As Shane Warne returned to Hampshire last week he left behind in Australia a storm of controversy. Business as usual, then. With 81 days to go until the Ashes, the key to Australia's chances of regaining them is dominating public discourse as ever.
The latest shemozzle surrounds the publication of an unauthorised biography that claims to be Warne's life story "guts and glory, warts and all". It will probably last until the Ashes are done when, given the great bowler's predisposition to create headlines, an updated version will almost certainly be required.
"I have written a few books about famous people but I've never written one that has caused such a stir," said Paul Barry, the author of Spun Out. "I did not expect this reaction. I guess it's the importance of sport and sporting heroes in Australian life."
The debate over the book, published in Britain on Thursday, has been raging like bushfire for weeks, and has been so intense that Barry himself has become the story as much as Warne. He has been lambasted in print and on the airwaves, where he has been described variously as a parasite, a disgrace and pathetic. It could be said that Barry has a foot in both camps, since he was born in England in 1952 and emigrated 20 years ago.
Yet Warne has hardly had popular opinion behind him. During the row the Today news show on Channel Nine - which televises the country's cricket and where Warne worked as a commentator until he committed a peccadillo too far - asked in its daily poll: "Is Shane Warne a great Australian?" It might have been a shoo-in for a man who is not only the greatest Test wicket-taker of all time (with 685) but came back so often from injury and misfortune, self-inflicted or otherwise.
Of the 91,369 who responded, 65,362 (or 72 per cent) answered no. Seizing on this, Barry said: "That is an extraordinary number of people who don't like Shane Warne, who think he's a disgrace. But on the other side of this are people who think not only that he's the best cricketer the world has ever seen but also that he should not be criticised, that we don't want to know this other stuff about him and it's nobody else's business."
The stuff to which Barry referred is what has caused most of the fuss: Warne's receipt of money from an illegal bookmaker, his ban from cricket for a year after failing a drugs test, and above all his string of extra-marital affairs (he is now divorced) and his predilection for sexually explicit text messaging. No biography should have to do without them.
Detractors and Warne's protective mates have made much of the passage in which "one of Shane's mates at Channel Nine" apparently told Barry that Warne must have had 1,000 women. Warne himself has denied this in Australia, though the joke doing the rounds now is that he might be upset because the figure should have been 2,000.
The worry for England's cricketers is that Barry's investigations will only inspire Warne. A theme running through Spun Out - it could hardly be missed - is that Warne always responds magnificently on the field when engulfed by crisis off it.
Barry spoke to hundreds of people, though he was rebuffed by a similar number. Warne and his family refused to have anything to do with the project (the pair's only personal encounter was in a classic stand-off in the bowels of the Gabba at Brisbane last December) and friends were asked to do likewise. For that reason, many sources are unnamed, which is not ideal but is probably necessary.
Barely disguised attempts to deride Barry as a sleaze merchant after a fast buck have not worked because of his track record. His work includes acclaimed biographies of other illustrious Australians, including Kerry Packer and Alan Bond. Whether in this one he achieves the appropriate balance or the nuance that biographies demand if they are to endure is questionable. But for the first time under one cover, Warne's remarkable exploits are laid bare, so to speak.
"I adore watching him," said Barry. "I think he's magic because of what he has done for cricket and I admire his spirit, typified by the way he went over to congratulate Kevin Pietersen on the final day at The Oval. There is a lot to like about him, but what I don't like is the way in which he apparently can't accept responsibility for anything he does and blames it on other people. He desperately wants to be loved and desperately wants to be the centre of attention."
Barry, who has won several awards for his investigative television journalism, does not mind trying to ride with the punches (it sells books). What he has to say about Warne may sometimes be salacious but it would seem it is largely accurate, as it should be after several weeks with lawyers, causing its late arrival at the publishers. Warne virtually conceded the point by saying he would sue for libel "but it isn't worth the hassle".
For all his efforts, Barry's conversations do not help him to gain entry to the dressing room, either literally or metaphorically. But they allowed him some access to Warne's personality.
"A number of people say they have tired of him, of the drama that surrounds him when he comes, that the atmosphere changes when he joins the team. Things happen. The Australian team is quite an old team, the older ones have mellowed and grown up and he hasn't kept pace. He tends to be most popular with the younger players.
"If you wanted one description to sum him up it would be that he's a big kid. I think it's hard to understand how someone can continue to take the risks he does. But the things that make him remarkable on the field are the same things that make him such a liability to himself off it. In a way, scandal drives him on to greater heights."
This is a new scandal. Pity England, then. The next lot of greater heights loom into view at Brisbane on 23 November.Reuse content