England's hope is a nemesis in decline

Ashes countdown: Figures say Warne is as good as ever, opponents do not, and the series will hinge on who is right
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The Independent Online

Statistically, this verdict would seem to be the raving of a madman, someone clinging to the hope that Warne's influence over the course of the Ashes series about to start will be minimal. Simply look at the figures. After serving a year's ban for taking a banned substance, a diuretic which could act as a masking agent, and being fortunate not to receive a more severe punishment, Warne returned in March 2004. He has played in 16 Tests since. These have brought him 92 wickets, more than anybody else in the period.

He has taken them much more quickly than he did before - a wicket every 49 balls compared to one every 59 balls - and he has become the leading Test wicket-taker. The overwhelming probability is that he will become the first bowler to take 600 Test wickets, and this from a leg-spinner, a craft that 15 years ago was about to join hansom-cab engineering as a dead trade.

Yet it may be important, indeed it may be vital, for England to look beyond the figures. If they are daunted by Warne's reputation and his aggression, which is definitely not on the wane, then he will track them down as surely as a spider ensnaring an insect in its web.

"They have to decide whether to take him on or see him off," said Bob Woolmer, the Pakistan coach who saw Warne from close and uncomfortable distance last winter. The leg-spinner took 14 wickets in a three-match series. "He's still very competitive and I don't think anybody should underestimate him, but I don't think that physically he's quite there.

"My view from the side is that he has changed from five years ago, and is now without the dip and curve that he had once. His variations are not as lethal. But he tries to make up for what he lacks now with brainpower, and that can be extremely potent. His leg-break still turns a long way."

By his own admission, Warne has changed. During a self-assessment after he led Hampshire to an unlikely victory over Gloucestershire in April, he said that his main weapon now was the leg-spinner. But he had mastered degrees of turn, so that one might turn the distance that so famously castled Mike Gatting when Warne bowled his first ball in an Ashes match 12 years ago, and another might deviate only centimetres. He claimed to have tight control. But without the initial dip it will not necessarily bamboozle.

His longtime associate Terry Jenner is an affable man who is usually happy to discuss Warne. Not this time, not so close to the Ashes. "It is important as far as Shane and the team are concerned that the less written and said the better," explained Jenner.

This might mean not much, but it might also be that Jenner, notoriously honest about slow bowlers and their schemes, does not want to be drawn into conceding that his smartest pupil is on the decline. Before his comeback, Warne worked with Jenner on getting the bowling arm as high as it once was.

Not that you would get an argument on this from Kumar Sangakkara, the feisty Sri Lankan batsman. Sri Lanka were on the receiving end of Warne's comeback from his ban in March 2004. He cut a swathe through their batting on their own pitches, taking 10 wickets in each of the first two matches and 26 in the three-match series.

It was an exhibition characteristically defying superlatives, and he all but matched it in India later in the year. Then he dismissed cheaply three times VVS Laxman, supposedly one of the best players of spin around.

"Maybe he has lost some of his wizardry and magic, but he was still brilliant at his job," said Sangakkara. "He can still rip the leg-spinner, and tactically he is wonderful. He came to Sri Lanka and he had clearly prepared for every batsman."

Sangakkara had not faced Warne before, but had no reason to believe he was less potent. But there was a chink. Sri Lanka played a return series against Australia in Darwin and Cairns last July and Sangakkara made runs both times.

"I hit him for a few fours early on and he dropped a few short. I was enjoying myself actually, but later on he bowled tighter at me and lured me into a false shot. That is the way he is, but I would say there are balls that can be hit."

Woolmer agrees, and he thinks that England have to make sure that they do not let the opportunities pass. "It has to be a mixture, controlled aggression in a way. England have to be careful, but there may be something there to exploit.

"Australia effectively play four specialist bowlers and Warne holds an end up for them, as he always has. If England can stop him doing that then who knows what might be possible?"

Pakistan were swept aside by Australia last winter and Warne has not been in a losing Test side for 23 matches, going back to a dead game against South Africa in March 2002. The four Tests that Australia have lost since then have not featured Warne.

In three series in England he has taken 34, 24 and 31 wickets respectively, the strike rate coming down each time. But on the day after the Ashes are scheduled to end at The Oval he will be 36, and there was an indication in a Championship match at Canterbury a few weeks ago, albeit a tiny one, that Warne may not be quite what he was.

Kent batted for four sessions to save the match. Min Patel and Simon Cook, the home club's ninth-wicket pair, held out for almost 27 overs as Warne rang the changes. The great man eventually separated them with a corking, whizzing leg-break, but it was too late. It was possible to think that the Warne of yore would have whistled through measly tailenders.

Then there is his private life, which should remain private, but may affect his approach. His separation from his wife, perhaps caused by the tabloid revelation of one liaison too many, was the reason for his recent mini-break from cricket. He has proved so resilient in the past - injuries, bookies, sex, drugs and probably rock 'n' roll have failed to thwart him - that it would be foolish to think he will be unsettled.

"He's brash and his life could be from Hollywood, or perhaps Neighbours," said Woolmer. "He will have to call on all his competitive instincts." More importantly, England will have to call on all theirs.