Shane Warne is the best leg-spin bowler of all time, and possibly the best bowler, pure and simple. Nobody with an ounce of gumption demurred when he was elected as one of the five cricketers of the 20th century.
Not everything about him, however, is appealing. Especially his appealing. To Warne, an appeal, whether for lbw or a catch, is less a polite inquiry than a piece of theatre. It approached risibly melodramatic proportions in Perth yesterday as England went in improbable but admirably dogged pursuit of a victory target of 557.
Of course, it is perfectly understandable that Warne should appeal loud and often. Not only is it within the letter and spirit of the laws, but it happens to be part of the whole performance of wearing down batsmen, of eating at their very souls. It is designed to exploit weakness and encourage doubt.
All well and good, but it is what is happening after the appeal has been lodged that has become unappetising. Instead of accepting the umpire's verdict and getting on with it, Warne has taken to prolonging the event. He pouts, preens, stands with hands on hips in the double teapot position and looks at the umpire as though the decision is a personal affront.
Alastair Cook, England's centurion and an extremely cool dude, paid no heed to the champion bowler's antics, and Warne was quick to shake his hand when the landmark was reached. "He's always a bit unlucky, isn't he," Cook observed drolly. "I think that's the way the Aussies play their cricket. They're very good like that and when someone does well against them they offer congratulations. The whole thing is theatre for him. He's a good bowler, you've just got to ignore it and watch the ball."
Cook ignored the play-acting all right and while never in command against Warne he was never flustered. Ian Bell positively relished the challenge. He had the dancing feet of Billy Elliott as he went down the track to hoist a couple of sixes and executed some impeccably timed on drives against the turn. It was difficult to recall that this was the same chap who froze against Australia in 2005 and completely forgot the script. No player more deserved a century.
Perhaps the second-wicket partnership of 170 on a day of superb defiance persuaded Warne to become flustered. He was certainly more animated than usual - and he is never still - which provoked the Barmy Army into giving him some dreadful stick.
The antics took the sheen off some magnificent bowling, which made the efforts of Cook and Bell all the more praiseworthy. Warne had bowled 31 overs into the wind by the end of the day, 24 of them in one spell.
Glenn McGrath had no hesitation in crediting his two late wickets to the pressure built up by his spinning colleague. "It was some day at the office," said McGrath. "Shane never eases up. I think he appeals because he thinks they're out but the umpires made some pretty good decisions. As to whether it affects batsmen, you'd have to ask them."
The point is that it is intended to affect the batsman. If it was any other bowler, rather than the man who has taken more Test wickets than anybody in history, he would be on permanent report to the match referee. As it is, nothing is done and the show goes on.
The way in which Cook and Bell approached him and the other bowlers yesterday gave England cause for optimism. They were assertive and in control.
"I've felt in nick throughout the series, I just haven't got a score," said Cook. "When you've got someone bowling who has taken almost 700 Test wickets and another who has taken 500, it's hard work. You get no respite. You've got to stick to a game plan and not get overawed.
"Bell and me are both quite laid back characters. The plan was to grind it out in the first session and then the second session and not make any silly mistakes. I've been nicking off a bit and I left the ball better today."
Cook has now scored four Test centuries before his 22nd birthday, which he celebrates on Christmas Day, two more than any England player before him. David Gower and Denis Compton had two centuries each before they were 22.
Only nine other players have achieved such feats. Sachin Tendulkar had eight hundreds before he turned 22, George Headley seven and Don Bradman six. Cook cannot beat those figures now but he demonstrated yesterday that he has a future every bit as bright.Reuse content