SHANE Warne doesn't look much like Warnie any more. Nor does he bowl much like Warnie. Last Friday night, he cut in all senses a lesser figure. Admittedly, he still sounded like Warnie. ''Think I'll make him wait a bit here,'' he said into his wire as Aaron Finch tapped at the crease. Finch waited, and waited, for the ball to be bowled, for it to get to him. Then, insouciantly, he whacked it over extra cover for six, and made everyone wait again.
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Only when talking about an Ashes comeback does Warnie still appear his old self. The effect is still mesmerising. Fans believe it. Seemingly, Michael Clarke believes it. Perhaps Warne believes it. He could put a stop to it, but why would he? Spin has always been his game. His denials are like his flipper, leaving you to ask: ''What was that again?'' And everyone is tantalised anew.
But they overlook one thing: Warne is no longer Warnie. There is less of him, and good on him for that. But the ravages of time show. He doesn't field like Warnie, as if he cares to be reminded. Admittedly, in Test cricket, he could stand augustly at first slip all day, a luxury that Twenty20 does not afford. He might bat like Warnie, but who knows: more than a year later, he hasn't faced a ball in Big Bash cricket yet.
To the extent that four overs at a time - and last Friday just two - permit judgment, he doesn't bowl anything like Warnie. He games like Warnie, but without Warnie's game. And that's the whole point.
If there is a moral to recent cricket developments, it is that the game is speeding up in all its forms and disciplines; it is less gentle than it ever was on its older folk. That is the Twenty20 effect. Ricky Ponting got out in the nick of time, or just after it, but Sachin Tendulkar plods on, more's the pity.
Warnie hasn't played Test cricket for nearly six years. Not even in his pomp did Warnie much like the rigours and stringencies that govern the life of a modern cricketer. Now he is living the life he wants, squiring fiancee Liz Hurley, flitting between Australia, England and the US, spending quality time with his now teenage children, and dabbling in Twenty20, which is still essentially exhibition cricket, but scratches the headline itch, gratifying both the promoters and himself.
It is a life that does not leave much room for the train-play-travel treadmill. No one would make an exception for him now, not even for the sake of an Ashes fairytale. And it is fanciful that without the grind, even Warnie could be reconstituted as his former self, with all that front and all those magical powers. A click of the fingers is one thing, a snap of the wrist another altogether.
I'd rather remember Warnie the way he was, and accept him for who he is now, than watch some horribly misguided effort to mash the two into one. However falteringly, Australia is moving on. It should be trying to unearth a successor to Warnie, not disinter him.
But I accept that sport is nothing if not hopelessly romantic. Warne casts almost no shadow now, but Warnie always will. And on the distant eve of every Ashes series, until Warne is bent double over a walking frame and the Ashes themselves are nearly returned to dust, there will always be talk of a comeback. And Warnie will play up to it.