Sydney: Cricketer Shane Warne's dramatic exit from the World Cup knocked the looming war with Iraq off the front pages in Australia on Wednesday as the sports-mad nation reacted with bewildered anger to the latest scandal engulfing its spin king. "Devastated" ran the page one headline on Sydney's Daily Telegraph, with The Australian newspaper concentrating on Warne's declaration "I'm no drug cheat". The Australian labelled Warne the "stupid spinner", after he was sent home from the tournament in South Africa on Tuesday following revelations he had tested positive for a banned diuretic drug in Sydney last month.
Prime Minister John Howard took time out from a series of international crisis meetings on Iraq to express his sympathy for Warne and urge cricket authorities to deal with him fairly. "He is a great Australian cricketer. My hope is he'll be back playing for Australia before long," Howard said in New York. Warne's family in Melbourne also spoke of their distress, with a source close to the family telling the Australian Associated Press the bowler had taken a pill given to him by his mother in circumstances that were "totally innocent".
But there was little sympathy for Warne among newspaper commentators and radio talkback callers following the latest in a string of scandals that have tarnished the reputation of the man hailed as the greatest spin bowler of all time. Critics cited Warne's dealings with illegal bookmakers, a sex scandal in Britain where he was accused of bombarding a young nurse with suggestive phone messages and a general air of arrogance as evidence the bowler had "more flaws than the Empire State Building". They said Warne, who was due to arrive back in Melbourne at 8.15 pm on Wednesday (0:915 GMT), had let down his teammates and his conduct was naive, at the very least. "When he dislocated his shoulder, Shane Warne must have damaged brain cells as well.
What else will explain the numbingly dumb decision by one of the greatest cricketers in history to pop a diuretic?" Peter Jenkins asked in the 'Daily Telegraph'. However, there was some support for the beleaguered leggie. Respected 'Sydney Morning Herald' commentator and former Somerset captain Peter Roebuck concluded, "It does sound like a minor matter, an oversight." 'The Daily Telegraph' said the Australian Cricket Board's handling of the case would be closely scrutinised overseas as rival countries were sceptical of Australian sport's "It's never us" stance on doping.
"How often have we heard the same story? Excuses for Australian athletes have now, surely, worn thin?" it said. There was agreement that Warne's international career would effectively end if he was handed the minimum two-year ban for drug abuse. "(Cricket) would suffer dreadfully if (his career ended) in this hasty and unhappy way. But he took the diuretic and now he must take the medicine," Greg Baum wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald.
The reaction reflected the Australian public's mixed emotions towards its cricket team, which has been accused of marring record-breaking achievements with petulance and poor sportmanship. In recent months batsman Darren Lehmann has been suspended for racial abuse, Test opener Matthew Hayden was fined and severely reprimanded for smashing a dressing room door and wicket-keeper Adam Gilchrist was reprimanded for swearing.
"The Australian cricket team doesn't know how to win gracefully. Their arrogant behaviour on and off the field has gone too far," ABC radio caller Peter said. Concerns about the team's conduct runs so deep that one newspaper dubbed it "the Unlovables" before it headed to South Africa, in ironic reference to previous great Australian teams known as "the Invincibles" and the Unbeatables".