Shane Warne's 700th Test wicket December 26, 2006

Another first at the last

Peter English on Shane Warne's 700th wicket



Shane Warne: almost double the tally of Dennis Lillee © Getty Images

Dennis Lillee was Shane Warne's childhood hero and back then DK's collection of 355 Test wickets was the most coveted bowling record in Australia. It didn't worry young tearaways that the mark was crept past by Richard Hadlee, Kapil Dev and Ian Botham. It might have seemed untouchable in the late 1980s, but it was still the one to aim for.

Applying the attacking approach of Lillee with the slow-bowling trickery of the early 20th century, Warne has almost doubled it. Lillee's haul was overtaken six years ago and in becoming the first player to 700 wickets in Melbourne today - he also won the race with Muttiah Muralitharan to 500 and 600 - Warne has extended the dreamy milestone. Murali hopes to reach 900, but Warne has only one more match to extend his tally after planning his retirement after the fifth Test in Sydney.

At Perth last week he moved to 699 wickets in an exercise that was almost stage-managed. The WACA was half-full as Australia wrapped up the Ashes and despite the cold, wet and windy conditions here the MCG was almost packed. Its suitability as a stage was perfect for Warne.

Every time he rolled his arms in the slips the crowd chanted his name. He was eventually called by Ponting at 2.51pm for the 41st over and started to a standing ovation before Paul Collingwood was booed for lofting him for a boundary. The fourth over was the one for history and, at 3.18pm, Andrew Strauss became the crucial figure.

Strauss has been troubled by Warne in the past two series and he over-balanced as he tried to drive. The ball was not stopped by bat or pad and it spun into middle stump. Warne took off with one arm raised and finished at the end of a fast-bowler's run-up before he found his first team-mate to hug. Extra police stood in a ring inside the boundary ropes to stop anyone running on to the field - nobody challenged them - and in the stands gold "700" signs were waved.

Warne raised the ball above his head to recognise the crowd and his team-mates clapped as they tried to stand in a circle of respect. Aleem Dar joined in the hand-shaking and the supporters continued to roar. The locals have cheered him since he played his opening Test at the ground against West Indies in 1992-93, his third in all, when he starred with 7 for 52 in the second innings.

Rodney Hogg, the former Australia fast bowler, first saw Warne in a Melbourne grade game and wrote in his newspaper column the legspinner would take 500 Test wickets. He was sacked and the editors weren't the only ones who doubted the numbers that could be created. Warne was told by Terry Jenner after Jacques Kallis became his 300th victim he could double the total. He felt his long-term mentor was mad.

Old Trafford hosted Warne's 600th victim in 2005, when he took 96 wickets in the year, and since then he has continued to stay a couple of moves ahead of Muralitharan. Together they are at home in the Pacific Ocean while their closest counterparts swim in the Atlantic. They jostled for the right to reach 500, Warne winning in Galle in 2004 on his return from the one-year drugs ban, and once Muralitharan recovered from a shoulder problem their figures rose like waters affected by global warming.

Murali stands at 674 and barring another serious injury will hold the bowling record for decades. At 37, Warne is looking forward to a rest. He has started to look old in this series and the aches have lasted longer after each of his marathon spells. The retirement announcement on Thursday came as a surprise, but in his last game at the MCG he has waved goodbye to his home-ground with another first.

Peter English is the Australasian editor of Cricinfo