Warne's rest the cure he needed

The drugs shadow: As one figure of controversy returns another starts the fight for his career
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The Independent Online

And now, at last, for his next trick. It may be the most confounding that Shane Warne has pulled off in a perpetually illustrious and controversial career. On Wednesday, the great leg-spinner will return to cricket after a year's ban for failing a drugs test, when he plays for Victoria's Second XI.

His intention is to be selected within days for Australia's potentially trouble- some tour of Sri Lanka. Far from being concerned that, at 34, he may struggle to regain his form after being out of action for so long, Warne has much grander plans.

"He is coming back fully rested and fit," said Terry Jenner, Warne's long-time mentor. "I suspect he can get back to where he was in 1994 and 1995, when he was the best bowler in the world and with the shoulder coming up and over. Since then the arm has dropped, but now with the rest I think we can rebuild that action almost as it was.

"Because he is such a clever bowler he did not lose effectiveness, and with the lower arm he developed a zooter and a slider, which gave him more leg-befores. I believe he'll still keep that by going back to the old style of delivery. He used to turn the ball more, and what made him unique was that he had this drift in and huge turn away. With a year off he can get that back."

Jenner first worked with Warne at Australia's National Academy and they have had an unbroken, informal relationship since. Warne refers to Jenner as a spin guru who has given a deeper insight than anybody else into the art of leg-break bowling. When Jenner speaks about Warne, everybody should listen.

"It's a long time to be off, but it's a rest that he probably needed and he's keen, enthusiastic and hungry. He was retiring from one-day cricket because it was going to give him a longer life in Test cricket, but I'm not sure now that he will give it away."

Warne was banned for a year on the eve of the World Cup last February. He had tested positive for an illegal diuretic on England's tour of Australia weeks earlier. Warne claimed that he had been given a weight-reducing pill by his mother, although the substance in question could have been used to mask other drugs taken to rush his recovery from a shoulder injury. Observers had been astonished that he came back after only four weeks.

When he left Johannesburg there were doubts that he could ever return. Steve Waugh, said: "It's the unknown question. I am sure that Shane will initially say to himself, 'I want to get back in there and back on the field', but as time goes by his mind will be in different places. He has got to have the motivation to continue. To train for 12 months without playing, that has got to be very difficult."

But train Warne has. Jenner had a net with him in Dec-ember and said that although he was apprehensive he was completely determined to come back at the highest level. He had put on a few pounds, but the tubby fellow of years ago was no more. "He's ready to rumble," said Jenner.

The probability that the lay-off has helped rather than hindered him was given further credence by England's physiologist, Nigel Stockill. "For any normal bloke such a long period might have an effect. But for a start we're talking about a genius, and if he comes back only 70 per cent as effective as he was that will be good enough.

"But he has had a year to get rehabilitated, to let his body recover from the constant stresses of bowling. It's like a transfusion. I would be surprised if he wasn't at least 90 per cent as effective as he was before. As an Englishman, it's worrying, but put simply we're talking about a 34-year-old man returning as a 33-year-old cricketer."

Australia have shown time and again how much they miss Warne. His replacement, Stuart MacGill, took 65 wickets in the legend's absence. In the six Tests in which they have appeared together MacGill has much the better record: 31 wickets to 13.

But it is Warne who has the control that wears down good batsmen on good pitches. It is Warne whom Australia will want to take to Sri Lanka to try and win the contest against the other great spinner of the era, the equally controversial (for different reasons) Muttiah Muralitharan. It is Warne who has the singular charisma which almost alone can take some wickets.

"Stuart MacGill is the man in the team," said Jenner. "The selectors will surely want to take them both to Sri Lanka, and if MacGill is No 1 then Warne's not bad to have as your No 2." But MacGill's public pronouncements suggest he knows where the writing is, and you can only feel sorry for a bowler who is 19th - third Australian - in the world rankings.

If he makes Sri Lanka, Warne's next stop will be England, where he is contracted to be captain of Hampshire this summer. The return of the man who reinvented a craft and has 491 Test wickets is captivating Australia. Some newspapers are counting down the number of nights' sleep to be had before he bowls again in St Kilda on Wednesday.

Assuming the Ashes begin in July 2005 and Warne avoids another headlong collision with controversy, England's batsmen might like to know that they have around 450 nights' undisturbed kip before the nightmares begin again.