Warne facing biggest test of his career
Shane Warne has overcome many obstacles in his high-profile career, but one of the toughest may be returning to Test cricket next year after serving a drugs ban.
One of Wisden's five cricketers of the 20th century, the Australian leg spinner was suspended for 12 months after testing positive for diuretics in February and he missed his team's entire World Cup campaign.
It was the biggest doping scandal in cricket history and the earliest Warne can hope to return to the Test arena is February, when his ban ends.
Although public sympathy for the 33-year-old appears to be strong in Australia, it is by no means a formality that he will walk back into the national team.
His replacement in the Test side, leg spinner Stuart MacGill, has played well and Warne had to concede defeat last week in a long-running debate over his eligibility to train with the Australia squad.
The Australian Cricketers' Association (ACA) and Warne agreed he should be free to do so because of a loophole in Cricket Australia (CA) rules, as did an independent arbitrator.
However, World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) chairman Dick Pound said the ACA's stance was "against the spirit of the game", and Australia's Federal Government threatened last week to withdraw more than US$650,000 of funding to CA.
Prime Minister John Howard and Sports Minister Rod Kemp both said Warne, the second highest wicket-taker in Test history with 491 victims, should be banned from training with his state Victoria and Australia during his suspension.
On top of that, Test cricket's most successful spinner has become the subject of a "phone sex" allegation for the second time in three years.
Warne refused to comment on the August 10 story of a telephone "text sex" scandal involving South African woman Helen Cohen Alon but, despite the unequivocal support of his wife Simone, he has unquestionably been feeling the pressure.
Nicknamed "Hollywood" because of his dyed blond hair, fashion sense, love of fast cars and theatrical on-field celebrations, Warne decided on Friday he would train privately for the remainder of his ban.
"I have come to the decision that I'm going to remove myself from all official training," said the controversial leg spinner, who sparked a media frenzy by training with Victoria in mid-August.
Warne, who described the uncertainty over the terms of his ban as ridiculous, appeared angry during his news conference, a mood reflected by supporters on the streets of his home town.
Pat, a fruiterer at Queen Victoria Market in Elizabeth Street, was enjoying a cold beer on a wet Melbourne Saturday last week when approached by Reuters.
"The media are killing him. If he's good enough, why not put him back in the team next year? If he's not, p--- him off, it's as simple as that," said Pat, who lives in working-class Sunshine in west Melbourne.
Prue McTaggart, who spent her Saturday serving fish and chips meals from a fast-food diner at the market, told Reuters: "It's his private life. If it was anybody else, it wouldn't be such a big deal.
"I don't really see a problem with that (Warne training with the national team). He's got to get back into form somehow."
Leading sports writer Patrick Smith, however, said it was a pity CA had not taken a firm stand in February and banned the 107-Test veteran from training with Australia's Test squad while he was suspended.
"The Australian cricket community mostly thinks Warne has been harshly treated because he is Australian," Smith wrote in The Australian newspaper.
"Too few people in Australian sport take the issue of drugs in Australian sport seriously."
CA chief executive James Sutherland added fuel to the fire when he told The Age newspaper: "Any association he has with the Australian team at present is something I'm not comfortable with."
But ACA chief executive Tim May said: "Shane's announcement (about training privately) is incredibly unselfish." May added that CA and the ACA needed to work together to "tighten" CA's anti-doping policy.
Australia vice-captain Adam Gilchrist has said Warne's expected return to Test cricket is by no means a certainty.
"It is not as simple as whether we take Warnie back on," Gilchrist told Australia television. "There are other factors involved. Stuart MacGill is in there doing a terrific job."