Mind games and warning signals

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Now we'll see how tough Mark Taylor's Australians really are. Suddenly their hard-won title of world champions is on the line and another stumble at Lord's will turn the grass-stained knee of Edgbaston into a three-corner tear.

Lord's is billed in the programme as the Second Test - from the Australian viewpoint read "character test". There's nothing like a good belting, especially one from England, to sharpen the focus and all attention must now be on stiffening the performance of Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne, for it is on their talent alone that this Ashes series may now turn.

McGrath looked impatient at Edgbaston, often frustrated, shaking his head, hands petulantly on hips when results kept falling short of his no doubt lofty expectations. And, as the fine fast bowler who just a few months earlier had destroyed Brian Lara's batting reputation, he was entitled to anticipate more joy than just a "two-for".

He seemed to have forgotten this was a new ball game, and where in the world he was - on a slow pitch in England's Midlands, which demanded some serious mind management. If his mind was working it was as a windmill. "Slow pitches, think slow" is the adage. Be patient.

We must hope for a more composed McGrath from now on, or the burden falling upon the shoulders of the other two seamers, one of whom must be the England-experienced Paul Reiffel, might become so heavy that the early breakthroughs Australia need as the foundation for a winning comeback might not happen.

Patience seems to be eluding Warne, too. He took the ball on day one at Edgbaston, all adrenalin and aggression, looking like he wanted to send down an over of "that balls", sent down a lot of four balls instead, and fizzled out like a skyrocket on a wet Guy Fawkes' night.

The world agreed that Warne was the best young leg-spinner ever to bend a batsman's mind, but to that early opinion some observers attached a rider: will he mature into the greatest leg-spinner the world has ever seen? Mature is the key word.

Much as motorists do in their cars, cricketers seem to come to crossroads in their careers. According to his critics Warne is at one, and already they are savouring the line they've been saying for such a moment: "Has the magic Warne off?" Probably some of it has - at least two dozen innings now without a five-wicket haul - and why wouldn't it? Are we to believe that batsmen around the world are such a bunch of brain-dead bunnies that they would remain forever incapable of devising a plan to combat a leg-spin bowler, even a great one?

England's previous attempt to waylay his wiles was a boy-scoutish tactic at the Gabba, in Brisbane, in 1994-95 - Michael Atherton watching Warne's wrist action through binoculars from the grandstand. Mike would have been impressed because Warne's 8 for 71 remains his outstanding return.

Of course, the best way to play Warne is to first know which delivery he's bowled to you and then deal with it accordingly through the use of good footwork, which seemed to be the method employed by Graham Thorpe and Nasser Hussain at Edgbaston.

Two things are working against Warne at the moment; he is inconvenienced by wear-and-tear to the bowling shoulder and by the slowness of the pitches. Together they can be a debilitating force.

A less-than-full strength shoulder action can minimise, if not eliminate, his deadly drift and it can reduce the width of his leg spin and nobble his bounce. Throw in a slow pitch and anything slightly short is easy pickings. Suddenly, he has found himself in the unfamiliar territory of adversity.

Warne has a wonderful record against England; he has accounted for Atherton, Alec Stewart and Thorpe more than any other Test batsmen, he has more wickets against England (61) than any other country, and he's happy bowling at Lord's. Those are the obvious vibes to inspire Warne to make a strong comeback, but he has now reached the point in his career where the rider has come into play: does he have the maturity to confront and push aside the obstacles now coming between him and a Muhammad Ali status?

The Australians desperately need to build some pressure on England's batting; it may not happen if Warne fails to re- establish the mental edge he has had over England's batsmen in two previous series.

Australia should make only one change for Lord's, the street-smart Reiffel for the raw Jason Gillespie. They might be tempted to fail Michael Bevan on his indecision against the short ball but that would take away what has been a useful bowling option.

To drop an all-rounder would smack of panic when the selection process, with five Tests still to go, calls for common sense. Lord's is not a must- win Test for Australia, but the mindset is sure to be tilted that way because England have not won there since 1934, when Hedley Verity took 15 wickets.

However, such history as that might incline any modern-day Englishman to have a gamble; the Lord's victory before that was 1896 and on the law of probability you would reckon the time for another England win had just about arrived.