Shane Warne: 20 years on from the Ball of the Century

 

The year 1993 was one for shifts in the sporting landscape.

Pete Sampras began an era of domination at Wimbledon which would see him go on to win seven men's singles crowns in eight years, while Manchester United won the first of 13 Premier League titles under Sir Alex Ferguson.

There was, though, one more golden era that began in that summer, sandwiched between the successes of United and Sampras, just down the road from the footballing Old Trafford at the cricket ground of the same name.

Shane Warne's coronation as the king of spin bowling, 20 years ago to the day, was as swift as it was unexpected. Few outside Australia knew of the potential held by the bleach blond 23-year-old from Victoria.

The announcement of his coming lasted all of the seven seconds he took to prepare and deliver his first ball in a Test in England and his first in Ashes cricket, known now as the Ball of the Century.

The reign that began with the drifting, turning, spitting leg-break that pitched in the rough outside Mike Gatting's leg stump and clipped the off bail lasted 14 years and took in 708 victims. 

"It's very seldom that you see the course of history altered by the trajectory of a single delivery," the award-winning Australian cricket writer Gideon Haigh  told BBC Sport. "That certainly happened with that ball."

Warne arrived in England with 11 Tests and 31 wickets to his name. In that first Test, which Australia would go on to win by 179 runs,  he was selected on an Old Trafford pitch that was offering enough assistance to spinners for England to include Phil Tufnell and Peter Such.

Warne on Warne

Shane Warne

In the space of one delivery so much had changed. My confidence was sky-high. I was pumped up and rock'n'rolling

Shane Warne

Shortly before lunch on day two, Gatting came to the wicket at number three and, soon after, faced Warne's first delivery.

With the walk to the crease that would become so familiar over the next 20 years, Warne, wrist cocked, fizzed a leg-break he would later admit he was simply trying to turn as much as possible into the debris just ahead of Gatting's front foot.

Having enough revolutions to drift across Gatting's eyeline, the ball landed far outside the leg stump, spun sharply across the batsman's grope forward and took the top of the off pole, about 18 inches from where it had pitched.

"It came down in a great area for him and it did spin an awfully long way from two or three inches outside leg stump," said Gatting,  a skilful and aggressive player of spin in his 79 Tests for England.

"I stood there because I didn't hear the death rattle, then looked around and thought 'blimey, there's a bail on the floor'.

"My foot was in, so I knew I could not have been stumped. The ball had not brushed my bat, my glove or pad, so I thought Australia wicketkeeper Ian Healy must have kicked the bail off.

"It wasn't to be. The ball had clipped the bail and I had to go."

In one delivery, Warne not only changed a Test format that had been dominated by pace bowling for the previous 20 years, but also foreshadowed the Ashes misery that England would suffer for the rest of his career.

Beginning with the 34 wickets he took in the 4-1 series win of 1993, Warne would go on to amass 195 England victims.

Australia would lose only one of the eight Ashes series in which Warne played and even then, in 2005, his 40 wickets  almost single-handedly kept the urn in Baggy Green hands.

The commentator on Warne

Richie Benaud

Gatting has no idea what has happened to it. He still doesn't know. He asked umpire Kenny Palmer on the way out, Palmer gave him a raised eyebrow and a little nod. That's all it needed.

Richie Benaud, commentating on BBC television

"Certainly by the end of the series we felt that there might be something more to this fella than we were led to believe," added former England captain Gatting.

"The amazing thing was his consistency, where he pitched the ball, the lengths he bowled and the pace he put on the ball.

"That one delivery defined the start of his career, not his entire career. He bowled many fine spells and won many cricket matches with his wonderful bowling."

Wonderful bowling may not quite do Warne justice. A simple search on YouTube  jogs the memory to deliveries that made a red leather ball perform tricks that almost defy science.

Huge turning leg-breaks to Marcus Trescothick, Andrew Strauss and Shivnarine Chanderpaul. The skidding flipper that fooled Alec Stewart. Countless batsmen bowled around their legs.

"We all recall those amazing Warne deliveries that spun a long way," continued Haigh, author of On Warne, winner of the Cricket Society and MCC Book of the Year award for 2013. 

"Warne made us want to look at things again and again and again in order to confirm the reality that we'd just seen. He made us doubt the evidence of our own eyes and that is a very rare sportsman indeed."

However, it was that first delivery to Gatting in 1993 that almost became Warne's career in microcosm, a perfect summation of the manner in which he went about tormenting batsmen until he retired from Test cricket in 2007.

Haigh added: "What's telling about that ball is that he tried, with his very first ball in England, to simply spin it as hard as he could. That was a summation of his whole approach to cricket.

"He didn't bowl a flat ball into the rough and try for a dot. He tried to get a wicket and that's what he did for his whole career. He never gave a batsman a moment's rest."

The wicketkeeper on Warne

Shane Warne and Ian Healy

It just swung enough to bring Gatt towards it just enough. His front foot didn't move out just enough; his bat was just a bit slow; it spun just enough to hit just the top of the off stump

Australia wicketkeeper Ian Healy

With Warne gone, Australia have lost the last two Ashes series and travel to England this summer as heavy underdogs.

Such is the void left by the 43-year-old that there were even reports before Christmas that he could come out of retirement for this year's tour, rumours Warne did not entirely extinguish. 

But, according to Haigh, the Warne-less space in the Australia team existed even before the magic at Old Trafford 20 years ago. And it has simply reopened since he hung up his Baggy Green cap.

"Warne represented a myth made flesh in Australian cricket, in the sense that they had been looking for a leg-spinner for 30 years since the retirement of Richie Benaud,"  said Haigh.

"In a sense, Australian cricket had been looking for a Shane Warne, perhaps not the Shane Warne, because he took his art form and made it his own.

"When you looked at him, you didn't get the sense that he had been coached at all. It was almost that he had learned leg-spin from first principles, so completely did it become him.

"Just as there was a Warne-shaped hole in Australian cricket before him, there now exists a Warne-shaped hole that has not been filled.

"He's been succeeded, but he's never really been replaced."