Strauss earns battle honours for refusing to buckle in the Warne zone

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The Independent Online

But then within that beautifully realised innings, Strauss had another, even more dramatic achievement. First, he had to win a private battle with Shane Warne, the man who has added cult status to his record-shattering total of 603 Test wickets in the last few weeks - and this after surviving a particularly ferocious delivery from Brett Lee which landed on his helmet at slightly less than 100mph.

Warne got to within 10 runs of his first Test century as the Australians fought to stay in this pivotal third Test, but in the dusk he was more a broken man than a giant of the game he has dazzled for 12 years. He was broken, at least for a little while, by Strauss.

Despite all the mesmerising work which has triggered his love-hate - but recently mostly love - relationship with the English public, Warne is not always as cuddly and engaging as a koala bear. Indeed, in terms of amiability sometimes he more resembles something that slithers around out in the bush.

However, Warne's venomous side no longer appears such a dire threat to the health of Strauss's still burgeoning Test career.

The 28-year-old's most important rite of passage came here in the late afternoon when he completed his first Ashes century, and his sixth overall, as England pushed hard to break down a little more of the spirit of the Australians. Those were the statistics, at least. The harder reality was that Strauss was stepping out of one of the darker spells weaved by the world's greatest-ever spin bowler.

Warne befuddled most of the English batting in the first Test at Lord's, but particularly Strauss, who while avoiding losing his wicket to the Australian at headquarters still arrived at Edgbaston for the second Test in a somewhat vulnerable condition. This was only heightened by the fact that Warne promptly bowled him twice. Not only that, Warne applied cricket's equivalent of the evil eye. His sledging line was that Strauss had replaced the South African Darryl Cullinan as his principal victim.

The Cullinan drama played out when South Africa were still Australia's main challengers for the status of the world's number one team. Warne's intimidation became so effective, even profound that, at one point in the battle in back-to-back three-Test series, Warne casually asked Cullinan about the colour of the psychiatrist's couch. In fact, the South African, a fine stroke-maker, had become so depressed and worried by Warne's ascendancy that he had consulted a sports psychologist. Warne naturally threw in the dart.

At around 5pm yesterday such extreme measures became utterly redundant in the life of Andrew Strauss.

He rushed to his century by first pulling Warne for six - earlier he had inflicted the same fate on Lee - and then Glenn McGrath for four. He was underpinning his right to an opener's role in the team making such purposeful strides towards upsetting the old Australian cricket empire, and in the clatter of impressive figures - two sixes and nine fours - there was a deeper reason for praise. Strauss's innings was perfectly judged in that it was a masterpiece of smooth acceleration. It absorbed the threat of early wickets by Warne, McGrath and Lee, and allowed England to chase securely the runs that would enable captain Michael Vaughan to set the Australians a target that offered only two possibilities; a draw or a defeat.

When Vaughan declared, and gave the Australians a 35-minute ordeal, Strauss had every reason to congratulate himself on his refusal to go the way of Cullinan. He was the latest England player to face the ultimate test of his career and emerge with battle ribbons of the highest order.

It was certainly not a formality when he walked to the wicket with his partner Marcus Trescothick in early afternoon. Warne's phenomenal performance with the bat, all the more remarkable on top of his prodigious bowling stints at the age of 35, had, with the dogged work of Jason Gillespie, reduced the England lead to a mere 142, a total which, while scarcely insignificant, would have shrunk dramatically with some opening impact by Australia's big three of Warne, McGrath and Lee. Warne must have reckoned that Strauss was a particularly inviting point of attack.

You had to consider the the steep decline in Strauss's Test profile after coming into the Warne zone.

He arrived at Lord's last month with a magnificent body of work in 14 Tests against New Zealand, the West Indies, South Africa and Bangladesh. He had gleaned five centuries, including one in his first Test - at Lord's. In South Africa he had been tough, nerveless, amassing 656 runs in five Tests at an average of 72.89.

That was the formidable calling card he laid before the world champions in St John's Wood. But Warne was impressed least of all. In a burst of bowling that was as technically brilliant as it was bold, Warne stopped England in the belief that had taken an early hold of a series that might just offer a first triumph in 18 years. He had Strauss and Trescothick groping in a thick fog on a summer's day.

Strauss survived the ordeal, at least in terms of missing a place on Warne's scalp belt, but there was no question that he had been shaken by the range of his virtuosity. One consequence was his double failure to cope with the Australian's wiles at Edgbaston and last week the failing hero of last summer and winter arrived here with an average of less than 20. From being merely sub-Bradmanesque, his figures had become, well, simply sub-standard.

It is just a fleeting memory now. There were moments yesterday when it could have been rather more than that, of course. It could have been a dawning sense that after the triumphs against lesser nations, lesser intimidation, Andrew Strauss had proved less a hero of the ages than a cricketer of brief times in the sun. That was the point Warne wished to inflict with crushing force, and there were times when all his wiles were applied. But Strauss resisted the worst of Warne - and of Lee, who also sent one delivery timed at 94.5 mph whistling scarcely an inch beneath his chin.

In the dusk once more Australian shoulders slumped. There were many reasons for this, some of them blows of the day, some of them cumulative. Not the least, in either category, was the final breakthrough of Andrew Strauss.