He can't afford to fluff his lines

Australia needs Warne, and so does cricket, for no game has enough of character and colour. He is that oddest of men, both hero and anti-hero, both knight and villain, writes ROHIT BRIJNATH.

CHAMPIONS are patient, cunning, disciplined, but rarely bashful. Greatness does not arrive from timidity, athletes who believe their skills are modest do not make history. Shane Warne may practice a subtle art but in most ways he is a delightfully brazen man. At Junction Oval, on Wednesday, February 11, he took 2-32 against the Queensland Academy of Sport, and announced immediately that he was the best leg spinner in Australia. Make that the world. Not an eyelash fluttered.

What Shane Warne was doing was sending a message.

He was sending it to Stuart MacGill, beneath whose skull and clothes lies a hidden bruising administered by the Indians. He was sending it to the Australian selectors, as if daring them to ignore him for the Test tour to Sri Lanka. He was sending it to batsmen around the world, so that once again their sleep could be invaded by dreadful visions of loop and spin and flight. He was sending it to himself, too, for unless great athletes are convinced of their superiority it makes little sense to continue.

Shane Warne was telling us, in case we hadn't heard, in case we were busy visiting some other planet: HE WAS BACK.

Of course, like the art he practices, this message, too, was not without some deceit. A few wickets against an academy side had earned him headlines, the excessive praise of some writers, the lusty acknowledgement of onlookers. Of course, next day he was manhandled by young fellows whose walls are probably still papered with posters of him, and finished with 3-120.

In short, for all his understandable bluster, his performance told an inadequate tale.

How long could he bowl steadily, how many tricks had the magician refound, was his shoulder strong enough, his fingers supple enough, his mind tough enough? This we do not yet know.

For the moment, and only that, it did not matter. For the first time since January 25, 2003, when he bowled in the second one-day final against England at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, cricket had been returned an image it had grown accustomed to. Of a usually heavyweight blond, face cemented in determination, his brain alive with plots and conspiracies, ambling in to fidgety batsmen in hushed stadiums. Then, and now, it is a vision to behold. At Melbourne's Junction Oval, grown men were holding their breath. Boxers have come back eager to be bruised again, footballers have tried out tired legs just once more, hockey players have convinced themselves their aging wrists hold one last artful dribble. But rarely has there been such a Second Coming.

A couple of fans watch Shane Warne during his comeback match. — PTI/ASIA POOL-PHOTO-

It was not a comeback like we know it. It wasn't that he had been injured and healed. It wasn't that he'd conceded to time, retired, and then changed his mind. It was in fact a return from disgrace.

You wouldn't think so, of course. You wouldn't believe this was a man called cheat (rightly or wrongly), a man fallen with a clunk from grace. No, this was more like a hero's homecoming.

Cameras whirred and clicked and whined, crowds fidgeted, journalists tested pens for the umpteenth time. A man of flaw was beginning his last chance, a bowler of great virtue was commencing the writing of a final chapter. You could not turn away from such a moment.

Shane Warne is tedious, bewitching, spoilt, disciplined; his bowling has always spoken of maturity but his behaviour has often been that of an adolescent; he has oppressed batsmen for more than a decade yet few can play the victim as completely as he does. He is a baffling bowler and a bewildering man, but he is never boring.

For weeks, no months, interrupted only by the senseless death of David Hookes, he has hogged every headline and dominated every airwave in Australia. His friends are many and they have spoken, though there has been little sense of caution in their eulogies. Darren Berry, a State colleague, even said Warne would make a great Australian captain, which is perhaps true but not quite the issue at hand.

Few sportsmen own such auras, such a powerful magnetism, wherein their virtues are so powerful it erases all memory of sin. Brett Lee attended a barbeque attended by Australian Rules footballers and Australian cricketers and wrote about how when Warne came on to ball that day, on a tennis court, with a garbage bin as stumps, suddenly he had everyone in his thrall. He is the sportsman's sportsman.

Talk of his passion of yoga is everywhere — perhaps friend and fellow-practitioner Tendulkar has urged him on — though fortunately no one has yet found it to call him Swami Shane. Some have said he is fitter than ever, others suggest he may still be ingesting pies. As usual where myth and reality meet with this man no one is sure of.

One day there was talk of secret practice, next day rumour that Ian Healy volunteered to work with him. Everywhere there is talk of zooters and topspinners and flippers and loop and wrong 'uns and sliders, and mostly it sounds like us trying to convince ourselves his artistry remains intact.

Only from across the oceans did Michael Atherton write: "It is an impossibility that Warne will return to his best form because when the ban came he was five years past his prime anyway. Only he knows how hard he is prepared to train, how much more his private life can suffer and how much his substantial pride can stomach his declining powers.''

In two sentences, Atherton has captured the dilemma.

Warne, 34 years old, for all his halo of confidence, must be a trifle unsure of how much genius remains. As he said: "I tried a few different deliveries. I was just trying to get my rhythm back and hopefully I will get better and better each time I bowl. It's not a bad start.''

He has time and he does not. The world will wait, for he has earned their patience, but each day the scrutiny will build. "I think I'm the best leg spinner and I'm going to try to prove that. If it means I have to wait six months, 12 months, 18 months, whatever it might be, that's the case.''

Pride is his engine, desire his driving force: bowling is the only thing he knows and it is his only route to redemption. Bowling well will deflect attention from his private life, it will return his life to an even keel. He will be drawn by 500 Test wickets (at present he sits on 491), by the reality he could be the answer to Australia's tremulous, one-dimensional attack.

We do not know where he stands as artist for not enough artistry has been displayed. But this much we have learnt: champions find a way. If one skill is lost, then it can be compensated for. Tendulkar advertised that during the Sydney Test, when he, a batsman prone to create chaos, preferred to embrace caution, scoring a double century by simply amputating the cover drive from his repertoire. Similarly, Warne may not rip the ball as fiercely, bowl a flipper as sudden and skidding, but he may balance it with unerring accuracy. Anyway, at plotting and planning he would make Rommel blush.

His faults have been of carelessness, and his belief that turning a leather ball beautifully makes him unaccountable is a sin favoured by elite sportsmen. They all say the game is bigger than them but their actions often are to the contrary. But he was severely punished for his pill swallowing, and he has done his time and no man should be hounded by his past forever.

Australia needs Warne, and so does cricket, for no game has enough of character and colour. He is that oddest of men, both hero and anti-hero, both knight and villain, his foibles a delight for tabloid headline writers yet his art so delicate and brutal that Wisden anointed him one of its five cricketers of the last century. Few men affect us so.

Cricket has tired of Warne's indiscretions but it is bellowing in delight at the thought of his fine skills. The game has swung too heavily towards batsmen, and too few bowlers have demanded our attention. Spin itself has seen better days, for Harbhajan is struggling, Muralitharan is constantly, and often unfairly, vilified, and the stage is crying out for another performance from this blond actor.

Shane Warne cannot afford to fluff his lines.