The men who made the series: Shane Warne

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John Arlott in the radio commentary box characteristically found the perfect words for that occasion in 1948. "I wonder if you see a ball very clearly in your last Test in England, on a ground where you've played out some of the biggest cricket of your life, and where the opposing team has just stood round you and given you three cheers and the crowd has clapped you all the way to the wicket. I wonder if you really see the ball at all?"

There was no Arlott behind the microphone yesterday, alas, and the weight of history was not as overwhelming, but in terms of disappointment Flintoff's untimely departure - with just eight runs next to his name and the stage seemingly set for an innings to match his marvellous five-wicket haul on Sunday - ran Bradman's dismissal close.

The problem, as far as Flintoff and England were concerned, was that the stage was also perfectly set for Warne, one of the 10 Australians who would play alongside the Don in the finest Aussie XI of all time. Indeed, the boy from Ferntree Gully would feature in most people's pick of the best all-time XI irrespective of nationality. He was, after all, one of Wisden's five best cricketers of the 20th century. I hate to resort to a sporting cliche, but there are times when nothing else will do: he is a living legend.

The script could only go one of two ways when Flintoff strode out to replace Marcus Trescothick, the opener undone by a ripsnorting Warne leg-break.

Either Flintoff would play an Ashes-winning knock to reinforce his claim to be voted man of the series, BBC Sports Personality of the Year, Secretary-General of NATO, Rear of the Year, and Pope. Or the big Lancastrian's scalp would be taken by the only man with a talent gigantic enough to eclipse even his: Shane Keith Warne.

We thought, at the beginning of the summer, that we knew all about Warne's ability to work his sorcery on English wickets. From his iconic first ball in Ashes cricket, at Old Trafford in 1993, when he so famously bamboozled England's best player of spin, Mike Gatting, to the Oval Test of the 2001 series, when another England captain, Alec Stewart, became his 400th Test cricket, he had surely shown us everything there was to show.

But no. The long years of wear and tear, including the operations on his shoulder and fingers, were said to have restricted his repertoire. And so they had. The Warne flipper, once a decisive weapon, rarely gets wheeled out of the armoury these days. But Warne has been diminished in the way that Michelangelo might have been diminished had someone removed one of the colours from his palette; he simply knocks off even greater masterpieces with what remains.

The Oval saw the old master, 36 today, at his best. For a spinner to take five wickets on the first day of a Test match is impressive, for those wickets to belong to the top five batsmen of a side in splendid form, is remarkable. And for all that to unfold on a wicket as flat and true as this one, is astonishing.

But then nothing about Warne has ever been remotely prosaic. A few months ago I interviewed Kevin Pietersen, England's batting hero yesterday, who described his close friend and Hampshire captain thus: "He's an absolute champion of a guy. You know, I went to South Africa last winter as a county player and came back as an international, with people talking about me as a wonder boy. That's just nonsense, but it's been such a relief having someone to talk to who's experienced it all himself. Warney has done everything.

"He's earned his millions, he's had a ban, he's been caught doing this or that, and he's got 583 Test wickets. In fact he's nicknamed me '600' because he wants me as his 600th Test wicket."

Pietersen didn't live up to Warne's nickname - the dubious distinction of becoming Test victim number 600 went to Marcus Trescothick, at Old Trafford - but their duel yesterday was one of the most fascinating sub-texts of an intriguing day, the more so as Warne had so comprehensively outsmarted Pietersen in the first innings. When Pietersen looks back at the Oval, his pride in scoring a wonderful maiden Test century will be compounded by the knowledge that he did it against Warne at his most guileful.

As for Pietersen's assertion that Warne has "done everything" on and off the cricket field, it is repeatedly said that Flintoff is the new Botham, but really Botham's doppelganger these days is Warne: the sex, the drugs, the charisma, the waistline, the peroxide, the ban, and of course the talent, with bat as well as ball, for we shouldn't overlook Warne's immense batting contribution to the Australian effort. Only the most churlish of Englishmen would have begrudged him a century in Manchester, where he scored a terrific first-innings 90.

And yet, paradoxically, his greatest achievement in cricket will only become evident once he has bowled his last slider. His legacy will last for decades, for he has made spin-bowling not only fashionable, but sexy.

I interviewed him a few years ago, during his first season in county cricket. He told me how amazed he had been to find such ignorance towards spin. "The captains at certain counties just don't understand how to captain a spin bowler," he said, "how to set a field, when to bowl him." They do now.