Today saw Shane Warne - the most successful bowler in Test history - announce his retirement from international cricket as of the end of the current Ashes series. He will almost certainly end with more than 700 Test wickets, a simply staggering amount; his current tally of 699 means that unless he goes wicketless for 4 innings and 2 whole matches he will reach the landmark - with all likelihood he'll get there on Boxing Day if England bat first in Melbourne, or the day after if Australia open with the bat. He will retire as Test cricket's greatest bowler, but his wicket haul will, in all likelihood, soon be passed by his close rival Muttiah Muralitharan of Sri Lanka, who has never been far from Warne's shoulder and has (relative) youth on his side.
His announcement today was foreshadowed. Rumour it was coming had circulated for the last day or two - it is clear that winning back the Ashes was his goal, and he said that had Australia won the last Ashes series he would have retired in 2005. That they didn't win that series was, on one hand, no fault of Warne's: he took 40 wickets in the 5 match series. On the other hand he was famously said to have "dropped the Ashes" when he shelled a chance of Kevin Pietersen in the fifth Test at the Oval (KP went on to make 158 and bat Australia out of a chance at a victory that would have tied the series an retained the urn).
Warne's retirement will bring to an end 13 years of torment for English batsmen that began with his first Ashes delivery - the "Ball of the Century" that knocked over Mike Gatting at Old Trafford in 1993 - and was typified by both England's disastrous collapse at Adealaide and, to a lesser degree, the fourth innings at the WACA when Australia captured back the prize they lost last year. Warne will honour his county cricket contract with Hampshire, but will no longer take part in internationals or Australian domestic cricket. His decision begins to usher in a new era in Australian cricket, however much many Aussie fans might with to disagree; this goes double if Glenn McGrath follows in Warne's footsteps as expected. Together these two talismanic bowlers, both genuinely deserving of the "world class" label, have led Australia's attack for more than a decade; and they have beaten all comers.
Without them Australia will not be toothless, but anyone who denies the uniqueness of a situation which allowed the team to have two genuine world-beaters in tandem for a decade is kidding themselves. Statistics do not always lie: Warne is Test cricket's all-time leading wicket taker, and McGrath is third on that list - the highest placed fast bowler, and unlikely to be caught any time soon; Shaun Pollock is the next highest pace bowler still playing and he has a measly 402 wickets compared to McGrath's 555. This is a true mark of their quality; Murali may pass Warne soon but he virtually carries the Sri Lankan bowling attack on his own, and has done all his career (though I'm sure Chaminda Vaas would beg to differ). Warne carried the Australian attack in the 2005 series, and it showed: one man does not make a team, and the Ashes were lost. This shows in equal measure why Australia will be weaker without him, and why it is not going to decimate their side. One man does not make the team, but when that one man is as skilled as Warne he makes the difference between a "good" side and "great" one. The same is true of McGrath. With both fit Australia were nearly unstoppable; without one, and possibly even both, the team will look mortal again - at least on paper.
The future is now, and Warne's decision marks not just the end of a great career but the end of an era. It does not mean that future series will see Australia wilt or fail to knock England (or other nations) over, but it is the beginning of the end of a golden age for Australian cricket. With McGrath's days looking numbered and with Langer, Hayden and Gilchrist all over 35 it is likely that the team they send to fight the 2009 Ashes will look very different to the one that won the 2006/7 series and I'm sure that however strong the replacements are many in England will be very glad of that. The game is losing a great servant but perhaps gaining a new era of competitiveness that the power of Australian cricket, with Warne and McGrath in tandem, has simply not allowed for 10 years and more. That, in my view, can only be good for the game, even as Warne's retirement from it is the loss of a special talent.