December 15, 2010

Warnie, your team needs you

Not for your legspinning or Poms-aggravating skills but for your headline-grabbing ones. Take the heat off your mates, will ya

Each day Shane Warne moves further away from his playing era without ever leaving it behind. There is more chance of Warne becoming celibate than appearing in anything except a Twenty20 in the future, but his all-round superpowers make it impossible for him to stay out of the spotlight. Which is why Ricky Ponting must embrace the man who can deliver enough googlies to let the captain sort out his team in peace.

Ponting doesn't need to hire Warne as a legspinner. He desperately needs him as a mid-Ashes PR man. Almost four years after Test retirement, Warne remains the most magnetic celebrity in cricket's western world. Everything he touches turns to publicity. Warne is the answer to Australia's current predicament, just not as the 11th slow bowler used since he stepped down.

Over the past month, and particularly since the weekend, Warne has taken the focus away from Ponting's run-downs. In doing so, Warne is stealing some of the heat. Without Warne's London escapades with Liz Hurley, or his anointing of the new spinner Michael Beer a week before the selectors, or the colour of his face, every cricket story would have been about how wretched Australia were going. Instead, much of the talk is about Warne, the apparently ageless, perennial mischief-maker, and sage cricket judge.

Apart from appearing fully dressed in News of the World, Warne, who is nominally 41, has been the subject in a story about Beer waiting for a phone call for some Test tips from the great man. He has stopped play while his face and a chicken burger appeared on the Adelaide Oval sightscreen, and gone through two Tests without any car-park arguments with former foes. Kevin Pietersen can't gain as much as a speeding ticket without Warne helping to organise the loan of the naughty Lamborghini.

Terry Jenner, his old spin coach, credits Warne with assisting him in regaining people's respect after he went to jail in the late 1980s for embezzlement. All these positive stories in a week!

Warne is everywhere and everything: a problem solver, a headline grabber, a billboard and a sounding board. All Ponting has to grow comfortable with is Warne's criticism of his field settings and use of spinners (the bowlers, not his new underwear brand). It's a small price for all the other benefits. In case anyone's forgotten, the Ashes are still at stake.

In times past, particularly in 1999 when he was thinking about retiring, Warne stole valued attention from the world-beating outfits with his musings and misdemeanours. There was resentment that the team was not being viewed as the greatest, but rather a sideline in Warne's soap opera. This time the squad has a chance to bring him back to deflect all the bad news.

The cartoon in the Courier-Mail on Tuesday summed it up. Ponting, standing at a lectern, is reading out a media release about how to bring some excitement to the Ashes series. His only audience is a faithful dog (strangely, it's not named Digger). In the background, a trail of reporters and paparazzi chases after Warne, who is smiling as he holds hands with Hurley. This sort of public attention used to be a pain for the team, but now Warne is running perfectly timed interference - and he's doing it for free. Imagine what he could achieve if he was being paid?

Warne has so many platforms to spread the word. His twitter account has 250,000 followers, he has his own website, which briefly details his latest separation with Simone, a spot in various commentary boxes, and his own television chat show. If those media don't work, there's always the old-fashioned texts.

The task for Australia's team management is easy. Invite him to the nets to talk to Mitchell Johnson about mystery balls, and ask him to present Beer's cap. Forget Allan Border's lectures on grit and graft 1980s-style, it's Warney who has the modern answers. Appoint him as a selector, let him toss the coin, and lead the team talk. The players still often refer to him as "The King", so let him lead them, pied-piper style, around Perth, Melbourne and Sydney.

Anything and everything to take the attention away from the on-field results. The public response to Warne's activities won't always be positive, but that's significantly better than the blanket of criticism Ponting's men lie under. Ponting needs breathing space and Warne is so brilliant that he can promote fresh air.

Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo

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