John Benaud: Warne's highlights turn back the years

Legendary leg-spinner can still set off England's nervous twitch in absence of their mind guru

"Ho, ho, ho." Depending on your sense of humour, that's either an Aussie gloating or he's just celebrating an early Christmas Down Under, the good cheer distributed not by your usual roundish, red-suited chap but one in a cream suit with grass stains, the one and only Shane Warne.

Or Shorn Wayne, as the Benaud matriarch Irene likes to call the blond bomber. She recently turned a glorious 102 but don't think she's spent too much time at silly leg. Truth is she was sharp enough to note that Warney was gelling and tipping his hair to appear more youthful than his 37 years.

"Is he back with his wife?" she likes to ask. Just about anywhere in the world the rhyming slang for wife is "trouble and strife", and that still seems to dog England whenever the great leg-spinner is around, or over the wicket.

Believe it or not, until England's second-innings batting twitch in Adelaide, there was a hint emerging that maybe, just maybe, the England coach, Duncan Fletcher, had a point when he said after the Gabba Test: "The boys are playing Warne well."

There's an interesting statistical trend emerging with Warne: before this Ashes series began he played three inter-state matches and took 10 wickets at a strike-rate of 82 balls a wicket. His career strike-rate in domestic cricket is 73. In his Test career it's 57, but in the two Tests this summer it has been 85 balls a wicket.

Ian Healy, who respected Warne's explosive talent so much he would sometimes keep wicket in a helmet, made this point during the first innings at Adelaide when Warne was still wicketless: "You know he's bowling at his best when in his follow-through his right leg, the trailing leg, swings through high and the foot kicks up to about thigh height." Healy thought it lower. Still, even if the body is tiring, the one skill that is not eluding Warne is his ability to bend a batsman's mind.

Adelaide messed with many minds. One observer ignored the adage "engage brain before opening mouth" and suggested that the ball which got Kevin Pietersen in the second innings was better than the one that got Mike Gatting in 1993.

That in itself reminds us just how long Warne has been rampant - but what rubbish! Gatting missed the perfect leg-break, Pietersen missed a full toss and was guilty of poor shot selection, and very probably hubris, having dominated Warne in the first innings.

The Pietersen moment, or the Bell and Flintoff kamikaze moments, were all proof perfect of one of coaching's most common signposts: "You learn the most about people when they're thrown out of gear, when they're under pressure." So, stand by to learn more about Fletcher now his 2005 winning team balance has failed Down Under and he has to press the Back to the Drawing Board key on his computer.

The real danger for England is that Warne will re-establish his old mastery over their batsmen. Evidence of Warne's intent came the day after the Test when he said, with not a sign of tongue in bulging cheek, that his four-wicket haul was the best of his career. Who'd believe that but a befuddled English batsman?

Not only English minds were in turmoil. Damien Martyn's decision to quit before the Perth Test rather than risk being tapped on the shoulder by the selectors after it was more sensible than much of his recent batting.

On his arrival against West Indies 15 years ago, as a controversial replacement for the equally cocky Dean Jones, Martyn's elegant strokemaking, his grand timing and uncanny split-second manipulation of the bat face to find gaps in the field, impressed mightily. He was just 22, and so obviously a future champion that not even Jones's record could deny him. Of late, that talent had gone, along with his concentration. This early in the current series, Matthew Hayden's concentration seems patchy, too.

The choice of Adam Voges, aged 27, as Martyn's replacement is either smart thinking with the World Cup around the corner or more evidence that there is a dearth of middle-order batting talent in Australia. His opponents say he's "got something"; he's "got a good head on his shoulders"; that "he's always in when the games are won", and accolades from adversaries don't slip out easily down here.

The case for Voges playing in Perth is confused by the re-emergence of Andrew Symonds, who is hardly a Test all-rounder. That can only be an insurance job if Glenn McGrath's heel is still wonky.

These days the once bouncy, fast Perth pitch is more like the old Sydney Cricket Ground pitch of the Nineties: slow, low and grey. Probably not the ideal platform for England to try to get one back in a series slipping away.

The Shane Gain: Left in a daze on the last days

England's Bane: Going into the final day at Brisbane in 1994 on 211 for 2, Hick and Thorpe both had fifties and were well placed for the draw. But Warne grabbed his Test best of 8 for 71 and England crashed, losing by 184 runs. It couldn't get any worse.

Terribly Tricky: Yes, it could. In the next Test in Melbourne, Warne took a hat-trick to send England rushing to defeat by 295 runs. He had 20 wickets in two Tests.

Windies Blown Away: West Indies, chasing 327 at Melbourne in 1992, reached 143 for 1. But Warne, in only his fifth Test, took 7 for 52 and they were skittled out for 219.

Galling Demise: Despite a first-innings lead of 161 in Galle in 2004, Sri Lanka capitulated for 154 on day five. The old master opened the bowling and snatched 5 for 43.

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