Cricket: Warne exposes the Australian fault-lines

John Benaud fears the great man's injury is bringing many wider problems to light
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The Independent Online
WE Australians are acknowledged to be a weird mob, so few off shore will be surprised to learn of the general reaction when we were confronted by the titanic headline "Warne: I might not bowl again" over our cornflakes last week: "Yes, but what's my football team been doing?" In the middle of any Down Under winter, Australian Rules rules, OK.

Some supporters might be inclined to cheer the dire predictions about Shane Warne's future after his shoulder operation. A wiser course might be to adopt the famous Australian attitude to any curly proposition: boil the billy and sit awhile.

Depending on whether you're in a doctor's waiting-room or waiting for a beer in your local, the word about Warne's bowling shoulder rehabilitation is either it's so good he'll be playing golf next week or it's so bad he'll miss all the Ashes Tests and in 1999 he won't tour the West Indies or appear at the World Cup.

The sensible starting point in any discussion on Warne's future is Warne himself. He says: "I like to be positive in anything I do and at this stage my target is to play the first Sheffield Shield games [at the end of October] and get right for the First Test [in mid-November]."

That seems to contradict medical opinion offered at the time of his operation in May. Doctors said then: "Recovery time is likely to be 6 to 12 months." However, sources in the Warne camp say the prognosis has been revised. "Three to six months is a more realistic time-frame," they say.

Lastly we should listen to a selector. Allan Border says: "There's no point in Shane rushing back. The important objective for him is to extend his career as long as possible. If that means delaying his comeback, so be it."

Therefore, a considered reading of the tea leaves suggests Warne will make his comeback in the Boxing Day Test, the Fourth Test of what could be at that point an evenly balanced Ashes series. It should be quite a moment at his beloved Melbourne Cricket Ground in front of 70,000 adoring home-town fans.

Such an outcome offers an intriguing perspective on the Ashes series; the most recent contests have been heavily influenced by Warne's leg-spin, and because he is a freak it is impossible to imagine that his replacement could impact on the play either psychologically or statistically to the extent that Warne has.

And that lays bare a tear in Australia's cricket muscle: the real shortage of top-quality young spin bowlers. Warne's leg-spin replacement can only be Stuart MacGill, who is 27 years old.

MacGill is tidy, not the threatening, aggressive type that Warne is and under pressure he lacks Warne's steeliness. But he does have some good leg-spin variations and also a sharp wrong'un, so England's batsmen would be naive to discount him just yet.

Because Australia are unlikely to play two spinners in the Tests - even at the Sydney Cricket Ground where a new groundsman has unearthed grass in a square that for a decade was dead grey - the 32-year-old off-spinner Gavin Robertson might play only in the World Series.

By Australian selection standards, notable for the promotion of youngsters such as Ian Craig, Doug Walters and Warne, MacGill and Robertson would be classified as "mature cricketers"; they are certainly old to be making Test debuts, yet each has done just that in the last few months.

And, when Australia tour Pakistan in September, wearing the baggy green for the first time will be Colin Miller, who is 34 years old. We Australians have enjoyed making Dad's Army cracks whenever England opted for age over youth - how we guffawed at the call-up of Colin Cowdrey, aged 42, to deal with Lillee and Thomson on the Ashes tour in 1974-75 - yet we are marching down the same hill.

Possibly it's just a passing "English phase" in the Australian game, one exaggerated in the spin department by the Warne crisis. Yet there is another concern. Such is the amount of domestic cricket played now in Australia that the sport has become the job, as has been the case in England forever.

Sheffield Shield cricketers are to be paid a wage, just like England's county cricketers. No longer will Australian cricketers leave the game at a relatively young age and take up a real job; now cricket is their job and they will work at it as long as they can.

Australian cricket might become an old man's game and never see another Doug Walters - Test debut age 19. How depressing.

On a lighter note: the Warne conjecture squashed another cricket fitness story, that the Australian Test captain Mark Taylor, affectionately dubbed "Tubby" by his team-mates, has reduced his weight to 1989 proportions. A new lease of life at 33.