The ball of the century

This is how the Guardian describes it:

There shouldn’t really be anything left to say about Warne’s Ball, otherwise known as Shane Warne‘s opening delivery in Ashes cricket; or more commonly as The Ball of the Century, Birth of A Superstar, Awakening of the Kraken, the Jailhouse Rock of Australia’s custard-blond leg-break Elvis, and so on ad infinitum.

In part this is simply because so much has already been said and written, an entire vast, groaning medieval library of ball talk, from the historian’s cold-eyed anatomy to the biographer’s partisan gurgles. And partly because the ball itself has become so enmeshed in its own mille-feuille of well-worn superlatives that there is a fear the moment itself has also become a cliche, a mini-industry of middle-aged hyperbole, asserting its own wonderfulness more insistently with each receding year. Perhaps Warne’s Ball might even have begun to look a bit like Warne himself these days: waxworked and framed, glistening with the acquired privilege of athletic celebrity and generally hanging around the place being oppressively eminent long after its own meaningful cricketing life has ended.

And yet this is not the case. Warne’s Ball, a hard-spun leg-break to dismiss Mike Gatting on the third day of the Old Trafford Test, is still jarringly fresh even as it approaches its 20th birthday this Ashes summer. Untarnished by its own celebrity, arteries still unfurred after two decades of richly sauced commemoration, Warne’s Ball remains a pure and entirely self-contained sporting miniature.

There may come a point – a thousand YouTube montages, a million lunch interval documentaries from now – where it is possible not to be startled by the impact of that drifting, leaping leg-break (and Gatting’s trudge: never underestimate Gatting’s trudge) but it seems safe to say this is still some way off.

Warne bowled the first ball of his debut Ashes series on the Saturday afternoon of the first Test of 1993. Australia had batted first, after Allan Border lost the toss, and scored 289. It was early summer but the Old Trafford pitch was expected to turn: hence the presence in England’s team of Phil Tufnell and Peter Such, who took six for 67 in that first innings. All of which added up to a degree of tactical pressure on Warne, Australia’s lone spinner, as he came on to bowl at 80 for one with Mike Atherton just out.

At which point the story of The Ball begins with Warne staring around his field, shifting a man here and there, and taking a long hard look at Gatting himself from the end of his run. Even now there is something striking about his intensity: that doughy, rosy tinged face, the fan of canary blond hair, and something oddly potent in that wide, shark-like stare. Is he nervous? He should be nervous. He doesn’t look nervous.

If Warne was a striking figure to those seeing him for the first time this is perhaps because, while he had no profile at all in England in those pre-satellite TV times, he was by his 12th Test match already some way towards becoming authentically Shane Warne. The three-Test series against New Zealand earlier that year had been vital to this dawning Warne-ification. Slapped around by Richie Richardson in Perth in February, Warne was averaging 50 with the ball after nine matches and might have looked an eminently droppable 22-year-old leggie to English eyes. Instead he was retained, took 17 wickets in New Zealand and arrived at Old Trafford on a sharp upward curve.

As Warne starts his run-up two things leap out immediately. It looks a long run now, a few paces more than the round-armed hailing-a-late-night-taxi shuffle of his late years. To the Warne arriviste of 1993 it is even a vaguely alarming run-up, a purposeful creep, distinct from the apologetic wheel and stutter of the finger-spinning Englishmen of the day. This was a quietly confrontational thing.

Warne is walking straight towards Gatting, 12 years his senior and known as a good player of spin, expert enough against leg-spin to have padded and swept his way to a match-saving 150 not out against Abdul Qadir at the Oval six years before. Gatting was above all a disdainful player of slow bowling, aggressive even in defence, and blamed by some for failing to encourage England’s own Test match spinners sufficiently. This is just the first of many different and complementary ways in which Gatting is also the perfect victim-in-waiting

Warne releases the ball and even this, the trajectory of his first Ashes delivery, carries an imprint of the indivisible Warne cricketing DNA. It is an unusually attacking line: flighted on middle-and-leg and bowled from tight in to the stumps. This is by design: in New Zealand Warne had begun to extract an alarming degree of turn with his leg-break. Watching the ball beat the bat by six inches, Ian Healy had suggested a change of line to outside leg stump, with instant results. And while Warne has since said he “just wanted to get myself into the game” at Old Trafford, this smacks of the false modesty of a man who knows his actions reveal something bolder.

As Ian Botham has pointed out, Warne could have been an excellent Test bowler if he’d simply concentrated on accuracy and containment. Instead Warne decided early on he wanted to spin the ball as hard as he could each time and see where his talent might take him. This is how he comes to bowl an opening delivery in England that is not a sighter, or a first grip on the ladder, but a genuine attempt to get Gatting out – by concerted design: this is simply the direction Warne is now headed – by bowling the perfect attacking leg-break. None of this is an accident.

As Gatting moves, a slight press towards leg-side, he can hear the fizz of the delivery, something by no means unique to Warne but which was particularly pronounced in these early hard-spun years before his first shoulder operation. At which point the ball begins to dip suddenly, altering its length and preventing Gatting, who is pushing half-forward, from presenting his bat close enough to smother it as it pitches. This is the first of three separate but near-simultaneous elements of deception. The second is the ball’s sudden late drift from middle to outside leg stump. This is no accident: Warne would go on to produce this drift regularly, the extra twist to his turn, a shift of angle that could perhaps be factored in and covered by those who have seen him do it before. In 1993 its effect on the unwitting Gatting is to open the batsman up, to draw his back leg away from covering his stumps. It is perfectly geared misdirection and its effect is to open Gatting up to being bowled.

Without this the ball might perhaps have taken his edge as it turned, a standard beating of the bat, better luck next time, nothing you could do there. Instead Warne’s drift and dip mean he gets to beat not just Gatting’s bat but his feet, his eyes, his wrists, his hands, his reasonable expectations. It is a full-body deception, like being knocked out by a cruiserweight boxer who is simultaneously engaged in beating you at chess and also stealing your wallet.

As Gatting prods the third thing happens: the ball turns sharply from leg to off. Not out of some hairline crack detected midway through a soporific 35-over spell, or with a grudging sense of last-day decorum. Warne’s Ball spins malevolently and deliberately, in a way balls just didn’t really spin in those days. At least not to the English spectator raised on a diet of mannered off-spin and the odd glimpse of Qadir, whose seven for 96 at the Oval six years previously displayed a different kind of mastery, a sense of a rhythm being generated, an artistry of more subtle variations.

Warne’s turn was a little shocking, albeit entirely in keeping with the Australian’s own oddly scholarly, oddly punkish kind of genius. This is not something new happening (and new things do come along: reverse swing, the doosra) but the revamping of an aged and difficult skill, muscled up and aggressively geared. It is Warne’s own take, an Aussie Rules-playing former beach kid with beefy shoulders and unusually strong hands, and above all a brilliantly shrewd mind, on cricket’s most complex bowling art. Mainly, none of it is an accident.

By now the ball has passed Gatting’s bat. It is worth noting that as it does so Gatting’s head turns to see it clip the top of his off-stump, the perfect theatrical end. The same ball caught behind, or gloved to short-leg, and the moment of enduring genius is only half-cooked: bowled it had to be. At which point Gatting begins to trudge off with just a quick glimpse back, as if to inquire if it is the ball and not Healy’s glove that took the bail. Contrary to Richie Benaud’s famous television commentary (“Gatting has absolutely no idea what happened to it”!) he had every idea. He saw it all. He just couldn’t do anything about it.

And what of Gatting here? He is in so many ways the perfect victim, not just a fading Aussie bogeyman but a batsman that even the English supporter might guiltily enjoy seeing so utterly defeated. Gatting was not popular at the time, not just because of his wretched engagement with South African rebel tours or his behaviour in Pakistan but also because of his unsmiling roundhead rotundity, the sense of a Gatting-Gooch managerial cartel, a dad’s army of humourless sages. This was a hard England team to love, even with a dash of Alec Stewart and the rickety anti-cool of an oddball bowling attack. Who could fail to side a little with Warne as Gatting, the anti-Gower, waddled off in bemusement.

And yet Gatting’s status is more nuanced than this. In that walk-off, caught in the high-beam glare of Warne’s Ball, there is the first stirring of a kind of redemption. Fine and likable qualities are revealed in that head shake, evidence that Gatting can step outside his own misfortune (he played just one more Test that summer) and appreciate the scale of the moment. Warne’s Ball has been good to him, too. How much goodwill has Gatting harvested on the back of his role as straight man? How many after-dinner speeches have been juiced up, how many TV spots fleshed out? It is often said that Warne ruined many an English spinner’s career via the disorientating gravity of his own talent. But to a degree he also gave us by osmosis Graeme Swann, our own hard-spinning Warne-style slow-bowling tactician. Plus, in a way, he also gave us Gatting back.

What remains now of Warne’s Ball is Warne’s celebration. He shakes a fist, he leaps and points, but without ever looking particularly surprised or terrified or even triumphant. This is not the Harbhajan Singh-style reach for the stars, or the Flintoff-colossus. Instead Warne is engulfed by his team-mates in a moment of shared, close-knit, team-bonded triumph. And for a moment he doesn’t look like he’s in a cricket team at all, but like he’s in a band, or a gang, Alan Border’s white flannel Ramones.

It is a celebration that manages to suggest somehow that this was all very carefully rehearsed, without ever actually being rehearsed, an entirely non-accidental collision of ambition, talent and meticulously assembled skills. Warne bowled another 10,693 deliveries in Ashes cricket to follow the promise of that first ball; all of them, even the bad ones – and he got Robin Smith with an even better ball just four runs later – variations on the same theme, a search for a relentlessly surprising kind of controlled sporting perfection.

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1 Response to The ball of the century

  1. JB – google search Paul Kelly Shane Warne

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