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Warne fails the larger test

By Daniel Laidlaw
February 26, 2003 20:03 IST
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So Shane Warne has been banned for a year for taking a prohibited method. It was not a performance-enhancing drug, was not used as an agent to mask a performance-enhancing drug, but nevertheless was illegal. Warne, like every other athlete bound by an anti-doping code, should have checked what he was taking. After effectively admitting on Tuesday that he doesn't like reading or listening, he only has his own stupidity and vanity to blame.

Not, however, according to Warne. While the rest of his team-mates have had no trouble abiding by the ACB's anti-doping policy, in place since 1998, Warne has always been a special case. Not for him paying attention to tiresome details like drug policies that could affect his career, or even the examples of other athletes who have been caught for their mistakes. That apparently constitutes the "outside world", an area in which Warne has professed little interest.

Shane WarneWarne, you see, has never done anything wrong in his brilliant and controversial career, at the very worst guilty only of naivety or stupidity. Whether it is being trapped by English nurses, tricked by illegal bookies or stalked by boys with cameras, to mention only the most infamous incidents, Warne has always been the wronged party, never the wrongdoer. Thus, when he took a banned diuretic from his mother to "look nice" for his one-day retirement press conference (at least the second time he took the pill, it has since emerged), he did not commit a stupid but probably innocent offence, but was rather a "victim of anti-doping hysteria".

In Warne's world, this makes perfect sense. He takes a banned pill, hysteria follows, and he gets suspended. Warne's interpretation edits out his role, and he becomes the victim. Cause and effect, the timeline of events, need not apply. It doesn't matter that if there were no dopes taking anything on the banned list, there would be no hysteria. Warne must be the victim so his self-image as the humble, good-natured champion who occasionally does something silly but really just wants to get on with the game is not troubled.

If Warne was Australian soccer goalkeeper Mark Bosnich, he might have a point about the excessiveness of anti-doping policy. Bosnich was sacked by his English club Chelsea for testing positive to cocaine, and his case before the English FA is pending. Remarkably, while the Australian Cricketers' Association is pushing for leniency in future for athletes who are similarly guilty to Warne while not actually "drug cheats", no-one seems to have a problem with players being punished as drug cheats for taking recreational drugs. If recreational drugs do not enhance performance or mask the presence of performance-enhancing substances, one wonders what business it is of sporting bodies whether or not players take them. This stance is particularly peculiar in Australia, where cricket's drinking culture has a rich history.

Initially, Warne announced he would appeal his suspension, before reportedly cooling down and realizing he is not as much of a victim as he might be -- an appeal could see him banned for longer. While Warne has had his usual defenders, for whom one suspects no Australian cricketer can really commit an offence, team-mates have not been so willing to condemn the ruling. Adam Gilchrist wrote in his newspaper column on Monday that "a precedent must be set to further eradicate the chances of anyone in the future using any substance to gain an advantage in our sport and thinking they can get away with it". That contrasted with the ACA's view a day later, which wanted penalties lessened for technical breaches.

In releasing its findings on Wednesday, the anti-doping committee intimated Warne lied. In addition to criticising the "extreme vagueness" of his answers, it said it "clearly would not be so" that Warne did not realise Moduretic contained the two banned substances, as he claimed. The committee also said it does not accept Warne was entirely truthful in his responses to questions about his knowledge of the ACB anti-doping policy.

If you think that's harsh, consider Warne's defence. He said he could not read the drugs sheet because it was torn; did not pay attention at ACB and ASDA seminars; did not read the Playing Conditions booklets sent to him every season; did not read letters from the ACB reminding him of its drugs policy; and was not aware of the ASDA hotline for checking the contents of drugs. Despite this, he considers himself only "silly" rather than "stupid".

What Warne's suspension should do, although probably won't, is serve as a lesson that sportspeople cannot afford to be too insular. When reading, listening and paying attention to the outside world is too much of an ordeal and focussing on the next game your only objective, as Warne reportedly told Australian tabloid TV program A Current Affair on Tuesday, then this is what can result.

To his credit, Steve Waugh attempted to broaden the horizons of his team, though his influence was clearly lost on Warne. Ricky Ponting, too, appears not to have absorbed Waugh's example. Some carefully neutral comments from Gilchrist aside, the Australians showed no public interest in the Zimbabwe situation, or indicated they had any notion that as representatives of their country, they had the power to make a symbolic statement. This would not have meant copying England and forfeiting points because of "security", following confused analysis of the "moral question". What they could have done was expressed their solidarity with Andy Flower and Henry Olonga, worn black armbands, or made some other kind of statement. Ideally, they would have spoken to the Zimbabwean players and asked them what they considered the most desirable stance for the visitors to take.

In excellent form at home, Steve Waugh has not been missed on the field, as Ponting has been able to unite and focus his team in adverse circumstances. What has been missed, though, is the compassion he probably would have been able to portray.

Cricket is a unique sport, and it is a shame players don't have a better grasp, if not necessarily of wider responsibilities, then at least of their potential for public influence. Yes, they're not politicians, but they're not marketers, either, and that has not stopped them from appreciating the commercial value of their image. When players become ignorant of too much, the suspension and indeed career of Shane Warne is a profound reminder of what can happen.

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Daniel Laidlaw