on his soap box

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HE EMERGED from the basement recesses of the Gabba Stadium into the searing heat of the ground and was immediately engulfed. Shane Warne was wearing the darkest of dark glasses so it was impossible to see if his blue eyes held their usual endearing sparkle. But for a man who is perpetually scrutinised, whose shoulder movements and gambling habits alternate as obsessive topics of the moment, he appeared to be eminently relaxed.

"Mate," he responded in answer to the first question, "as I've said before, my life's a soap opera." The latest twist in its plot has been riveting. The hero was appointed captain of Australia, albeit perhaps only for two matches at the start of the one-day international season, two days before he gave evidence to the Pakistani match-rigging inquiry which came to Melbourne.

Warne, it was revealed a month ago, some four years after the event, took a gift of $5,000 (pounds 3,100) from an Indian bookmaker to whom he subsequently gave information on pitches and weather conditions. When the Australian Board found out about this at the time, they fined him (and his colleague Mark Waugh, who has also been giving evidence to the inquiry) and then covered it up.

"I have never been involved in match fixing," said Warne the day after his formal appearance on his arrival at the Gabba for the start of the Carlton & United Series. "Looking back I was a little bit naive."

Warne gave precise details to the inquiry of how he took a gift from an Indian bookmaker who pressurised him to do so and said he was his greatest fan and some while later was telephoned and gave some information on pitch and weather conditions. In a separate incident in the same year he described how he was asked by the Pakistani batsman Salim Malik to throw a Test match.

The great leg spinner has long since begun to take these plot twists in his stride. What's the point of berating the scriptwriters? "Mate, it's been a soap opera since I was 15 years old and was getting six of the best at school. Do I mind? Well, I'm still smiling aren't I." Beneath the glasses you could not quite be certain but you believed him.

"All along in the past four or five years all I have done is tell the truth. I don't believe you can get into trouble if you tell the truth. Some of the innuendo has been very disappointing. Living in Australia you expect a bit better and a few papers will be hearing from my lawyer."

The public, he said, had a right to know about the bookmaker's money. The Board had told him to keep quiet. But, yes, he deserved to be fined. "If anything it's spurred me on. My record in the one-day game in the past six or seven years has been good and I won my first match as captain a year ago. The guys in the dressing-room are right behind me, they don't know what everybody's going on about. The public have been fantastic, at Sydney [on his Test comeback after delicate surgery on his bowling shoulder] they were sensational."

If there is a more famous Australian than Warne, one who seems to touch everybody's lives, then he has been quiet of late. The interest is so vast not only because he is a bowling phenomenon with a great deal of charisma but because he is quite willing to talk about it, to take part in his own soap.

Some commentators have been apoplectic in the past week about his elevation to the captaincy while Steve Waugh's hamstring recovers. One leading columnist, venting spleen and vitriol in equal measure, said Warne was a lout and a liar, implying that his public persona changed when he signed a promotional contract. "It is time to stop trying to wrap Warne in camouflage."

If it is an act it is a consummate one and if he still pulls faces on the field occasionally it is a mild sort of misdemeanour. He claimed not to be concerned by the criticism.

"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 may not like that. They might not like the way I am or conduct myself."

Amid all this he still talked sensibly about cricket because this was how it all started and what really mattered, how England were a competitive one-day side, of the flair Sri Lanka would bring to the party, how Australia were still the best team. "I just want to get out there and whip the Poms," he said.

It is The Truman Show brought to real life, but this star shows no inclination to depart. The soap opera will not be over until the fat bloke bowls his last flipper.