Merlin of spin brings charismatic menace to mugging at Lord's

McGrath was a classic warrior hero, leading the charge to the 239-run victory and claiming match figures of 9 for 82. He goes on the honours board here again for his five wickets in the first innings - a distinction that will now almost certainly elude his fellow 35-year-old Warne. But then some things can't be written on honours boards. You have to feel them as well as read them, and what you felt here this past week was that every time Warne touched the ball, alchemy was in the air.

It was not a wisp of it, but a whirlwind of both menace and charisma which will surely survive a late buffeting from his young Hampshire team-mate, Kevin Pietersen, whose undefeated 64 in the second innings was another reminder that here at least was one Englishman - sorry, that should be one South African playing for England - not paralysed by the presence of the Australian old guard.

Warne, pursing a fifth second-innings wicket with some passion, bowled a bouncer at Pietersen when he refused to run the singles that would put the England No 11, Simon Jones, on strike. So Warne sent one whistling past his young friend's head. It was a case of "no hard feelings, mate, but try a little of this".

Watching Warne, even at this late stage of his career, is to be overwhelmed by the sense of a sporting giant, a champion who, for all indiscretions off the field, has never mistaken mere celebrity for any adequate substitute for the awesome levels of performance that have always been attached to his name.

He faces now the probability, if not the certainty, that this was his last Test match at Lord's and that he came out of it with six wickets and so much of his old aura was a hugely significant factor in Australia's dazzling reassertion of their status as the world's best cricket team.

He did it without the full range of his old powers. He has now - rather than the complete Merlin kit - formidable leg-spin, the shooting spinner, and the odd trick still to be found at the bottom of his well-travelled knapsack.

But then he has never needed to pack the most formidable asset of all. It is something he carries around with the permanence of his diamond ear-rings. It is the pride of a champion, an ageing lion who will retreat to the cricketing bush when the last of his powers are done.

Here they have been vibrant enough to render utterly impudent the pre-Test remarks of Matthew Hoggard, who had a match-winning performance of great commitment in the recent tour of South Africa but generally has no reason to address either Warne, or the other object of disparagement, McGrath, without doffing his cap.

Instead, Hoggard said that it would be interesting to see if McGrath and Warne were trading on anything more than their reputations. Interesting? Presumably interesting as in back-alley muggings, or showing jack high against a royal flush when all the money is on the table. It was entirely appropriate that first McGrath, then Warne, chose the alleyway in the middle of the world's most famous cricket ground as the point of ambush.

Before the brief, almost formal rain-delayed action, Warne filled in some of the time with a brilliantly coherent account of his professional priorities.

Yes, he told the television audience, he had been through some of the worst of times. The collapse of his family life had been painful - there was no denying that - but in the pain and the dislocation, and maybe some considerable self-recrimination, it had been clear that for him to let his cricket slide would be the ultimate defeat. He could not let the cricket go because it was the best of him, the least complicated thing he ever did.

It means that in the age of sporting hype, of vast contracts based on image rights, Warne is the shining exception to the rule that celebrity can corrupt the competitive nature and absolute celebrity can do it absolutely.

Warne has preserved, quite superbly in all his teeming and potentially destructive circumstances, the essence of his being. He has remained one of the great competitors, a champion who can put aside everything that besieges him when it comes to play.

In boxing they say that fighters fight, it is their most natural condition, and it seems that in the case of Warne it is true that great cricketers play cricket of the highest order when all else is in disarray.

At Lord's, the sheer endurance of Warne has perhaps been his most dramatic quality, especially in the light of the angst-ridden retirement from international cricket of one of his more obdurate opponents, Graham Thorpe.

Like Warne, Thorpe has known domestic turmoil, and several times it brought the Surrey left-hander to a point of deep professional crisis. Warne has marched on, rarely more impressively than in the past few days.

Yesterday he said that he couldn't disguise the difficulties of his life, but what do you do? Do you throw everything away? No, you don't, you go to play as fighters go out to fight. You work, as Warne did for two hours on the eve of this Test with his coach, Terry Jenner - and you do little fine-tuning on the morning of the game. You go into a game knowing pretty much precisely what you can do, and what he did on Saturday afternoon, especially, was cut away any beginnings of hope that England might just make a serious effort to reach the winning target of 420 runs.

He grew before our eyes as he mesmerised, and then dismissed, such key England batsmen as Marcus Trescothick, Ian Bell and Andrew Flintoff. The more he dominated, the more the folly of Hoggard was exposed. It was exceptional cricket - and remarkable spirit, and most of all it said that the great sportsmen have about them something that can never be mistaken when the important action begins.

England came to Lord's with a light appreciation of this old truth, and they paid a terrible price. They thought they were too strong for old men such as Warne and McGrath, and yesterday they learned they were wrong. They were made to feel like boys in a man's world - at least we have to hope so.

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