Cricket: Warne delivers a potent threat: The Australian team's not-so-secret Test weapon is a master of the art of leg spin. Glenn Moore reports

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The Independent Online
IMAGINE IT. You're picked for your country after seven first-class games, a shock selection, all your dreams have come true. All except the happy ending. In the first game you drop the opposition opener on 66 off your own bowling and at 100 off someone else's; he goes on to make 206, you take 1 for 150 and only the rain saves your team from defeat against a side they have been hammering all summer.

Worse follows, in the next game you take 0 for 78 and are dropped. Then, taken on tour, you have another 107 runs hit off your bowling in what are supposed to be helpful conditions.

At that point, 335 runs conceded for one wicket taken, Shane Warne's nagging belief that he did not belong in Test cricket preyed ever more heavily on his mind. He wondered aloud: 'What am I doing here?' Here was Colombo, the time last August, with Australia batting and slipping towards a first defeat to Sri Lanka. Sitting next to him, Allan Border told him to stick at it: 'I'm a great believer in guys who hang in there, one day it'll click for you.'

It did the following day as Border, his other bowlers exhausted, turned to the young leg-spinner in an act of faith that was part courage, part desperation. Warne responded with three wickets in 11 balls as Australia snatched the Test. He said he felt the 'weight of the world lift off his shoulders'.

In December he won the second Test against the West Indies in Melbourne with a spell of 7 for 21, in March he took 7 for 86 against New Zealand in Christchurch. Last week England joined the list of countries who have fallen to Warne. A happy ending after all.

Except Warne is only 23: we are just in the opening chapters. His art is supposed to take years to perfect. Bob Holland and Trevor Hohns, his predecessors on Ashes tours, were both looking towards retirement when they had their finest hours. Ian Salisbury, four months younger and England's only competitor, may be as capable of bowling a wicket-taking ball but is way off achieving the sustained accuracy that makes Warne so dangerous. Salisbury however, began at 17, Warne at 12. India's Anil Kumble, 22, has the accuracy but lacks the turn and variation of Warne. Only Mushtaq Ahmed, also 22, rivals him and the New Zealand captain, Martin Crowe, having played both, backs Warne.

Warne believes he now has nine different deliveries. His development is a tribute to the far-sighted and broad-minded attitudes of the Australian national set-up as well as his own efforts and ability. Not many selectors would have retained faith in Warne after his poor debut series against India (Ravi Shastri was the double-centurion involved). But then they had already picked Warne out as a talent to persevere with.

Born in Melbourne, Warne progressed through Australia's testing grade-cricket system to be selected for the Cricket Academy in 1990-91, along with Damien Martyn. That season he won his way into the state side, but left the academy after being left out of a tour of Sri Lanka for disciplinary reasons. Before leaving, he played against the England tourists and dismissed Robin Smith.

Like Smith, the West Indies find leg-spinners harder to deal with than throat-cutters, and with Australia's quest to defeat them reaching Ashes status the search was on for a young leggie to face them the following season. With that in mind, Warne was sent to Zimbabwe in September 1991 with an Australian XI under Mark Taylor, along with Peter McIntyre. Both were struggling to get into a Victorian attack based on seam bowling, but although the Test selector John Benaud's report favoured McIntyre, Warne resisted blandishments from New South Wales team-mates to move to their helpful Sydney track, choosing to fight it out for a Victorian place.

He succeeded quickly enough to be picked to play for an Australian XI against the West Indies, who were on a mini-tour, taking 7 for 56 to keep the selectors' long-term plan on line. That match not only earned him his Test debut a month later and the selectors' support, it was also significant for a change in his own attitudes. At that stage Warne was a mess physically. Three stone overweight, with a diet of junk food and lager, he was a liability in the field and a larrikin off it.

The day before the game, Bobby Simpson, Australia's coach, put him through the wringer at fielding practice. By the end Warne was a gasping wreck, unable to waddle after the simplest catch, the laughter of his new team-mates, who included six Test caps, ringing in his ears. But he still got wickets and, fortified by that, set about losing weight, more than 30lb in all, and improving his fielding. The result is what the Sun describes as 'a hunk' although 'Hollywood', as he is nicknamed, is not the hell-raiser he was. It was announced yesterday, in fact,that he has just proposed to his fiancee, Simone.

Simpson, no mean leg-spinner himself, believes Warne can get even better. 'He bowled better in Sri Lanka than in Manchester,' he said. 'He is still serving his apprenticeship and is learning so much. He had a difficult debut, the Indian batsmen are as good at playing leg-spin as anyone, but we don't just pick a player for one Test, we picked him for the future.'

What a novel idea . . .

(Photograph omitted)