Aymes aims to keep the hero happy

Stephen Brenkley finds Warne's fortunes will be in the safest of hands
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The Independent Online

Three men have so far had the undoubted privilege and forbidding task of keeping wicket regularly to Shane Warne in his professional career. Sometime this week the trio - Ian Healy and Adam Gilchrist for Australia, Darren Berry for Victoria - will be supplemented when the transcendent leg-spinner delivers his first ball for Hampshire with Adrian Aymes on sentry duty.

Perhaps one day they could form a memorial barbershop quartet. "Bowling Warney," they could each intone, the native Southampton of the last member complementing the strident strine of his fellow choristers. Nobody doubts Warne's place in the pantheon or his election as one of the Five Cricketers of the Century, but his bowling has unquestionably been enhanced by the company of keepers he has kept, as it were.

His new partner is aware that this is no ordinary bowler, no routine summer. The place is buzzing as the day of arrival approaches. If the first question to Aymes is about when precisely Warne lands after completing his present duties with Australia the second is about how precisely Hampshire's wicketkeeper proposes to cope with the devious top spinner, the mischievous googly, above all the fizzing leg-spinner itself. Aymes, it is clear, is bemused by this.

"Some people who I would not necessarily expect it of have come up with a big laugh on their lips as though they're looking forward to seeing me struggle," he said. "I know that it won't be a doddle. They say it took Healy two years to read him properly and I certainly haven't got that long. But I'm not nervous about this. If I learn quickly to read him from the hands I should be all right. The leg spinner, turning away from the right-hand bat might be easier to take than the off-spinner where it's turning in, getting tangled up with pads and you're moving behind the batsman's body where you can't see it."

If there is a third question about Warne, incidentally, it has probably surfaced this week and is connected with his unfortunate aberration in taking money from an Indian bookmaker for information six years ago. The matter is now sure to be raised when he arrives, but it should not, after all this time, tarnish his welcome.

Although Aymes can recall keeping to only two leg-spinners in his career - one at school, one at his club - there is good reason to suspect that Warne may have plumped correctly in choosing Hampshire. Maybe he was not to know but the fellow who will fetch and carry for him these next four months is among the most adept keepers around the counties.

Like English goalkeepers, the regard in which English wicketkeepers is held has diminished in the past 20 years. For a century, the high standard of our sporting custodians always seemed to be in safe hands. Aymes is in the line of the venerable tradition.

If there is a complaint levelled at his breed it is that too many of them today are mere goalkeepers, standing back and diving. No goalkeeper he. Aymes is up and at 'em before they can think of leaving their crease. One of the pleasurable sights of the past decade has been his movement to his left, down the leg side, feet perfectly swift, bodyweight forward, bails whipped off.

"When I first came into the game and stood up to seamers they tended to resist because they thought it said something about their pace," he said. "They've changed their minds over the years because generaly it works for them. I work on my reflexes, on catching the ball again and again but the most important part of the job is probably the feet. Get there properly and your balance is right.

"I love standing up because that's putting pressure on the batsmen and testing you all the time. That's one of the reasons I'm looking forward to Warney. OK, it's something I can tell my grandchildren about, but I'm thinking about the here and now. It'll be tremendous having him here. He's a champion but not only that, he's a star and the public sense of anticipation is enormous. Football's big, but round here there would only be this mood if Ronaldo signed for Southampton."

If Aymes' record of first-class stumpings is steady but not spectacular: 35 in 181 matches - the ratio is higher in one-day cricket, 44 in 197 - his reputation is assured and precedes him. Batsmen don't dash down the pitch when he is about.

Spectators were transfixed last summer by the sight of Jack Russell standing up to the stumps to his Gloucestershire colleague, left-arm seamer Mike Smith and taking him sometimes on the half-volley. Well, Russell is Aymes' hero so he would not say as much, but he could do that too. He is not Russell, but he is snapping at his heels.

Aymes came to county cricket late (26 when he secured a place in the county side and 36 this summer, his benefit) but he is not one of those hanging on. He relishes every day. He trains as hard as any professional cricketer in England - 6.9 per cent body fat, he imparts pretty smugly.

To say he might be up for the forthcoming challenge is to suggest that Australians are competitive. He is not a romantic soul but it will mean something to him all right to have kept wicket for Hampshire both to the late Malcolm Marshall, joint 26th in the Cricketer of the Century poll, as well as to the fellow who was fifth.

The signs are that Warney is ready too but it might be worth a word of caution. Warne adores the big occasion, it is where he has always prospered, but in Australian domestic cricket his figures are way behind. His Test wickets have cost him 25 each, his Sheffield Shield ones above 40 and that statistic has been getting worse. Could Hampshire be his Victoria in England?

But in front of a large one-day crowd at Northlands Road, Southampton, the last season that cricket will ever be played there, a crowd to boot that has turned up to see him, there is still the probability that the peroxide blond from Fernhurst Gully, body fat definitely not 6.9, will be inspired and will bamboozle a few. The natural blond at the other end will have a say in that.

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