Cricket: Wayward ways of Warne border on the reckless

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TRYING TO make sense of World Cup manoeuvres from jumbo jet distance via modern television technology can play tricks on the mind, especially when it's two in the morning. So, it is possibly an error of judgement to regard the following moment as surreal:

Shane Warne, wearing what turned out to be a suitably back armband on his wrist, decided to bowl around the wicket to Chris Cairns at match point in Australia's struggle (war?) with the Kiwis.

How should we rate a tactic like that, high risk, gung-ho, or simply "typical Warnie"? The last choice provides us with an insight into the workings of a mind that oscillates between the delicious - having opposition batsmen for breakfast - and the dumb - dealing with an Indian bookmaker, or dumping on Arjuna Ranatunga on World Cup eve.

Who knows what prompted Warne's waywardness in his off-field moments, but by so attacking Cairns we can only presume his wayward leg-stump line was an invitation for a similarly wayward effort from a batsman addicted to the sweep shot. The bad news for the leg-spinner is the addicts are becoming fewer by the day - the straighter hit is back.

And the bad news for Australia was always going to be that the wides which are never called in a Test match will be identified in the cup, and such careless cricket is being harshly punished. In the most recent cups, on the flat, sun-baked fields of the sub-continent and in Australia, it was possible to paper over the cracks, but in the seaming conditions in England, where pitches are accommodating a ball with a mind of its own, discipline is paramount. Without it India (21 wides, 16 no balls) succumbed to Zimbabwe, and with it Scotland's loss to Pakistan might not have been so massive.

So, at the precise moment Australia needed to maintain maximum pressure on the Kiwi pair, Warne's last three overs cost 21. In truth, he pressured his own team. Bowling around the wicket to the left-handed Roger Twose might have been useful, but to do so to the right-hander? In the good old days Warne might have pulled it off, but at Cardiff it proved careless, verging on reckless.

This is not to say Warne cost Australia the match; that damage was done by a panicky batting order's failure to set a target of 250-plus. But it does raise an important question: was the plan for Cairns a thoroughly- discussed team tactic or an individual's gamble, a symbol of the aggression that served Warne so well when he was captain a few months back?

Steve Waugh has enjoyed dabbling with innovation as much as any cricketer: he once spent time trying to adapt the flipper to his medium-pace repertoire. And, half a dozen summers ago when Pakistan needed a six off the last ball to tie a World Series match at Hobart's Bellerive Oval Waugh, by then regarded as the iceman of one-day cricket, took the "left-field" option - instead of bowling one in the blockhole, the acknowledged run- stopper, he bowled a slower one.

It disappeared over the fence. There is a structured orderliness to Waugh's captaincy. When he is accused of lacking flair by preferring not to promote the successful Michael Bevan he responds with the "why try to fix something that's not broken" line. And he's right.

This suggests the Bellerive incident had a lasting effect, so why did he allow Warne to come from left field? Was it a concession to the vice- captain's flair, or a confession that the game plan had been sadly astray all day? The three positives expected to catapult Australia to victory played out as negatives: the acclaimed opening batting partnership of Adam Gilchrist and Mark Waugh failed; Bevan sort of failed (and with him went any hope of the usual final 10 over runfest); the McGrath-Warne pairing as innings-breakers failed.

Luck was occasionally bad for Australia. McGrath had Twose caught off a no-ball, but that's careless. And the same batsman did lob one just out of the reach of Shane Lee. The danger is those moments could camouflage an emerging truth about Australia's game plan: it has only a 50 per cent success rate.

Since the selectors opted for one-day specialists, rejecting the balanced talents of Test players like Justin Langer and Michael Slater, Australia have won 20 games out of 40. Is that a firm enough foundation on which to win a World Cup? Australia could do with a top-order batsman determined to take 45 overs (say three hours, not so far away from a Test effort) to score a century.

Come this evening, after the meeting with Wasim Akram and Pakistan at Headingley, Waugh and his fellow selectors will have to depart from the game plan no matter what the result. The next match is against Bangladesh and offers an opportunity to try new options. The allrounders Tom Moody and Brendon Julian should play, Damien Martyn and Paul Reiffel too.

Should Australia lose to Pakistan - this will be their 50th contest, with Australia leading 25-21 - then it is possible the match against the West Indies at Old Trafford next Sunday will be a play-off for third place in Group B. Recent history shows that's the sort of sudden-death occasion Brian Lara has been known to relish.