England v Australia, 3rd Test, Old Trafford, 3rd day August 13, 2005

Warne is the leader Australia lack

Shane Warne: back-seat driver who should be in front © Getty Images
When the dust has settled on his 600-wicket Test career, Shane Warne's genius will find itself cramped for room by his notoriety, thanks to the tales of sex and drugs and rock `n roll that have pursued him across the globe in his 13 years at the top. But, given their current predicament, Australia's fans would forgive him every one of his indiscretions and more, if he could deliver a ninth consecutive series win against the Poms.

From the very start of this series, there has been a glint in Warne's eye and rip in his legbreak that has not been seen in England since his debut tour in `93. In 1997 and 2001, he was statistically a success, with 24 and 31 wickets respectively, but there was a suspicion that he - like Ian Botham in the latter stages of his career - had begun to reap his Ashes wickets by reputation as much as by skill. Bluff, bluster and tyranny of the mind were his principle weapons, as his shoulder, knee and spinning finger started to give in to wear and tear.

Now, however, a new challenge has been met by a new Warne. This is his last Ashes tour - he has said as much himself - and in every aspect of the series (save some ropey batting against Steve Harmison at Lord's) he has been immense. If any ball in history turned so much as the one that demolished Andrew Strauss's leg stump at Edgbaston, then it must surely have been the one that deflected off a passing swallow and now resides in the Lord's museum.

England do not fear Warne's mindgames any more - they do not fear Australia en masse, which is the secret of their current success - but they do fear his abilities on a wicket that is beginning to turn square. Had they been permitted to enforce the follow-on, it is a pretty sure bet that England would have declined. With Warne in his current mood, even 100 runs in the final innings would be a tall order. That England faced and surmounted Warne at the very top of his game in the second Test is one of the chief reasons why it deserves - even in the absence of Glenn McGrath - to be recalled as a classic in every respect.

Warne took ten wickets in that match and but for a slip of the heel, his batting might have sealed the win as well. With the possible exception of McGrath, Warne is the one Australian who has truly come to terms with the challenge that England have laid out, and that is no mean feat, seeing as it was his very first delivery in Ashes cricket that, to all intents and purposes, destroyed that competitiveness for an entire decade.

He has a greater understanding of the challenge than his captain, at any rate. Ricky Ponting is a fine batsman - one of the finest, in fact. But his lack of tactical nous has been exposed at every crunch moment of the last two Tests. His decision to bowl first at Edgbaston backfired badly, while his futile attempt to bowl Jason Gillespie back into form on the first morning of this game was a dereliction of national duty. With Warne on 599 wickets and back at the ground where his legend was spawned, it seemed everyone bar his captain was aware of the psychology at stake.

Warne will never captain Australia in a Test match because his notoriety doesn't sit well with Cricket Australia, but as a leader and cricket tactician he is currently unsurpassed. In 1998-99 he enjoyed his one captaincy stint, as he led Australia's one-day team to nine wins out of ten in a resounding C&U Series triumph, and with a bit more off-field discretion, he might even have succeeded Mark Taylor and changed the course of modern Australian history.

Steve Waugh would certainly have approved of the flinty-eyed looks that Warne was giving out this evening, as Geraint Jones reprieved him twice and Australia climbed back out of their well of despair to close on an ominous 264 for 7. His 600th wicket was a forgettable jumble of richocets and fumbles, but if he can get another 22 runs tomorrow morning, he may yet find an alternative and even more memorable way to mark his latest big occasion.

With a 2-1 deficit still very much on the cards, Warne is Australia's leader from this moment forward. In the interests of their series prospects, Ponting would be better off asking his opinion at every juncture, and following his suggestions to the letter.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo