Blemished genius

Shane Warne is often portrayed as a lovable rogue, the blonde surfer turned colourful cricketer, and there is a rough charm to this flawed, anti-establishment figure, but now it is running thin. It is almost as if he believes his celebrity is bullet-proof, that his virtues on the field are allowance for any vices off it, and like so many sporting stars before him there is a tendency to see himself as the victim, as the problem not being his fault, writes ROHIT BRIJNATH.

THE tragedy of Shane Warne is that, in a way, we are bored by him. No story has become too tawdry, no incident too unbelievable. Only on the pitch, ball in hand, is he still capable of surprise. Off the field, the litany of indiscretions has grown to the point where barely an eyelid bats and we carry on. He is basketball's Dennis Rodman, soccer's Paul Gascoigne, greatness wounded by a multitude of flaws, a sort of blemished and indulged genius.

The tragedy of Shane Warne is that, in some ways, he has lost the benefit of doubt. Sportsmen have always been easy targets, from crooks, from gold-diggers, from people with an eye for headlines and a quick buck. It comes with the territory of celebrity and almost no one is immune. After all, in Australia, a man is under trial right now for attempting to blackmail Cricket Australia, asking for money to keep quiet his allegation that Warne inappropriately kissed his 16-year-old niece.

While Warne appears a victim in that episode, that has not always been the case in the past. Our suspicion of him whenever a charge is levelled at him may be unfair, for no man should become a prisoner of his past. Yet, so constantly has he been touched by scandal that even when Helen Cohan Alon, a 45-year- old South African woman, whose intention to sell her story is apparent, made an allegation last fortnight that he harassed her with a succession of lewd calls, our instinctive reaction was to believe it.

Cohan Alon's allegation that Warne harassed her with suggestive messages is a tricky matter. If she apparently refused to sleep with him because he was married, how come she had no compunctions about handing him her phone number, dating him, and apparently "kissing" him lightly? Was she just another gold-digger, blatantly asking a Melbourne newspaper for $380,000 (Australian dollars) for the exclusive rights to the whole truth? Was it just a personal matter that needed to be sorted out, as Warne's friends suggested, between him and his wife, Simone, at the breakfast table?

But damning her, as David Hookes did, as a "hairy-backed Sheila," which rightly raised the ire of women's groups, could not obscure the reality that Warne was damned, too. His reputation, already in some tatters, had another strip torn off it. Whatever Alon's motives, Warne, a worldly fellow, should have known better. Aware his life is lived under a microscope, he should have wised up and tossed away her phone number. Even for those who might see adultery, or attempted adultery as is alleged in this case, as a natural by-product of fame and no great moral crime, Warne does his family no good by his inability to be discreet.

Of course, much of this would be brushed off if he was 22, even 26, just another beach bum with ungodly skills, and we would have put it down to youthful indiscretion. Boys will be boys. But eventually men must be men and Warne, close to turning 34, has yet to figure that out.

On Australian radio, Glenn McGrath said that players are perhaps not suitably guided about the perils of celebrity. He said: "You've got your mates, but going through what Shane's going through at the moment, there's no one that's really sat down to say `OK, with this level of fame of being known in Australia or around the world, here's a list of things you can and can't do.'"

In some senses McGrath is correct. Celebrity can be oppressive, it brings a multitude of temptations, it is a somewhat unreal world that players are rarely taught to deal with. Eventually, a player survives, or thrives, because of his own individual code of conduct and the common sense of his minders.

But Warne of all players should by now know the script that is written for the famous, if not by someone telling him, then by simple trial and error. He has seen the media response, and public reaction, to his argument with a 15-year-old who photographed him smoking, to his taking money from a bookie, to his swallowing of a diuretic, and the ignorance defence just does not work anymore.

If anything there is bewilderment, that a man who had faced humiliation over his smutty calls to an English nurse in 2000, should apparently commit a similar foolishness with Cohan Alon. It suggested that Warne had learnt nothing.

Warne is often portrayed as a lovable rogue, the blonde surfer turned colourful cricketer, and there is a rough charm to this flawed, anti-establishment figure, but now it is running thin. It is almost as if he believes his celebrity is bullet-proof, that his virtues on the field are allowance for any vices off it, and like so many sporting stars before him there is a tendency to see himself as the victim, as the problem not being his fault. Even with his diuretic episode there was initially an evasion of liability, borne out through that ill-fated quote: "My mother gave it to me."

It is too easy to shrug off the role model tag, to claim as Charles Barkley did that a child's role model should be his father not the athlete, that kids only emulate what happens on the field. Fact is that Warne has made good use of his celebrity, by cashing in on his fame through sponsorships, and why not; but there are responsibilities attached to this process that cannot be ignored.

After all, while Warne is not alone in his inappropriate beha<147,2,1>viour (look no further than Maradona), there are even more players, also cling-filmed in celebrity, who have led decorous lives, who realise what is acceptable conduct and what is not. In India, we need not look further than Tendulkar, whose behaviour on and off the field is laudable.

Already there is talk, but mostly unsubstantiated, that Warne's teammates are tiring of his behaviour. What is evident is that the Australian team, glorified for their cricketing feats, are not so well thought of when it comes to how they comport themselves. Cleaning up their act has been a common refrain this year, and Warne's shenanigans hardly help.

During the diuretic episode, one-day captain Ricky Ponting described Warne's actions as "stupid" (though, when Warne was asked about this by an interviewer then, he said "Stupid's a harsh word. I don't consider myself stupid, I consider myself probably very silly.")

Steve Waugh, however, like one might believe captains should, had a word of sympathy for his old mate. "I am part of the cricket side and we have some loyalty to each other. I feel for Shane and what's happened. He's human, he makes mistakes, and I think he pays for his pretty heavily. I certainly support Shane and his family. It's a tough time. A lot of people are sort of kicking the boot in right now and a lot of his enemies in the media are having a crack at him."

Of course, not everyone was convinced this was the correct message. As a Sydney journalist, Peter Fitzsimons, put it, as captain Waugh should have instead told Warne this: "Shane, as a team we have had a complete gutful of your antics, which embarrass us all, not to mention the nation, and we don't want to cop it any more.

"Pull your head in, mate, shut your mouth and put down your bloody mobile phone." Cricket Australia responded to the Cohan Alon allegations by insisting it was private matter, but CEO James Sutherland needed no reminding that the accompanying publicity did no good for Australian cricket's image. As he reportedly said: "The simple answer is yes, it affects the image of the game." Already a diktat has been passed disallowing Warne from training with the national team because of his drug ban, and there is a sense that perhaps it is not totally fair, that in this instance he is being judged according to his reputation not his crime.

There is much good to Warne, in his strength of character to keep fighting on after his shoulder operations, his admirable work with children and charities, his disciplined performances on the field. But goodness has been overshadowed by recklessness.

When he emerged on the world stage, Warne was the bleached-hair-warrior cricket had been praying for, a man of colour and craft, the perfect fusion of aggression and subtlety. He was deft, defiant and determined, and when he ambled to the wicket, wherever it be in the world, all bathroom breaks were summarily put on hold.

He has managed his genius well, but not himself. He pushed the envelope of possibility with his art, but pushes the boundaries of acceptable conduct as well. For a while his off-field style brought an indulged chuckle, then it became tiresome. The artful bowler became an artless man.

But the beauty of sport, despite what we often say, is that there are second chances, and third ones, and fourth ones. Warne, still has the time to return to the field next year after his ban and remind us his fingers have not lost their magic, though that we were always willing to believe. But he also has time to find redemption as a man. That, surely, would be a miracle worth waiting for.