Ball of the century... and beyond
New Delhi: It’s the first Ashes Test of 1993 on a typically cold, blustery day in Manchester. England are going along smoothly at 80-1 on Day 2 after Australia put up 289 on the board. The Australian skipper, Allan Border, tosses the ball to Shane Warne a couple of hours into the England innings, hoping that his blonde-haired leg-spinner can settle into a steady line and length on his Ashes debut.
Warne – still a novelty at that stage with the experience of 11 Tests – ambles in for his first ball, his run-up no more than a brisk few steps before hitting his delivery stride. The delivery -- a conventional leg-break -- seems to be straying down the leg side at first glance. Across the 22 yards is the portly frame of Mike Gatting, offering just a defensive prod with the line of the ball seemingly covered. Midway through the ball’s journey is when we get a first glimpse of Warne’s wizardry. The ball drifts in sharply before turning viciously past Gatting’s bat to clip the top of the off-bail.
Gatting stands there and gawks at the spot where the ball lands for a few seconds before slowly trudging back, raising his eyebrows and offering a look of utter bemusement on his way out.
At any stage of Warne’s glittering international career, such a delivery – aptly titled the “Ball of the Century” – would have evoked all the appreciation that it deserved. That it came off his first ball in England, against Australia’s arch-rivals, was simply mind-boggling.
The voice on air was the peerless Richie Benaud, always measured in his words and never one to indulge in hyperbole. “First ball in Test cricket in England for Shane Warne,” Benaud starts, before a pause to gather his thoughts. “And he’s done it…He’s started off with the most beautiful delivery. Gatting has absolutely no idea what has happened to him. He still doesn’t know.”
In an interview with the Daily Mail in 2013 – the 20th anniversary of the event – Gatting recalled how he was more worried about being bowled round his legs.
“I had most of it covered and had ensured it would not get round the back of my legs. If it did anything else, I was in the right position to react, but it spun quickly as well as a long way,” he said. “It was a leg break and I knew he had put a lot of revs on it and we knew the wicket might turn, but not that much!”
Before the series, Warne was still relatively unknown. In his 11 Tests till then, he had just one five-wicket haul – 7/52 against West Indies at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG). By the end of the Ashes -- actually, after that delivery alone -- Warne’s genius was firmly established. He finished the series as the leading wicket-taker from either side with 34 scalps in the six Tests.
He went on to become the benchmark that all spin bowlers would be measured against. There were plenty of great deliveries among his 708 Test and 293 one-day scalps – his ability to produce ripping leg-breaks, inscrutable wrong ’uns, and darting flippers in the tightest of situations stayed with him right through his 145 Tests and 194 ODIs.
The “Ball of the Century”, though, was a one-off marvel. Just as Warne was a one-in-a-million cricketer.