A test of character

Shane Warne has overcome the breakdown of his marriage to be one of the outstanding performers in a compelling Ashes series
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"We're not the best side in the world because we've played good cricket for a Test or two, for five Tests or a year, we're the best because we've played good cricket for a long period of time," he said. Outwardly exuding confidence he added: "The boys are ready to go and I am expecting some special performances from one or two of the guys. The pressure's all on England. They'll be kicking themselves at not being 2-1 up."

He gazed towards the far wall, on which hangs an honours board listing all the five-wicket Test match hauls at this beautifully remodelled old ground, and perhaps fixed on the line: "2001 S K Warne 6-33 A v E". Then he added: "I've enjoyed playing here. It's been good to me and it's been a lucky omen for Australia playing here. In '93 we held on for a draw here, in '97 we won. Both times it meant we retained the Ashes. England haven't won here since 1977, so they are all good omens."

Given that Australia won at Lord's, where England have not beaten them since 1934, and England then won at their lucky ground, Edgbaston, Warne may have a point, but there were cracks in his breezy certitude.

The biggest clue came in his reasoning for the pressure being on England. "We have two Tests to go, we only have to win one of them to retain the Ashes." First came the shameless jig of delight on the Old Trafford balcony at securing a drawn Test; now comes the admission that the Australians, an all-conquering team so good the International Cricket Council have had to invent the Super Series to provide them with competition, have settled for squaring the series. Australia have not been held by England since reclaiming the Ashes in 1989, eight series ago. It is a significant lowering of sights from the tourists' initial desire to win the series 5-0.

But this is an Australian side which, if not quite in disarray, is certainly bemused. Warne admitted years of rolling over weak opposition, much of it English, has ill prepared them for the intensity of this summer's combat.

"It's a test of character at the moment," he said, adding, "a few of the guys have never been in the situation where they have gone a few games without performing as well as they would like to.

"We haven't played like we should play. We haven't executed the basic things the way we normally do - things we have been doing for a long period of time. Whether that is because of the pressure England have put on us, or wanting to win too badly, I'm not sure. Whatever the reason the bottom line is we haven't performed like we'd like to, but we have two Tests to go. We only have to win one of them, and the pressure is all on England.

"All we are worried about is ourselves. We have to play better. England have had good tactics - they've executed their plans pretty well. But in the back of their minds they have played very well in last two Tests and we held out for a draw in one and nearly won the other.

"We've been doing a lot of work [since Old Trafford]. We've had lots of good chats and we've spoken as a group about how we can improve. We just have to play better cricket. Whatever the situation we always try to improve ourselves and I'm sure you'll see a good performance from the Australian team."

There is a sense here of the old mantra, "if you say it often enough you'll believe it". "Talk," admitted Warne, "is cheap - it's about going about and doing the business."

One player who has, in the Aussie vernacular, hit his straps, is Warne. That he has done so against the backdrop of a very public marital breakdown has been a source of comfort and pride to him. "I'm pretty proud of the way I've been going this series considering all the things I went though leading up to the series and through it, I've got 20 wickets and 200-odd runs. I'm happy with my own form but it won't mean anything if we don't win the series."

Nor, he tried to insist, would the series' epic quality. "If we don't win I won't enjoy it," he said. Then the innate competitor in Warne came out. "As a Test cricketer - and I've played 120-odd [126] - the series you remember are the close ones. A two-day Test against Zimbabwe or Bangladesh is not that enjoyable. Going to India and being tested in their conditions, playing South Africa, playing England the way they are playing now - they are the series people remember. As players you want to be tested. You don't want easy games. At the moment everybody is being tested. A Test match is a test of your technique, your patience, a test of everything about you."

Maybe one day, even if Australia lose, Warne will treasure this personally difficult summer. Just as Richie Benaud was initially downcast when the Brisbane Test of 1960-61 was tied, but later realised he had been involved in a Test which would always stand out of the ordinary. Just as, at the Sydney Olympics, the beaten Italian stroke, Carlo Mornatti, said he never wanted to lose, but if he did, he would rather it was at the hands of a "great man" like Steve Redgrave.

But England have not achieved greatness yet, nor Australia not lost this test of character. "I think we have come though pretty well in tough situations," said Warne. "We batted against the wall and made 379."

The competitor returned as he added: "It's 1-1. England probably feel they should be winning 2-1. They'll be disappointed. They'll probably be kicking themselves that they didn't declare earlier."

So an over-cautious Michael Vaughan got it wrong? Just a little depth charge to drop into the calm waters of the England dressing room. Switching to Hampshire's progress to the Cheltenham & Gloucester Trophy final, Warne noted he was "proud" of "his" team, proud of the way they have responded to his efforts to "instil a different, aggressive attitude, one in which we try to win from any situation."

It was, he did not need to say, an Australian attitude. A winners' attitude. Then he took his leave, passing under that honours board. But as he looked up did he see, adjacent to his name, Bill Voce's framed blazer from the 1932-33 Ashes Tour, the Bodyline tour? It was a reminder that winning is not an Australian invention.