Deep in the velvety folds of Gloucestershire last week, Elizabeth Hurley was fixing the fence around her farmhouse. Was the idea, as the actress claimed, to keep the alpacas in? Or Shane Warne out?
The Aussie spin-wizard was on his way for what was billed as a crisis meeting about their relationship. Almost two years have passed since the couple became engaged, but there has been no sign of a wedding, and a series of strained communiques between the pair last week suggested it may be all over. The prospect of a split is likely to provoke mixed feelings among the couple's admirers.
Some fans of the redoubtable English beauty will take heart from her renewed availability, while the restoration of Warne to what he was before La Hurley got her hands on him has become close to a national campaign in Australia. The country's favourite fat cricketer from Upper Ferntree Gully had been shockingly transformed into a sleek, lip-glossed, eye-linered model of metrosexuality.
There was no doubt Down Under about who was to blame. "Waxwork Warnie! - Whipped Into Shape by Hurley" howled the headlines. But who was to blame? Liz denied all responsibility, and Warne claimed that rather than taking beauty tips from the face of Estee Lauder, his real inspiration had been his best mate's mum, who had introduced him to a new range of diet shakes. "I have always taken pride in my appearance," he huffed. "I'm proud of how I look, and I have worked my butt off to get here." The second part of this statement was a lot more convincing than the first. For despite the tragicomic meanderings of his life, 44-year-old Warne is a sportsman driven like few others.
There was something Napoleonic about his approach to cricket. Like the Emperor, he instinctively understood the delicate correlation between his own strengths and his opponents' weaknesses, and just as the young Bonaparte passed his days learning about angles and trajectories from the cannon-makers of Brienne, so the young Warne would spend countless hours in the nets of his beloved St Kilda Cricket Club in Melbourne, working on ways to make a ball defy the laws of physics.
Those who wondered what Shane and Elizabeth ever had in common overlooked the ambition, the perfectionism and the ill-defined sense of outsiderdom. Ms Hurley, 48, may be conveniently typecast as an English rose, but she feels foreign among us: "You see," she once told an interviewer, "in England, nobody is supposed to show that they work hard. It's like in college, where we used to always pretend that we weren't really doing our schoolwork.
One has to work secretly in England. You're not supposed to make an effort." Similarly, Warne, with his surfer-dude looks and air of delinquency, may have clicked beautifully with the average Aussie sports fan, but cricket's establishment never took him to heart. Oh, and there was the shared obsession with tweeting. Until he met Elizabeth, Shane's observations lacked a certain sophistication: "What's everyone's favourite meat pie?" he would ask.
"Does everyone floss before going to the dentist?" But things were about to change. The pair were first seen together at a Goodwood race meeting three years ago. Afterwards Elizabeth tweeted: "Hello, new Australian friend, how nice to have met you, and in such sexy surroundings." By the end of the year, they were discovered sharing an expensive London hotel suite. Both raced to explain that their marriages - his to teenage sweetheart Simone Callahan, hers to Indian textile tycoon Arun Nayar - had recently collapsed.
By the beginning of this month, the tone of the communications had darkened. "The more I know of man, the more I love my dog," wrote Elizabeth. Responding with a previously unsuspected profundity, Shane offered: "It's not what happens in your life, it's how you react to what life throws at you in good and bad times." On September 13 - the cricketer's birthday - the only tweet from Elizabeth was a disengaged: "One of my alpacas has escaped!"
A few days later she followed up with: "Apologies to loyal followers for Twitter silence on recent events. Too raw and personal to share right now." What has gone wrong? For all the calculation and exactitude Warne brought to the cricket pitch, he tends to blunder oaf-like around the field of human relationships. Once, while supposedly seeking a reconciliation with Simone, he sent her a text saying: "Hey beautiful, come straight round, the door's open."
His wife replied: "You loser. You sent that to the wrong woman." Born into a modest home in the Melbourne suburbs, Warne -Australia's wealthiest sportsman by far - has reliably failed to keep pace with his fame. For all her qualities, Elizabeth, the privately educated daughter of an Army officer, never quite looked like the right woman. Emerging into the national spotlight as the girlfriend of actor Hugh Grant, she has enjoyed an impressively long stint as a cosmetics model, made a number of mostly bad films and established herself as the go-to girl for event sponsors in need of instant glamour.
Four years ago, she announced plans to turn her Gloucestershire spread into a commercial powerhouse of organic produce, but the venture appears to have stalled. She has a notoriously low boredom threshold, and the word is that she has simply tired of Warne. He is addicted to the familiar, and the alternative word is that he wants to go back to Simone and their three children.
On Friday, as Warnie was descending on London, Elizabeth was heading to New York, conspicuously devoid of her sapphire engagement ring. It could be an interesting game.