James Lawton: Sorcerer supreme casts his most magical spell

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The Independent Online

The author of arguably the most stunning victory in the history of Test cricket was asked how deeply he felt the tension when his Australian team-mates Mike Hussey and Michael Clarke drew close to the target that would all but deliver this Ashes series. As he sat padded-up, was he sweating out the possibility that a fall of two quick wickets would take him back into the heart the action? "No, mate," he said, "I wasn't interested in batting. I was drinking pop and eating toasted sandwiches."

Shane Warne is nobody's idea of a super athlete, least of all his own, but at 37 his aura has never blazed so brilliantly. He is the most charismatic performer in the history of cricket and, after systematically reducing England to nothing less than a collective nervous breakdown, he may also be the best, the most influential, the most guaranteed to sow demoralisation into a batsman's heart and mind.

This, certainly, is the regained gravitas he takes to Perth for a third Test next week in which he will once again overshadow team-mates and opponents alike.

He is not so much a cricketer as a maker of spells. Yes, he is portly and has often displayed away from the field an irresponsibility that would be frowned upon in the kind of feckless beach boy he once was.

He is incorrigible, hedonistic and, before his latest epic performance, one former opponent of great distinction was saying that he is probably cricket's answer to Peter Pan - somebody who either cannot, or simply doesn't want to grow up.

Among even his warmest admirers there are fears that he will be a lost soul when he has to face the day when he can no longer go out on the field secure in a world that for a decade and a half now he has dominated in an extraordinary and relentless way.

Yet that day, once again, has been pushed back, assigned to all the other calamities of old age. For the moment Shane Warne is as young as he wants to be. He remains the King of Neverland.

Here today there is no limit to the homage being paid to the man who almost single-handedly won a Test that many hard judges agree was possibly the most remarkable ever played. Australia came to a near standstill as Warne worked his alchemy on a contest which in the morning had seemed to permit only two possibilities, a win for England, 97 runs ahead with nine wickets standing, or a draw. Offices and factories here in Adelaide were emptied as "grieving" workers - and some bosses - had to rush to the scene of family bereavements, by way of the beautiful Oval which Warne had claimed for his own.

Ian Chappell, an Australian captain of ferocious application, said: "There are two reasons why Australia were able to win this match. They have a great team - and the greatest player cricket has ever seen. I have never seen opponents so dominated, so mesmerised. Without Warne, Australia couldn't have won this Test match. You just don't win Test matches after your opponents have put on 551 runs in their first innings. It doesn't happen, it shouldn't happen, but then with Warney we know now anything is possible."

Another former Test captain, England's Mike Gatting, watched Warne with the same stunned countenance he had displayed when he became one of the young bowler's first major victims, the casualty of a leg break so outrageous it shocked the cricket world.

Said Gatting: "I suppose I shouldn't be surprised by anything Warne does, but what happened is going to take a little time to believe."

Maybe it should be said there were at least half a dozen reasons why England's hold on the Ashes urn was loosened to the point of hopelessness when they went 2-0 down in the small hours of Tuesday.

We could start with the cascade of runs pouring from the bat of Australian captain Ricky Ponting, another 49 flowing crucially as his team climbed from beneath the mountain of England's first-innings total of 556 for 6 declared to knock off the 168 runs required with three of the designated 36 overs remaining. That took Ponting's series total to 447 in four innings, one of them undefeated.

Nor can we avoid the fact that England were utterly overwhelmed by the fierce competitive instinct of the Australian game rising so vengefully out of Ashes defeat in England in 2005 and expressed quite superbly by the emerging master batsmen Hussey and Clarke. It is also true that in Brett Lee, Stuart Clark and Glenn McGrath, Australia had a trio of pace bowlers whose ability to bowl a length and a line mocked the efforts of their English rivals, and that included the captain, Andrew Flintoff, the star of that English summer, and first-innings hero Matthew Hoggard.

Yet wherever you turned there was always the sight of Warne, the supreme architect of Australian victory. In the decisive moments of a match which we were so sure England could not lose after the batting performances of Paul Collingwood and Kevin Pietersen, we were confronted again by the same grim picture painted in the first Test in Brisbane - the one of men facing boys.

At the heart of it was Warne endlessly turning his right arm and making psychological mayhem. He bowled for four unbroken hours, until the point when his fingers twitched with weariness and his shoulder ached. "As much as the body was beginning to tire," he said, "the adrenalin kicked in with the knowledge that in 140 Test matches we were about to win the greatest Test match I had ever played in.

"Yes, it was my most satisfying time in cricket. For one thing I had read the rubbish of [coach] Duncan Fletcher that the English batsmen had learned how to play me." Fletcher had been emboldened by Warne's frustration in the first innings, when he claimed just one wicket for 161 runs. This, suggested the England coach, was not the work of a sorcerer but someone whose mystery had dissolved. England had exposed the flight of genius, and what was left? An old, sad routine.

It was a delusion of devastating consequences as Warne laid siege to England's confidence, claiming four wickets and among them the great prize of Pietersen.

Pietersen was Warne's chief tormentor as England apparently insulated themselves against defeat. He forced Warne to bowl around the wicket in an attempt to staunch England's flow of runs and to nag at the patience of the hard-hitting and hugely talented young batsman. That was a little like asking an Old Master to paint the kitchen but then suddenly Warne was working on his own unique canvas once again.

He bowled Pietersen around his legs as he attempted to sweep. It was the moment England's concern at the jittery run-out misadventure of Ian Bell turned into wholesale panic.

Warne seemed to a grow a little more menacing each time he approached the bowling crease. When someone later spluttered out amazement at his ability to meet the relentless demands of his captain, Ponting intervened. "In a situation like that, mate, I'd like to see anyone get the ball off Shane Warne," said the captain. "No one wants the ball more, no one is more willing to bowl for ever."

When England's captain faced the world he was still in shock. Flintoff wondered how it was possible to lose a Test match which his team had dominated for all but an hour. It seemed heartless to remind him that anything can happen in Neverland.

The infamous 500 club

Teams who have lost Test matches after scoring more than 500 runs in an innings

Australia (586) v England at Sydney, 1894

Pakistan (574-8 dec) v Australia at Melbourne, 1972

Australia (556) v India at Adelaide, 2003

England (551-6 dec) v Australia at Adelaide, 2006

Sri Lanka (547-8 dec) v Australia at Colombo, 1992

Pakistan (538) v England at Leeds, 2006

West Indies (526-7 dec) v England at Port of Spain, 1968

Australia (520) v South Africa at Melbourne, 1953

England (519) v Australia at Melbourne, 1929

India (510) v England at Leeds, 1967

South Africa (506) v Australia at Melbourne, 1910

Pakistan (504) v England at The Oval, 2006