Warne profiting from psychological torture

Australian `freak' threatens to beat England single-handedly as fear fa ctor grows. Martin Johnson reports `The Poms let him work them over like he's someone in surgical gloves'
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England have been playing Test cricket against Australia for 117 years, yet only once have they planned an entire series around a single opponent. That was in 1932-33, when Douglas Jardine regarded admission to the Australian Hall of Loathing as a small price to pay for employing Bodyline to defeat Don Bradman.

It is by no means an overstatement to say that in Shane Warne the current England team face an opponent just as intimidating as Bradman. This time, however, their captain has come armed with the slightly less potent strategy of crossing his fingers and hoping that Warne sustains a serious stress fracture to the right wrist by signing too many autographs.

Michael Atherton spent a good deal of the Brisbane Test match perched high up on the television gantry with his binoculars trained on Warne and, judging from his expression when he came down, is no closer to unravelling the mystery of Warne's flipper th a n Scotland Yard are to locating Lord Lucan. On all the available evidence, Warne could bowl out England with a meat pie.

This is partly because Warne is, in the words of the Australian wicketkeeper Ian Healy, a "freak", but it is also because the issue does now not so much revolve around Warne's grip on a cricket ball, but the psychological grip he holds over England's batsmen. When Lillee and Thomson were in their pomp, the prevailing fear was of waking up in Melbourne Royal Infirmary. Against Warne, it is a different kind of fear. The fear of being made to look like a complete prat.

Warne's mental hold over England began with the first ball of the 1993 Ashes series, a delivery so startling that Mike Gatting's jaw would not have dropped any lower had he found himself washed up on a desert island alongside Shakoor Rana and a crate of Ryvita biscuits.

England's inferiority complex against Warne grew still further on this tour even before the Brisbane Test. By a quirk of the itinerary, England found themselves in transit at Melbourne Airport at the precise moment that Warne arrived back in his home city after Australia's tour to Pakistan.

As England's players entered the terminal, a vast horde of television and newspaper cameramen poured through a set of glass doors, swept straight past the likes of Graham Gooch and Devon Malcolm, and an explosion of flashguns signalled the entrance of a 25-year-old peroxide blond with a stud in his ear.

Merv Hughes, who had not been picked for the Pakistan tour, had come to greet his Victoria team-mate, but not even Merv's generous frame could muscle a way through to Warne, and he eventually gave up and went home. Without even having to sprout a ludicrous moustache, or give the impression of being six months pregnant, Warne is now a bigger sporting idol than Hughes ever was, and may even eventually aspire to Bradman's icon status.

The wages earned by Australian cricketers, even the likes of Allan Border, would not buy advertising space on Greg Norman's hat, but Warne is already a dollar millionaire, with more endorsements than he has bowling variations. Warne put his name to drinks, clothing, sunglasses, you name it, and as he lights up yet another Benson and Hedges cigarette at a press conference, has set back Australia's attempts to wean youngsters off tobacco by about 20 years.

Not so long ago, Warne was the archetypal beach bum, short on fuse and manners, overweight, and regarded as a bit of a waster by his tutors at the Australian Cricket Academy. It was Border who pulled him to one side and told him he he could make a fortune if he brushed up on his image, and stopped behaving like a complete oik.

To see him now, charming, self-assured and sophisticated, makes you wonder how much of an unnatural strain this actually is for an inherently volatile character, and whether this new image is calculated enough to suggest that he might also have a lucrative future in acting when he retires.

However, Warne himself says that he has mostly put behind him the sort of gasket-blowing behaviour which earned him a substantial fine in South Africa earlier this year, and that he is now aware of being a role model for young admirers. "We all make mistakes, and I've made mine," he said. "I have let a few things get to me in the past, which I regret, but I've always been a very aggressive bowler. Now, if I feel like blowing up, I know that the dressing-room is a better place for it than on national television."

If the last generation of Australian youngsters wanted to grow up to be a Dennis Lillee, now they want to be a Shane Warne, and Warne is one of those rare examples of cricketers who have - even at the age of 25 - changed people's perceptions of the game,and massively raised its profile.

Thanks largely to Warne, Test cricket is now back in vogue in Australia, where not so long ago it was in danger of being hyped out of the market place by its bastardised offspring, the one-day international.

To have won over to the intricacies of the longer game a culture that is about as subtle as a custard pie between the eyes, is a remarkable legacy for someone who (as long as his occasionally troublesome shoulder holds out) is still in the infancy of hiscareer.

This means that England have something like another 20 years to wait until they have a realistic chance of being reunited with the Ashes, by which time, given that old Australian cricketers never die, they simply join Channel Nine, Warne will probably have retired to the commentary box, and Australia do not seriously expect to have produced another bowler like him.

Warne's Academy coach, Terry Jenner, said: "Youngsters everywhere have taken up leg-spin, which is great, but don't expect to see another Shane Warne drop off the production line. He is like a Hadlee, or a Qadir, a one-off."

Warne has now taken 145 Test match wickets, and it is by no means fanciful to suggest he will end up with more than 500. More sadly, the majority of those will probably be English, as he is currently operating at seven wickets per Ashes Test. His averag e against England is 21.93, but even more strikingly, England cannot score off him at more than 1.93 runs per over.

This is down to the trance-like effect he has on English batsmen, who, by and large, play him as though the area outside the crease has been heavily landmined. Dean Jones, one of Warne's Victoria team-mates, is in little doubt that unless England's bats m en pluck up a bit more courage against him, and stop peeking nervously out from behind the curtains, further carnage is on the way.

"The Poms," Jones said, "let him work them over like he's someone in surgical gloves. You have got to make something happen and upset his length. You just can't stay in the crease and let him do what he wants."

Ian Chappell reckons that he knows the secret of how to play Warne, but is certainly not going to let England in on it, while Healy, who has seen more of Warne close up than anyone in the game, believes that England will continue to fall to the Warne flipper.

"As soon as they see the ball coming out flat, they think `beauty', a bad one, and go back," Chappell said. "OK, it might be short, but it's never going to bounce, and that's the thing. He gets a lot of them lbw straight on the crease - basically, faili n g to make contact with a straight ball."

Warne's single biggest worry is burn-out, which is why he will not play county cricket. Since June of last year, he has played 20 Tests, and shortly after this series is over, Australia are off for another one in the West Indies. Australia were the last side to win a series in the Caribbean, in 1974 and, with Warne in the side, will fancy ending that 20-year sequence.

Warne is not unplayable, and earlier this winter Pakistan's Salim Malik scored 557 runs in three Tests without getting out to him. However, not even Englishmen should hope that Warne's mysteries are ever completely unravelled. Unfortunate though it is that he plays for Australia, Warne is not just a national treasure, but an international one as well.