Sri Lanka v Australia, 1st Test, Galle, 5th day March 12, 2004

A day to celebrate

Paul Coupar
At 1.38pm with the Galle Fort, the Indian Ocean and most of Australia behind him, Shane Warne sent down a fizzing legspinner

Shane Warne enters territory trod by only one man before him© Getty Images
At 1.38pm with the Galle Fort, the Indian Ocean and most of Australia behind him, Shane Warne sent down a fizzing legspinner. Hashan Tillakaratne top-edged a scything sweep, Andrew Symonds followed the ball's flight with studious care, and duly held the catch.

With that, Warne entered territory only trod by one previous Test bowler. He had won his race with Muttiah Muralitharan to 500 Test wickets. Only Courtney Walsh, with 519, now stands ahead of him. For the moment - Murali might yet spurt ahead in the next match at Kandy - every other bowler in Test history stands in his shadow.

It was a masterly performance, with batsmen bamboozled by a pitch offering lots of turn, albeit slow, and by the precision with which Warne controlled the exact combination of sideand top-spin on his stock ball. But it didn't feel like a day to analyse and break down. It felt like a day to celebrate.

This has been an enthralling Test match. The first two days belonged, unquestionably, to Sri Lanka. Their spin-based plan - dry pitch, side packed with spinners - seemed to have undone the opposition. But then, through force of will and stamina, Matthew Hayden dragged Australia back from the brink. "A man can do anything if he will," said the renaissance architect Alberti. It could be a motto for the team that Border, Taylor and Waugh built.

Warne's achievement is, at least in part, a team achievement. He has generally bowled with big totals on the board, stingy bowling at the other end, and committed fielding.

Still, the individual race to 500 wickets was relentlessly plugged in the press, both in Australia and here in Sri Lanka. But Warne insistently put the team first. "If [Murali] takes longer to get there, then [so much the] better for Australia, and if I get there quicker, that's better for us ... That's not my motivation for playing."

Despite those comments, the "The Warney Wicket Count", painted on a sheet by Aussie fans on the third-man boundary, ticked onwards. 497: a straight, quick ball, that seemed to have plenty of topspin on it, which Marvan Atapattu fended to slip. 498: Tillakaratne Dilshan played inside the straight one and was lbw. 499: Mahela Jayawardene got one that dipped toward leg stump like a bird in a thermal and then kicked away sharply towards slip, becoming the 4th Sri Lankan in the match to have c Hayden b Warne as his epitaph. Hayden's total of seven catches tied the world record for an outfielder.

But, as the perceptive Peter Roebuck recently pointed out, the efforts of Warne and Murali might equally well be seen as cooperation rather than contest. When Warne made his Test debut in January 1992, it was hounding pace bowlers who dominated world cricket. The West Indies, with their four-man pace attack, were still top of the world - if only just. Warne and Murali reintroduced guile and mystery to the game.

Cricket became a more subtle, varied and engaging art. For that reason alone, Warne and Murali can be considered great bowlers, irrespective of their final wicket totals. But cricket is a game full of fans to whom stats are important. People will remember the match in which Warne took his 500th wicket. And it was a cracker.

Paul Coupar, the assistant editor of Wisden Cricketers' Almanack, will be following Australia in their Test series in Sri Lanka.