Warne's number up for wrong message

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The Independent Online

Right now, we Australians are engaged in a fairly torridsocial arm-wrestle. Those dubbed the "politically correct" or the "intellectually mature" are working up a head of steam trying to abolish sweaty larrikinism from the national psyche. It's our dreadful convict past, you know. We yearn to be the knowledge nation.

Right now, we Australians are engaged in a fairly torridsocial arm-wrestle. Those dubbed the "politically correct" or the "intellectually mature" are working up a head of steam trying to abolish sweaty larrikinism from the national psyche. It's our dreadful convict past, you know. We yearn to be the knowledge nation.

So in this climate, even if Shane Warne had vowed to give up his bad habits for a nun's habit, he never really had a chance of remaining Australian cricket's captain-elect. There was more compelling evidence in the days just before the Board's vote on the vice-captaincy as callers to radio stations had taken to bagging Warne, "the captain of vice".

Some say politics and sport don't mix, but it is possible to write Warne, one of cricket's most powerful influences, into the same sentence as the man some see as the world's most powerful, President Bill Clinton. Clinton won votes by constantly reminding himself, "It's the economy, stupid!" but once in office he forgot that other golden rule, "It's the perception, stupid!"

During his leg-spinning heyday, Warne's reasoning seemed to be that another five-wicket haul would forever gloss over his hot-headed behaviour, too.

The phone sex incident in itself was hardly a sackable offence, but Warne's decision to go on television to explain himself created avoidable criticism because he naïvely invoked the "she-too" defence. "She talked dirty and all I did was reciprocate." The public saw that as a sneaky attempt to shift the blame, and it was a stark reminder of Warne's other more damaging confession to naïvety: My chat-for-cash with an Indian bookie.

Warne's snappy dress sense, the earrings and stylish blond haircut confirm this is the era of image, and despite Warne's glorious on-field talent, he's been sending the wrong messages off the field. But, only one scuttled him - "It's the betting scandal, stupid!" - Down Under, and perhaps everywhere now, the public's attitude to international cricketers and the matches they play is one of cynicism and deep mistrust. Kapil Dev and Hansie Cronje, names that once inspired awe, now raise a snicker behind the backs of hands. One is reminded of whispering men behind dimly- lit toilets at race tracks.

Australia's great player and captain Steve Waugh recognises the danger. He fears the winning reputation of the team he has worked so diligently to build will be forever soiled by this era's betting scandal. The public feels entitled to ask, "Hey, did Australia win or were the others paid to lose?"

This is a crisis. Cricket has a reputation to restore, urgently. The first opportunity is next Australian summer, against the untainted West Indies. And this contest, a celebration of 40 years since Test cricket's first tie, can bear not even the slightest whiff of scandal.

How to deal with this dilemma? With betting skulduggery still very much an ongoing headline, for the Cricket Board to have retained Warne ascaptain-elect was to run the risk that if Steve Waugh suddenly became unavailable Australia would have in charge a player once ensnared in the betting mess. Impossible.

Already, Warne's replacement has been described as "squeaky-clean" Adam Gilchrist, so the Board's message is well and truly out there.

But there is an intriguing sideshow to the demise of Warne. During the announcement, the Board chairman, Denis Rogers, revealed that the selectors' choice remained Warne, at which point it seemed to me Gilchrist's eyes widened slightly. It was shorthand for "we want you Adam, but the selectors don't".

Intriguing too was the fact Ricky Ponting wasn't offered Warne's job. For a few summers now the word from the Australian camp has been that Ponting reads the game so well he'll be the next captain. Fisticuffs at a nightclub resulted in some counselling on anti-social behaviour, but that was long enough ago not to have impacted on this decision. So why didn't the Board offer him the vice-captaincy? Is there something we don't know, or is Ponting still an untouchable? That's the danger when the backroom boys start engaging in character cleansing - so many questions are leftunanswered.

And, when they start usurping the role of the selectors, who generally have displayed an uncanny sixth sense when it comes to deciding on Australian captains, there is always the risk of the whole set-up unravelling when the unexpected happens - like Steve Waugh breaking a finger in the match before the First Test. Or, Adam Gilchrist breaking one.

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