Cricket World Cup: Warne puts all on line and length

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THERE WILL be no sweaty palms on Australian hands at Worcester today when Steve Waugh's boys keep their first World Cup appointment with the not- fancied Scots, merely a nervous anticipation of the tougher challenges, some very personal, that lie ahead.

The first such contest comes on Thursday against New Zealand, 14 to 1 outsiders maybe, but Australians approach one-day contests against the old foe with almost the same stiletto sharpness as they do an Ashes contest against "the olde enemy".

It has nothing to do with the Trevor Chappell Underarm, all to do with the Kiwis' propensity for devising World Cup tactics most likely to unsettle the Australians. Today's coach Geoff Marsh, the former opening batsman, may still have the occasional nightmare about the Kiwi off-spinner Dipak Patel being thrown the new ball by his captain Martin Crowe in the first match of the 1992 World Cup.

Australia got lost, lost the match, lost momentum, lost the plot and missed the semi-finals of a World Cup they were expected to win because they had the advantage of hosting it. In 1999 no one expects the Australians to miss the Super Six because they are in the soft side of the draw, but the New Zealand match is certainly a danger game.

It would be wrong to fidget over recent Australian results and announce that the team are wobbly,but it would be just as wrong to shout: "No worries" from the top of the Harbour Bridge. Like any other team Australia aim for a high run rate from the opening batsmen, rather than applying the steady-as-she-goes tactic promoted by Bob Simpson when Australia won the Cup in 1987. That's fine, except there's a growing perception batting "system crashes" are becoming the norm not the exception.

Thus far, in less intense contests, Michael Bevan has smoothed the wrinkles. There's no reason to think he won't continue to do that, other than to emphasise Australia's opponents will have a plan for Bevan: captains of the likes of Donald, Shoaib and Gough will quickly test the theory about his hesitancy against very quick bowling.

The Australian captaincy remains under rather bizarre scrutiny. After early resistance the sacking of Mark Taylor for Steve Waugh in the one- day game was accepted as the right move. But when Waugh was injured and Shane Warne took over with startlingly positive results, suddenly Waugh was under a cloud.

In the West Indies, Australia almost lost the Test series they were expected to win 4-0 and, in the one-day series that followed, a contest that everyone conceded was a World Cup loosener, played just as poorly, prompting another bout of mischievous mutterings about Waugh. Midway through the tour the career of Warne, touted as the alternative captain, faltered when he was dropped from the Test team.

While cricket continues to perplex, perhaps we should ponder this: the future of arguably the best leg-spinner in Test history might now lie only in the one-day game. If someone had suggested that a couple of years ago you'd have told him to get his head read.

This Cup will impact heavily on many Australians, but none more so than Warne. And, as yesterday's brush with the International Cricket Council over his comments about Arjuna Ranatunga prove, the opposite will apply as well.

It's true that the selectors' carefully crafted two-team policy will be watched by squinting eyes. Waugh's captaincy, too - does he really need charisma or is cold blood enough? But it is Warne who will crave success, hoping it will catapult him back into the Test team.

Warne is an extrovert and the adrenalin rush of a magnificent World Cup would help him through his career crisis more than any sports psychologist possibly could. Mind readers don't always work, anyway. There's a story about a Tasmanian who thought he was a dog and went to see a psychologist: "OK, get up on the couch," said the psychologist. "I can't," said the man, "I'm not allowed." Therein lies the psychological key to Warne: he is so confident in his own ability, so set in his ways, so comfortable with his mind games that made batsmen and spectators blink in disbelieving unison, that he is not ready to consider a change in his game plan.

Warne's physical credentials are well documented: a shoulder drive like a javelin gold medallist, wrist rotation like a washing machine on spin- dry, and a spinning finger that was macho enough to poke Lennox Lewis in the chest.

That huge reputation encouraged matching expectation: "One day he'll take 600 Test wickets," someone mused. Even the announcement that he needed major surgery was followed by positive suggestions that he'd come back stronger. Blue skies forever...

Eager anticipation accompanies all sporting comebacks but once back his lack of success raised eyebrows: Warne's flipper, cricket's equivalent of a stealth bomber, had became an easy target; his leg-spin was accurate enough but the fizz seemed to have flattened.

If Warne has a flat World Cup then it's probable the challenge to his physical well-being will begin to tax him mentally. Then Warne, whose career has been fashioned around the unorthodox, may have to consider a more orthodox, subtler, more patient approach to his game.

Certainly, he could lift his profile as an all-rounder and in the shadows of his dropping he possibly regretted not taking more seriously his considerable batting talent. Add that to his notable first slip catching and his tactical nous and it seems unimaginable that Australia could continue to omit him from the Test team.