600 and counting

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Australian leg-spinner Shane Warne, world’s leading Test wicket-taker, became the first player to take 600 wickets in the history of cricket. Warne entered the third Ashes Test at Old Trafford needing just one more wicket to become the first bowler to take 600 wickets in Tests and in good form after a return of 10 for 162 during England’s wafer-thin two-run second Test win at Edgbaston on Sunday. He dismissed England batsman Marcus Trescothick for 63 runs in his fifth over on the opening day of the third Ashes Test at Old Trafford to reach the landmark.

Old Trafford was where Warne took his first Ashes wicket in 1993, a huge first-ball leg-break that pitched outside Mike Gatting’s pads before hitting the top of off-stump, a delivery so extraordinary it was soon named the ‘ball of the century’. He said it meant a lot for him to take his 600th Test wicket at the place where he made his name. “I’ve got great memories of this ground. To do what I did with my first ball was an absolute fluke. And then in 1997, the birth of my eldest daughter Brooke came during that Test match. I was a bit down in the dumps but at lunchtime I saw the pictures of her and I came out and got six for 48.”

When former England batsman Graham Thorpe’s marriage disintegrated before the last Ashes, he withdrew with his team-mates’ full sympathy and understanding. The Australian leg-spin wizard, though, surgically bisecting the public persona from the private one, went out and took 16 wickets in the next two Tests. Adam Gilchrist said he was bowling as well as ever. Warne has beggared belief before during a controversial career.

Before the 2003 World Cup he was banned for 12 months for taking a diuretic. Some believed it was linked to his attempt to rush back from shoulder surgery. Warne, ‘Hollywood’ to his team-mates, put it down to vanity and a slimming pill. He was written off but Warne, his powers supposedly waning, has returned with 108 wickets in 18 Tests since, at an average of 23.13., most of those wickets taken on good batting tracks. Warne’s popularity is probably based on the perception that, at heart, he is a rather ordinary individual, with everyday weaknesses.

Warne, said the tendency of current Australia captain Ricky Ponting to bowl first after winning the toss – something he did at Edgbaston – had seen him adapt his style. “You have to change, bowling on day one, day two, you don’t have the footmarks, you don’t have the turn so you’ve got to rely more on your flight, subtle variations, change of pace.”

England decided after Lord’s (where Australia won the first Test by 239 runs last month) they wanted to get after me in particular. They were able to do that because we were bowling first and they got away with it,” added Warne, who took four for 116 in the first innings at Edgbaston. “Then in the second innings when they tried it I ended up with six for 46. It’s different when you try to play that way when it’s turning. If it’s day one, it’s obviously a lot easier but it doesn’t mean you are bowling poorly,” said Warne.

Warne seems to have struggled to mature. He was laughed at when, nervous of experimentation, he had a cargo of baked beans sent out while on tour in India. But there was warmth to the laughter, just as in the 1999 World Cup when English crowds goaded the ample Warne with chants of “save the whale!” This season at Hampshire he has made friends with men far younger than himself, including England’s Kevin Pietersen. He has had treatment to prevent a bald patch emerging in his peroxide locks.

Warne says he is not a “stats man” but would have winced when Sri Lankan spinner Muttiah Muralitharan overhauled Courtney Walsh’s previous world record of 519 wickets first. Warne has forged clear since. Few doubt that Muralitharan, with 549 wickets, will ultimately overhaul him but for this week Warne will have the stage to himself. It is a stage he loves. Thorpe hated publicity. Warne throws himself at it. He also seems to want to be loved in return, making him prone to flattery.

One old trick he can’t resist is having a dig at someone he thinks is a vulnerable opponent and Warne, labelled Andrew Strauss, the “new” Daryll Cullinan. Warne dismissed the former South Africa batsman on 12 occasions in international cricket, four times in Tests and eight in one-dayers. And when the duo met for the first time on the field after Cullinan had unwisely revealed he’d been seeking psychological help to counter Warne, the master bowler told him he was about to send him ‘straight back to the couch’. “Straussy, he’s the new Cullinan I reckon. I don’t mind bowling to him at all, any time.”