Buchanan looks down but Shane still aims high

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The Independent Online

These have been two days and a handful of overs of bad news for Australian cricket, made worse by the fact that they are not accustomed to being treated as sporting inferiors. Yesterday at the Third npower Test, they seemed to be trying to come to terms with it, not through Warne's heroics in a minor key, but by the sound of John Buchanan, Australia's capable coach. John Buchanan is the Deborah Kerr of Test cricket.

Like Kerr in The King and I, when Buchanan is afraid, he sings a happy tune. Yesterday, while the rain was falling, he told Mike Atherton on Channel 4: "Whatever the result of the Ashes, we'll grow as a group as a result." For the first time in England in almost two decades, an Australian coach is contemplating the possibility of a series defeat. After trashing England at Lord's, the Australian captain, Ricky Ponting, was talking about a 5-0 whitewash. From hubris to hardship in only three weeks.

Buchanan, who is an amiable chap, likes playing mind games. Normally, these are designed to place uncertainty in the minds of his opponents - the hope of inducing what Steve Waugh used to refer to as "mental disintegration". In his Atherton interview yesterday, Buchanan appeared to be speaking to his own side, rather than to the opposition.

"It's nice to be on top, but it's a difficult place to be," he said. "At the moment we are not enjoying that position so the silver lining is that we will understand more about ourselves, and about what it means to be at the top.

"I don't see us failing off the perch, but it is difficult to be there without a challenge." (This is the happy tune.) "We have got a challenge this time - it's been continuing from the one-day series to this series and it's something, at the moment, we haven't grappled with quite as we'd have liked." For an Australian, that is a confession. Normally you would expect Buchanan to quote his Chinese military strategist, Sun Tzu, who would surely have said: "No animal is more dangerous than when it is cornered." Or words to that effect.

Warne seemed immune from the suspicion of malaise. It is one of the marks of his greatness as a cricketer that he can bat down the order with guts and a little style when others of whom more is expected have failed to do so. Warne is very much his own man, and does not cease to be so when he has a bat in his hand.

When he decided yesterday that he wanted a new bat in the middle of an over, he simply started to walk towards the dressing-room and had covered 30 yards before Steve Bucknor, the umpire, called him back, saying "who do you think you are?" Or words to that effect.

The new bat was still not to his liking, but this time he did manage to wait until the end of the over before running to fetch another new one. It must have been to his liking because it was this bat with which he hit four, two and four off the last over bowled by Ashley Giles before the players disappeared back into the pavilion. Those were the runs that saved the follow-on.

In this game, he has so far proved to be Australia's best batsman - and by some distance. After his 78 not out, the next highest scorer is Matthew Hayden with 34. Warne had already proved to be Australia's best bowler with 4 for 99 in England's first innings. He should have been stumped and caught by Geraint Jones yesterday, but Warne is conscious of good luck and rides it.

Of all the cricketers playing here, he is the master of his soul and the captain of his fate. He rides his bad luck, too. It is difficult to think of another cricketer who is as great an architect of his own misfortune.

If he had managed to conduct his telephone dalliances with more discretion, he would have been a powerful candidate to succeed Steve Waugh as captain, and he may well have managed the danger of disintegration - which is still only a suspicion - better than Ricky Ponting.

Had he not committed the same indiscretion a couple of months ago, he would not have lost his job as a cricket commentator on Australian television. But you can't keep this bad man down. No matter how appalling his behaviour, he is impossible to dislike, or not to admire.

Yesterday was a case in point.