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Warne's poker ambitions could leave Hampshire with a busted flush 18/1/2008
Mike Selvey

The itchy texting thumb of Shane Warne has got him into hot water again. No, nothing like that, at least not as a primary concern.

Apparently he was sitting at a poker table at Melbourne's Crown casino - with which he has long enjoyed a profitable working relationship - during his first session as a professional player when the urge to SMS overtook him.

Etiquette and more practical issues demand that a player leaves the table for such activities. So Warney was sent into poker's equivalent of the sin-bin for five minutes, missing passages of play, including a "blind". As any poker knowledge I have was gleaned from The Cincinnati Kid, I confess I know not what this means but it cannot have been helpful.

The bowling maestro, retired from Tests for more than a year now, is heavily into poker and has signed a deal with an online company that has installed him as captain of their team to play in various large events across the globe. (An aside: does he get his stake paid for him and what happens to winnings in that case? Just asking.)

Well, good for him to get involved in what clearly is a burgeoning market, particularly online. But Texas Hold 'Em's gain is cricket's loss, or more specifically that of Hampshire, the county side he is contracted to lead this coming season as he has done for the past couple of years.

This week it was revealed that he will not be joining them for the start of the season and may miss chunks later on as his poker commitments take over. A contracted cricketer, one of the most famous ever employed by that county, is not going to fulfil his playing obligations because of poker.

Quite how much he will miss is not yet entirely clear but Hampshire's first match proper is against Sussex, the county champions, on April 16, and, according to a poker news website, Warne is due to lead his new team in the New Zealand poker championship in Christchurch from May 3-11. There are other big tournaments too: the 2008 world series of poker; the United Kingdom poker open; and the poker nations cup.

All of this will have been greeted with a frustrated shrug by Hampshire's chairman and benefactor Rod Bransgrove, whose initiative and financial clout brought Warne to the county in the first place. "We shall have to sit down and work out a sensible programme for both of us," he said this week. There is a feeling, though, that the sensible programme ought to entail Warne playing poker if he wants to or cricket if that takes his fancy but not try and mix them, an arrangement which would suit Warne but which would do little for the integrity of county cricket in general and Hampshire in particular.

I confess that the lure of poker eludes me but then that is true of cards in general. Crib I can do, taught me by my grandad, and I have vague recollection of parents trying to explain canasta, a game which must have been popular half a century ago. But that by and large was it, even given the fact that sportspeople do play a lot of cards, whiling away breaks or travel time. Rain interruptions at Lord's generally sent me to the crossword instead, Phil Edmonds to the telephone and Wayne Daniel to the treatment table but a card school was usually in operation as well: Find the Lady (the polite name) was one, and a few - Mike Brearley, Mike Gatting and John Emburey always looking for a fourth - continued an ongoing bridge tournament.

Generally Brearley did not approve of the imperative for the cards to come out at the earliest opportunity. One game known as Last Card, high on banality and low on skill, became an obsession among a core of the Middlesex team rather than a mere distraction, to the extent that it was played while the match was in progress. This rankled with Brearley who, apart from the more obvious issue of commitment and focus, observed that no one was watching when he batted, although an exception was made when a crowd pleaser such as Roland Butcher was at the crease. "Can't think why," said Edmonds drily.

It came to a head one day in the dungeon-like dressing rooms at Cheltenham College. To his assembled team, sat head down and silent, he launched into a rant, gave chapter and verse, reached a crescendo and then finished. The room remained contemplative for perhaps half a minute, before the silence was broken by Emburey: "Right, whose deal is it?"
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