Warne unleashes early blow at England in Ashes battle

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The Independent Online

Shane Warne insisted that it was far too early to talk about the Ashes, but Australia's master craftsman could not resist striking a psychological blow against the old enemy yesterday.

Shane Warne insisted that it was far too early to talk about the Ashes, but Australia's master craftsman could not resist striking a psychological blow against the old enemy yesterday.

Having reported back for duty at the Rose Bowl with Hampshire before tomorrow's start of the County Championship, Warne was asked whether, come the first Test at Lord's in July, he and his fellow countrymen would feel under pressure to avoid becoming the first Australians to lose an Ashes series for 18 years.

"I actually think the pressure's on England rather than Australia," Warne countered. "Everybody expects England either to win the series or at least to be very competitive. Everyone's saying this is the first Ashes series for a long time that England have a chance of winning. If England are up to the battle - which I'm sure they are - then it should be one hell of a series. We're not thinking that we might be the team that loses the Ashes. We're looking forward to the competition and hoping that it will be one of the great series. But for that to happen England have to play well."

Warne, 35, recently took his 1,000th first-class wicket and with 583 Test victims has been stretching his record as the most successful bowler in the history of the international game. "I'm as fit as I've ever been," he said. "I've had six months of county cricket last year, followed by six months of international cricket, and I'm still performing well. My shoulder's probably as strong as it's ever been.

"I think the best I ever bowled was between 1993 and 1998, before I had any operations. That was the best I've bowled in terms of spinning the leg-break as far as possible with every ball, but I didn't really understand tactics or how to get wickets. Now I've got a few different deliveries and I'm a bit more cagey."

Warne believes that another veteran, the fast bowler Glenn McGrath, is also back to his best after injury. "I'm just waiting for one of the English players to come out and target Glenn McGrath," he said. "When is one of the blokes going to say: 'I'm going to target McGrath. He's not going to get me out for the series.'? Maybe they won't. I think he's back to bowling as well as he ever has."

Warne will base himself in England throughout his new contract with Hampshire (a two-year deal with an option for a two-year extension) and has calculated that the late start to the Ashes means that this summer he will be able to play 11 county matches, 10 one-day games, the Twenty20 competition and most of the Cheltenham and Gloucester Trophy matches. He is relishing the chance of captaining a side including Kevin Pietersen, but there is no doubt about the centrepiece of his summer.

"In my 15 years of playing I think this is one of the most anticipated series that I've been involved in," he said. "There are probably only four or five guys from the present Ashes squad who will be around for the next series here in four years' time, so that's an added incentive for a few of us."

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