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EVERYONE thought the last word had been written about Shane Warne, the great competitor, the old rogue.

But there he was, larger than life, fitter than usual, wheeling away in the nets, encouraging his players, calling out "drop and run" and towards the end of a long net session in baking sunshine, urging them to keep going.

Rajasthan Royals, his team, has made its base camp in Cape Town and under the ageing leg-spinner's stewardship was preparing for a few friendlies and then the start of the IPL season on Saturday. The Royals are the surprise title holders and determined to defy the odds a second time. And Warne is their brain and their heartbeat. The previous night he had told the players to be unselfish, for its own sake and because "no one takes any notice of losing sides."

And so he walked out with them at 10am, as the debris was cleared from the previous night's one-day international. Warne and his 27 charges had watched the match and the old champ had been aghast at Australia's dull-witted tactics and doomed batting. He began the practice by calling the squad together for a few words. Next came stretching, sprinting and fielding drills supervised by his assistants, amongst them Darren Berry, his old mucker from Victorian days, and Jeremy Snape, last seen as a balding purveyor of flat English off-spin and nowadays regarded as an excellent mentor, though not a guru for he lacks pretension.

Berry had made three visits to India, running camps, sifting players. Other teams live on their cheque books, the Royals survive on their wits. Warne and Graeme Smith are the only stars, the rest are performers. In a week Warne will cull nine players. It will be his call. Meanwhile they stay in the finest hotel in the area and get paid more than did a county professional for a season a generation ago.

After an hour of athletic activity, the party makes its way to the nets, behind an administrative block already bearing Rajasthan labels. IPL has demanded all corporate boxes for the duration of the tournament, which has not proved universally popular. But that is IPL. The Royals seem easy going. Manoj Badale, the owner, accompanies the team and spends time throwing balls to his son.

Ron Castorani, who has organised Channel Nine's cricket coverage for the last 22 years, is managing the group in his capable and accommodating way. Warne offered him the job over supper one evening and he gave up his annual barramundi fishing holiday to come along.

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