England v Australia, 1st Test, Lord's, 4th day July 24, 2005

Two greats return to haunt England

Shane Warne exposed old frailties with the England batting © Getty Images

After the promise of a grand contest on the first day, it was a pity for this Test to pan out the way it did. The first day's play will only be small consolation for New England because for most of the match it was the old story. England will have to confront and deal with the bitter truth that they only won three-and-a-half hours of this game and that was never going to be enough.

There can also be little comfort in the fact that the old ghosts returned. On the first day, it was Glenn McGrath, on the second it was a vital dropped catch and a tactical error in bowling Ashley Giles that got Michael Clarke going and on the third, it was the old tormentor Shane Warne making English batsmen look silly. England have got a new cast and a new spirit, but the script does not seem have changed much.

Encouraging performances in the one-day series that preceded the Tests might have fuelled a sense of optimism among England supporters, but it would have never escaped the discerning that to challenge Australia in Tests, England would have to be at the top of their game. That means not losing too many at the top order to McGrath, not being awed by Warne and not messing it up in the field. McGrath and Warne were magnificent, but depressingly for England, there was little to distinguish their batting performance at Lord's from the years gone by.

No doubt, England are a much improved bowling side and their new-ball attack is easily the most potent since Bob Willis and Ian Botham. Australia either made the mistake of underestimating them or over-overestimating their own batting abilities on the first morning, but they learnt quickly from their mistakes and when they played sensibly on the second day, they had enough ability to put up a score that put the match out of England's pale. It will be a fair assumption to make that Australia will be less adventurous in their batting from now on. They can still be expected to score at a fair clip, but they would have tempered their batting ambitions to the reality of situation. 400 a day might not be a target any more. 400 in all might just be good enough. England after all managed only 335 in two innings.

Between them, McGrath and Warne have now taken 1097 Test wickets and it can be safely predicted that the tally will be boosted considerably by the time this series is over. A year ago, the future of both these magnificent performers was in some doubt, but how well have they responded to their own personal crises. Injury and age seems to have no impact on McGrath, who is still the most well-preserved of machines. You have ceased to wonder looking at him ball after ball where all those wickets came from. As Peter Roebuck wrote after the first day of this Test: "In theory he cannot blow out a candle. And yet he might as well have been sending down hand grenades."

Warne's case is more compelling for his is a more volatile craft. Along with Brian Lara and Sachin Tendulkar, he has been one of the most captivating performers of his generation, a true genius, a conjurer of dreams. He might have little or no sense in the real world, but he is man born to bestride the stage on a cricket field. His off-the-field indiscretions should have never been anybody else's business than his family's, but while the price he paid for it, would have broken many, it was never in any doubt that Warne would come on strong when in the field, for that's where he truly belongs. With a cricket ball in hand, his transformation from social knave to spellbinding performer is as magical as his bag of tricks.

There are only so many balls a leg-spinner can bowl and Stuart MacGill can perhaps bowl them all as well. Warne's real difference, apart from his control, is his drift. While MacGill's stock legspinners come on straight in the air, Warne's dip and disappear behind the right-handed batsman's ear, and you know when Warne is at the top of his game when he is getting them to drift. Warne's best ball of the match didn't fetch him a wicket, but it was a reminder that he was back to his best. It started from Warne's hand outside off, drifted and pitched outside Geraint Jones's leg, spun viciously past Jones's pad and groping bat and found itself nestled in Adam Gilchrist gloves. A couple of inches in height was all that separated it from the ball that got Mike Gatting and launched the Warne legend in 1993.

So much for the lack of psychological scars in this new English team. It has taken only days to bring them up-to-date with the chilling reality. England's Ashes dreams are already a nightmare.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo and of Wisden Asia Cricket magazine