Warne ponders over a grim future

As he read out his statement, his face bore an expression we had not seen before, it carried a look neither opposition nor watcher had been privy to. It was the sight of cricket's famous blond robbed off his bluster, his eyes faded in defeat. A 12-month ban! Even he could not spin his way out of this.

ROHIT BRIJNATH

As he read out his statement, his face bore an expression we had not seen before, it carried a look neither opposition nor watcher had been privy to. It was the sight of cricket's famous blond robbed off his bluster, his eyes faded in defeat. A 12-month ban! Even he could not spin his way out of this.

Shane Warne... cricket's famous blond seems to be robbed of his bluster . — Pic. REUTERS-

His admission, later, days after his statement, on a TV programme, that he "had taken more diuretics than we knew of" was staggering. He said he had drunk too much wine, fashioned a double chin for himself, and taken his first pill prior to his shoulder injury to lose weight.

Since it was before the operation, it proved, he suggested, that the pill was not to mask any steroid use; but it also proved, he was stupider than we thought. He had two opportunities to call a doctor, ring a hot line, ponder the illegality of what he swallowed: still, he basked in ignorance. That he ingested the pill to look good was somewhat ironic; a man of some arrogance had been undone by vanity. Perhaps the wine had muddled his thinking.

Still, there was little to celebrate in Warne's suspension. Some may have recoiled from his swagger, tired of a man who at 33 is too much a boy, been appalled by his ignorance that with fame arrives some measure of responsibility. Clearly, for a man who has lived in the public eye he has been unconscionably blind to its demands.

But no glee should come attached to a man's fall, and countries, most of whom do not even possess a drug policy (India, for one), should reflect before scrambling towards the moral high ground.

For all his foolishness, this man is/was a genius, cricket's version of the idiot savant. A bowler of great intelligence, but a man with little of it. His fingers composed poetry and wrists wrote history; he was as much bowler as he was hypnotist, the audience spellbound, batsmen entranced. As he ambled to the crease, expectancy rode along, the probability that something magical was in the offing. There were no dull moments when Shane Warne was tossed the ball.

This sounds like a sporting obituary and it well may be. Surely, we must wonder if we have seen the last of that famous shrug of the bowling shoulder. Still, a two-year ban would have been a killing blow, a 12 month ban not necessarily a fatal wound.

Friends say it is not in his nature to fold, that a defiant man has been offered a fresh challenge. Of all the powerful reasons to keep going, a chance to re-write his epitaph seems the strongest. `Cheat' does not sit well on the tongue, "drug-taker" is no fitting ending to a life's work.

Next February is a long way. It is enough time for the despair to die, the anger to simmer, denial to disappear, and for him to begin again. He cannot play for Australia, Victoria or his club St Kilda, and his options are limited. Next year, this time, Australia goes to Sri Lanka, and he will not be there, for he will have done nothing for selectors to pick him. Steve Waugh will remind him in case he has forgotten: Australia embraces performance not reputations.

At best, he could return for the tour to India, 19 months off in September 2004, but there is a factor his friends have not so far put in the mix. The team will not keep a chair empty with his name on it, there are no quotas in Australian cricket.

Elsewhere men will, without rancour, try to turn his enforced rest into retirement. Stuart MacGill will sense his moment has come, Brad Hogg will eye Test cricket, Nathan Hauritz will smell opportunity, young Victorian leg-spinner Cameron White will put up his hand. Sport waits for no man, even heroes are forgotten. Already Hogg has said: "I guarantee you I'll be backing myself if I get the opportunity to go out there and play Tests again."

His ban is all you hear, all you read. Some believe he has been buried by over-eager anti-drug crusaders, others that they had merely thrown sand into a grave he had dug himself. Some expected two years, others three months. Some contend, like he has, that he is paying for an anti-doping hysteria and become the fall guy. Others insist the ACB had only slapped his palm gently for his connection with a bookie, and this is a compensation for their earlier leniency.

His close ally, the Victorian wicketkeeper, Darren Berry, has said "he was almost hung before he went to trial". Victorian coach David Hookes said Warne was silly, but 12 months was too harsh for silliness. On the other side of the fence, anti-drug crusaders have termed his punishment insufficient.

In its report, the anti-doping committee gave a clear idea of its thought process:

"The penalty must be determined having regard to all that was said previously and specifically to the following factors:

1) This was at best for Warne a reckless use of a prescription drug not prescribed for him.

2) No attempt was made to ascertain the content of the drug before taking it.

3) The drug was not taken for a legitimate therapeutic purpose.

4) The taking of the drug resulting in the positive reading was not an isolated incident.

5) The player asserted lack of knowledge of the content of the anti-doping policy notwithstanding attendances at seminars and receipt of copies of the policy.

6) He denied any knowledge of avenues of checking use of medication by sportsmen.

7) He knew it was a fluid tablet and expected it to have some effect on his body integrity.

8) The sanction must recognise that the use of diuretics is a serious doping offence."

Warne, of course, contends that because "he took no performance-enhancing drugs, he is no drug cheat". He is not a lone voice in that regard. But he is scrambling to make a bad situation look better, but it is a lost cause. He took a drug that was prohibited, must pay a penalty, and there is nothing more to be said.

Sport is fighting a losing battle against drugs. Every new statistic and study shows a rise in use, and it is poisoning what should be fair contests. Great athletes are not necessarily ladled an extra helping of wisdom by God, but they have their share of common sense. Warne's disbelief at the uproar that followed his ingesting of a diuretic point to the worst kind of naivety.

He is too much the hero, too much a man addicted to the headlines he hates, to go into hiding. Already there is talk of TV commentary. Already a local footy club has asked him to mentor its young players, unaware of the absurdity of their offer. Already, it issaid, he has been offered a cameo in a movie.

Perhaps Warne will reflect on the irony of the last offer. His days as a leading man may have passed forever.