IT WAS the most anticipated return since Muhammad Ali's return to the ring. Shane Warne didn't have to use his fists but he was expected to punch his weight. But if the omens looked good with a wicket in his first over back, his figures were overshadowed by the sorcerer's apprentice, Stuart MacGill, who took 5 for 57, the best return of his Test career, as England were bowled out for 220.
The tale of two leg-spinners has been just one of the wonders that has so far graced this final Test at the SCG and it is a rare sight these days to see two of them bowling in tandem.
Of course, as entertainment goes, the first day, with Darren Gough's mesmerising hat-trick and the Waugh brothers's sublime batting, will not be bettered in a hurry. Day two though, with England conceding a 102-run deficit on the first innings, served to underline just how well teams have to play to gain an advantage over Australia.
Warne came on to bowl half an hour before lunch, after both MacGill and Colin Miller had tested the surface for spin. His first ball, to Mark Butcher, landed just where it should have and even had the temerity to spin. His second, pitched a little wider, was seized upon by Butcher, who dispatched it to the mid-wicket boundary.
The third, a dot ball, was looped a bit higher as was the fourth, which did the damage. Misjudging the length of it, Butcher played back and was lbw, the ball turning just enough to beat the batsman's hurried stroke and provide Warne instant success. By contrast, MacGill had to wait until his 13th over before taking a wicket.
Naturally the full house erupted and it was as if the blond bombshell, back in business once more against the Poms, had never been away. There was even a little salute to the massed ranks of the Barmy Army on the old Sydney hill, who'd been singing their repertoire of Warne songs since the start of the match.
In some ways though, the early success was like a false dawn, and Warne is not yet the article of old. For one thing there is not the fizzing turn and someone even suggested, rather cruelly, that along with smoking - he stands to earn A$200,000 (pounds 80,000) if he doesn't smoke until April - he must have given up spinning the ball as well. Variation, a key component of wrist spin, was also kept to a minimum, a sensible move until confidence levels return to normal, and pounds gained over the festive period are shed.
Australia do not tend to be nostalgic and Warne would not have been picked unless the selectors felt he was able to do the job. Naturally the spin- friendly nature of the SCG pitch has fast-tracked his comeback but even in ideal circumstances you still have to get the ball in the right place - which is what he generally did, though the old Warne did it with added wizardry and sleight of hand.
For MacGill, the emergence from Warne's shadow has been gaining in momentum ever since Warne went under the surgeon's knife last March. If he lacks Warne's accuracy and dipping drift, he possesses a far better googly, which few appear able to read. Certainly Alex Tudor, bowled by one through the gate, wasn't able to, but there was also evidence that better players like Nasser Hussain were similarly nonplussed.
England did not bat well and once again gave away wickets to soft dismissals. Alec Stewart, mindful that the spinners were going to prove a handful, was guilty of impatience. In a plan conceived by Glenn McGrath, Stewart was drawn into driving at one well wide of off-stump, a misjudgement that ended with Warne pouching the edge at third slip.
It was a superb bit of pre-planned cricket by McGrath who knows that Stewart likes an early feel of bat on ball. By bowling eight inches outside off-stump, McGrath denied him that and it took Stewart until the sixth over to get off the mark. The trap set, and with Stewart itching to cream one out of the middle, all it took was the right carrot (a wider ball of fuller length) to spring it and give McGrath his 200th Test wicket.
Butcher, looking more solid than he has since Brisbane, played some fine strokes, while Hussain, mindful that he hasn't a big score to show for his hard work, played sketchily. However, after Butcher had made his misjudgement against Warne, Mark Ramprakash took up the cudgels with a superb cut for four off MacGill, a shot Hussain later matched when he drove Warne to the extra-cover boundary.
After lunch, the run rate, never a torrent, dried to a trickle. When the bowling is tight, you have to rotate the strike by taking ones. England are not good at this, and only 41 of their eventual 220 came from singles.
Nothing gnaws away at a batsman more than a static scoreboard. Australia's captain Mark Taylor knows this, which is why he rarely over-attacks, preferring instead to make batsmen work hard for their runs. That way the pressure builds, which is why Ramprakash, for the second time in successive Tests, was out to a half-hearted drive, a mistake that gave McGrath his second wicket of the innings. It was a particularly meek dismissal and in spite of the improvements he appears to have made on this tour, its tameness will keep a question mark hovering over Ramprakash's head. After all, you wouldn't find Steve Waugh getting out in that manner.
Likewise Graeme Hick, who out of all the enigmas, probably has the most variation, sometimes blowing hot, cold and lukewarm in successive innings. Like the Middlesex captain, Hick began jauntily. When Warne tried one of only a handful of flippers, Hick was quickly onto it, pulling it powerfully away for four. Two balls later he launched the leg-spinner for six, high over long-off, a majestic shot that tried to gain the psychological high ground.
It didn't work and like many of England's batsmen did, Hick got a start but did not go on. When he eventually fell, cutting a short ball from MacGill to Warne at short extra-cover, a delivery he was left stretching for after giving himself too much room to play his shot, he'd made 23.
In the next over, Miller finally managed to prise Hussain from the crease. Earlier in the day Miller had troubled Hussain with his swingers and cutters. Now it was his off-spin that did the trick, though a sharp catch at silly point by Mark Waugh, his 100th in Tests, helped leave England 139 for 5.
It was at this juncture that John Crawley, picked here for his prowess against spin, began to swat and sweep his way towards the highest score of the innings. Crawley has had a wretched time of it this series and although he top-scored with 44, he never looked in command. Indeed, once he'd lost Warren Hegg, bowled through the gate by Miller, and Tudor, he too became a victim, as he edged a big turning leg-break from MacGill to slip.
The catch, taken by Taylor, was his 156th in Tests, a number that equals Allan Border's world record. After that MacGill, quickly removed Darren Gough and Dean Headley, the latter slogging, the former to a questionable lbw decision.
Getting five wickets while Warne was at the other end would have been immensely satisfying for MacGill, who moved to Sydney from Western Australia, to pursue his trade. For the moment he is top dog, with the old champion happy just to feed off his scraps.
Australia's captain, Mark Taylor, equalled the former Australian captain Allan Border's world record for the most Test catches by a fieldsman yesterday. He reached the milestone when he caught John Crawley on the second day of the fifth Test against England in Sydney.
Mark Taylor (Aus) 156 catches (103 matches)
Allan Border (Aus) 156 (156 )
Greg Chappell (Aus) 122 (88)
Viv Richards (WI) 122 (121)
Ian Botham (Eng) 120 (102)
Colin Cowdrey (Eng) 120 (115)
Australia won toss
AUSTRALIA - First innings 322 (M E Waugh 121, SR Waugh 96; D W HEadley 4-62).
ENGLAND - First innings
M A Butcher lbw b Warne 36
90 min, 70 balls, 4 fours
*A J Stewart c Warne b McGrath 3
28 min, 17 balls
N Hussain c M Waugh b Miller 42
174 min, 126 balls, 4 fours
M R Ramprakash c MacGill b McGrath 14
52 min, 42 balls, 1 four
G A Hick c Warne b MacGill 23
54 min, 38 balls, 3 fours, 1 six
J P Crawley c Taylor b MacGill 44
118 min, 75 balls, 5 fours
W K Hegg b Miller 15
53 min, 50 balls
A J Tudor b MacGill 14
43 min, 40 balls, 2 fours
D W Headley c McGrath b MacGill 8
22 min, 20 balls, 1 four
D Gough lbw b MacGill 0
2 min, 2 balls
P M Such not out 0
6 min, 4 balls
Extras (b8, lb8, w1, nb4) 21
Total (327 min, 80.1 overs) 220
Fall: 1-18 (Stewart), 2-56 (Butcher), 3-88 (Ramprakash), 4-137 (Hick), 5-139 (Hussain), 6-171 (Hegg), 7-204 (Tudor), 8-213 (Crawley), 9-213 (Gough).
Bowling: McGrath 17-7-35-2 (nb3) (6-3-8-1, 7-3-12-1, 4-1-15-0); Miller 23-6-45-2 (10-2-30-0, 13-4-15-2); MacGill 20.1-2-57-5 (w1) (7-0-18-0, 7-1-28-1, 6.1-1-11-4); Warne 20-4-67-1 (nb1) (11-2-35-1, 3-1-5-0, 6-1- 27-0).
Progress: Second day: 50: 82 min, 19.5 overs. Lunch: 82-2 (Hussain 22, Ramprakash 12) 30 overs. 100: 163 min, 40 overs. 150: 217 min, 52.1 overs. Tea: 161-5 (Crawley 16, Hegg 8) 60 overs. 200: 295 min, 73.2 overs. Innings closed: 5.25pm.
AUSTRALIA - Second innings
M J Slater not out 11
27 min, 20 balls, 1 four
*M A Taylor not out 2
27 min, 22 balls
Total (for 0, 27 min, 7 overs)13
Bowling: Headley 2-1-4-0; Gough 3-1-3-0; Such 2-0-6-0 (one spell each).
To bat: J L Langer, M E Wagh, S R Waugh, D S Lehmann, I A Healy, S K Warne, S C G MacGill, C R Miller, G D McGrath.
Umpires: R S Dunne (NZ) and D B Hair (Aus).
Compiled by Jo KingReuse content