Warne a pantomime villain in game of purest drama

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The Independent Online

True, England's proximity to an elusive triumph which should be confirmed early today was an influential factor in that judgement. Yet, while all the trends suggest that the sport is increasingly being directed at those with the attention-span of a butterfly, and who possess an equal affinity for bright colours, this was evidence aplenty that the version played in whites, over a notional five days, remains beyond compare.

Earlier this week, Shane Warne had obliged our tabloid brethren by revealing that he would willingly "give up sex" to bowl a few more deliveries like his "ball of the century" to Mike Gatting. As we sated ourselves yesterday on the sublimely balanced yet, until the last session, always fluctuating fortunes of a match in which the world's finest bowler had already achieved something similar to that 1993 Ashes-debut delivery, you could appreciate that little piece of Warney wisdom.

Who, on days such as this, would have desired to be anywhere - or if we can for a moment be as candid as the Australian leg spinner, doing anything - else? Indeed, the same may be said of all three days thus far, together with the Lord's opener. The reality, for once, has superseded the pre-series hyperbole by some margin - apparently as the result of some kind of unspoken pact between these teams (with only Justin Langer not party to it, to judge by his batting resilience on Friday) to commit themselves to attack.

There may have been an early autumnal feel, accentuated by the fact that football was being slowly beckoned back into our consciousness at the likes of Portman Road and the City Ground, but it is doubtful that anywhere in the land the sense of constant anticipation could have been equalled.

They have witnessed some supreme achievements here over the years, not least England's nine-wicket Ashes triumph in 1997, which included Nasser Hussain's 207, and, on an individual level, Brian Lara's world record 501 on 6 June 1994. But this was akin to entering a new dimension, in which even the most naturally circumspect player was somehow reminded of his duty to entertain.

England's progress was even enough occasionally to silence the "Barmy Army". Within the Eric Hollies Stand, which they inhabit here and where fancy dress is just about mandatory, it is almost a parallel universe of the boisterous and buffoonish, from those clad in "Johnners" wigs to the 10-strong group of policemen, electricians and prison guards from Wolverhampton and Walsall who arrived as "Whoopee Cushions" and duly won the official fancy dress trophy.

Too frequently, such characters become the spectacle, not the spectators. Here, there was no real contest after lunch once the talismanic Flintoff had pulled the ball for four in their direction off Michael Kasprowicz - the catalyst for a resurgence in their exhortations after a lull when England looked likely to be setting too inviting a target.

It has been a contest of bruised bodies, bruised egos, fallen wickets - no fewer than 17 yesterday - and fiery onslaughts, notably with both bat and ball by Flintoff. Oh, how they loved it in the Eric Hollies when Brett Lee, having started his day inflicting grievous harm on the England principals, ended it by suffering the sheer indignity of having Flintoff flail him for six, four and six in successive balls.

And, though it is likely to be overshadowed if England secure that series-equalling win, there is the vindication on his home ground of Ashley Giles, a player who only minutes before his dismissal of Australia's captain Ricky Ponting on Friday had been castigated by Geoffrey Boycott on Channel 4. "That's rubbish, that is," said Boycott. "He [Ponting] could have hit that with a stick of rhubarb. That was four inches outside leg stump. And if he thinks that's criticism, no doubt he can tell us about it in tomorrow's newspapers."

This time Giles answered such an unnecessary slight in the most effective way he knows. With the ball. He has learnt a lesson this week. And maybe taught his critics one as well.

Not that he can compare with his Australian counterpart. On any other occasion, this would have been Warne's day. His 10 wickets in total, following six in England's second innings, was his ninth such haul and his third against the old enemy. Just up the road from here is the headquarters of Cadbury's, the chocolate manufacturers. Here yesterday, it looked for a lengthy period as though the day would be all about Wily Warne and the Wicket Factory.

Langer had prophesised overnight that Warne's dismissal of Andrew Strauss would "release the demons in the England dressing room". Though, initially, it had been Lee who had dominated affairs, it was Warne, posturing, occasionally petulant but frequently potent, who would have been the ruin of England but for Flintoff's last stand which transformed a desperately impoverished batting display by the hosts into a position where they could begin to salivate about the prospect of victory.

As Boycott had opined: "Saving games is not their [Australia's] nature". As their wickets tumbled, the great arbiter appeared to have got that correct on a day in which the game itself was the greatest winner.

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