1993 August 3, 2013

The ball of the century

When a peroxide-blond, earring-wearing leggie turned the game of cricket on its head

Shane Warne was an unknown quantity when he arrived in England with the 1993 Australian side. Reports started circulating that there was a peroxide-blond, earring-wearing leggie who could turn the ball a mile, but many, to their peril, dismissed this as pre-Ashes hype.

In his first five Tests his 12 wickets had come at 41.91 each, and although he had a good series ahead of the Ashes, his 17 wickets in three matches had, so the thinking went, been against New Zealand.

In The People Fred Trueman was in full sail. "I'm just back from Australia and I can tell you their selectors have made England a gift of the Ashes. I can't remember such a mish-mash of an Aussie squad in the 36 years I have been writing for the paper. Spinners Tim May and Shane Warne are not going to make England grovel the way the Indians did, so there should be a feast of runs for Gooch, Hick and Gower." As a prediction, it was up there with the worst.

At the start of the tour, the press headed to Worcester for an early view of the tourists. Warne was taken apart by Graeme Hick - he hit him for two fours and a six in four deliveries - and finished with 1 for 122 in 23 overs. Although he took a couple of four-wicket hauls in the county matches and clearly posed a few problems for a generation unfamiliar to legspin, he was still not a match-winner.

Australia heightened the mystery by leaving Warne out of the three one-dayers that preceded the six-Test series - in fairness, what was subsequently written up as a masterplan to keep him under wraps was probably more of a straightforward selection decision.

In the previews for the first Test, Warne's name cropped up regularly but the media was still not quite sure. In the Independent, Martin Johnson said that on a turning track "Warne's legspin will be no less a handful than Peter Such's offspin".

Had anyone gone to Accrington, the Lancashire club where Warne had played the year before, they would have been more aware of the danger. "We'd never seen anything like it," the club secretary said. "He'd turn the ball square." He added that Warne had also put all the money he earned back across the bar.

The first Test of the summer was at Old Trafford. England bowled Australia out for 289, Such taking 6 for 67 on a turning track. When England batted they eased to 80 for 1 before, two hours into the innings, Allan Border tossed the ball to Warne.

Mike Gatting was on strike and knew little of what to expect. "We'd seen a few bits and pieces of him but nothing special. We thought we'd have a look at him, see what he's about."

Steven Lynch, at the time the deputy editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly, recalled what happened next.

"As a legspinner, of much more modest pretensions, it was with special interest that I watched Warne's first ball in a Test against England. He was bowling to Gatting, the former England captain and a batsman famous for his ability against spin. There was a certain amount of field adjustment between Warne and Allan Border, his captain - long enough for onlookers to prepare themselves for this much-heralded blond bloke's first delivery in an Ashes Test.

"He shuffled up: unprepossessing three- or four-pace run-up, nice sideways position, right arm snapping over in an exciting whirl. As the ball looped down, my first feeling was one of disappointment: it was headed down the leg side, a harmless start. Gatting obviously thought so too, and stretched forward slightly without quite getting to the pitch. The ball drifted even further down leg... and then it hit the turf. It fizzed back across Gatting - no mean feat - and clipped the top of off stump.

If it had been a cheese roll, it would never have got past him
Graham Gooch

"Gatt looked completely shocked; the wicketkeeper, Ian Healy, was half-amazed, fully elated; the crowd gasped, gobsmacked. And Warne looked as if he'd planned it that way all along. It was the ball that did the most to revive the fading art of legspin, and truly the Ball of the Century."

Gatting was more than shocked; he stood rooted to the spot, gawping, unable to believe what had happened, almost searching for an explanation. "He had an expression he normally reserves for being given out lbw in Pakistan," quipped Martin Johnson in the Independent. "How anyone can spin a ball the width of Gatting boggles the mind." Graham Gooch joined in the fun. "If it had been a cheese roll, it would never have got past him."

By the time reality dawned and Gatting started his head-shaking walk off, Robin Smith was already walking down the pavilion steps.

"There are people who think I should have padded it away but I never tried to lunge at a spinner," Gatting told the Manchester Evening News recently. "I was more worried about being bowled around the back of my legs. I had most of it covered and had ensured it would not get round the back of my legs and if it did anything else, I was in the right position to react, but it spun quickly as well as a long way. It was a legbreak and I knew he had put a lot of revs on it and we knew the wicket might turn, but not that much."

"With the ball to Gatting, all I tried to do was pitch on leg stump and spin it a fair way," Warne later recalled. "As it left my hand it felt just about perfect.

"When a legbreak works really well it curves away to the leg side in the air before pitching and spinning back the other way. The curve in the air comes from the amount of spin on the ball, and in this case I had managed to put quite a lot of purchase on this delivery. That is why it dipped and curved away so far and then spun back such a long way.

"I knew I'd bowled Gatt and I could tell by the look on Healy's face behind the stumps that the ball had done something special, but it was not until I saw a replay during the lunch break that I fully realised how much it had done."

Warne's first spell was of 3 for 14 from nine overs and England slumped to 202 for 8 by the close, losing eight wickets for 122 runs.

Warne said that at the close the England players sat down with the Australians for a drink. "Gatt just looked up at me and said, 'Bloody hell, Warnie. What happened?' I didn't have much of an answer for him. 'Sorry, mate. Bad luck.' Then we both laughed. There was nothing more either of us could think of to say. It was just that sort of dismissal."

Some could still not see the danger, including England manager Keith Fletcher. "His third wicket was from a full toss," he said by way of explanation at the end of the day. "This is a rogue wicket."

Australia's manager, Bob Simpson, was delighted. ''[Warne's] a person of today. The youngsters can relate to him and I never want that to change. I never want to subdue the character, flair or flamboyance from my players. Shane is the best 23-year-old legspinner I have ever seen."

It was a special moment and the press recognised that. By the time the Sunday papers came out it was already being described - by Robin Marlar in the Sunday Times - as the Ball of the Century. "Was The Ball the first in history to actually travel round corners? This is the stuff to bring back interest in cricket."

There was nevertheless a dissenting voice. Trueman. "I'm sick and tired of hearing that England were unsettled to the point of panic at Old Trafford by a magic ball," he raged. "Magic ball, my foot! The ball that has caused all the commentators to go mad pitched in the rough caused by the bowlers' footmarks and turned right across Gatting and hit the off stump.

"What a way for an experienced Test batsman to get out. If Gatting had just pushed his pad forward, he could not have been given out leg before and he would not have been bowled."

Trueman continued to rage through the summer but, begrudgingly, soon acknowledged Warne might be half-decent. By the Lord's Test he was referred to as the "spin-ball wizard", although Fiery Fred's knowledge of rock operas suggest that was the work of an overzealous ghost-writer.

For the next 14 years, Test cricket - and the Ashes - was a quite different proposition. And a generation again discovered the delights of seemingly dead deliveries such as the flipper and googly.

What happened next?

  • England lost the Test - Warne finished with eight wickets in the game and was named Man of the Match. Australia went on to take the series 4-1
  • Warne finished the summer with 34 wickets at 25.79 and was named Australia's Man of the Series. In all, in 36 Tests between 1993 and 2006-07 he took 195 wickets against England at 23.25.
  • Gatting was retained for the second Test at Lord's but was dropped despite making 59 in England's second innings. In what was his last Test innings in England he was lbw offering no shot... to Warne

Is there an incident from the past you would like to know more about? Email us with your comments and suggestions.

My Own Story, Shane Warne (Swan Publishing, 1997)

Martin Williamson is executive editor of ESPNcricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Steve on August 6, 2013, 5:31 GMT

    I think a few have missed the point. Whilst India and Pakistan have produced many great Leg Spinners they have all dominated in sub continent conditions. To call Indian pitches "Flat" for spin bowlers is like calling the Gabba "A Road" for seamers. Indian pitches turn and if they don't look like turning they burn them, shave them & limit any water on them so that they will. Why else has India such a poor record away from home. Any time the ball bounces above waist high they are gone for all money. The point of the "Ball of the Century" hype is that it was done by an unknown leggie in an iconic series "The Ashes", the first delivery, in England, by a country that hadn't produced a test playing leggie for some time and that the way it looped, dipped, drifted, gripped and took the stumps (and partly for Gatting's bemused reaction). No matter who you support you have got to admit, watching that delivery, is like viewing poetry, drama & thrill in one delivery.

  • Ashok on August 5, 2013, 1:00 GMT

    (contd): But why is Warne getting credit for getting Gatting clean bowled round or behind his legs! Gupte might have done it dozens of times & so must have so many other bowlers. Not only that I am rather surprised by the heading of calling it "The Ball of the Century". I know for sure that England Captain MJK Smith when he arrived at the crease had no idea what Gupte was bowling. MJK often bamboozled & fell to his googly or leg break within first few balls. You can give credit to a great bowler by calling him "Bowler of the century". But calling a ball that has bamboozled the batsman cannot be called "the Ball of the Century"- especially when similar feat has been achieved by many other bowlers.

  • Ashish on August 4, 2013, 14:01 GMT

    Ball of the century or not, it was a fairytale start to Warne's ashes romance. There may have been similar or even better balls bowled, but none was timed as good as this one. The most important series for both the nations, the hype, the rivalry and the supposed mystery, against England's finest batsman of spin and on his ashes debut, the surreal turn and the flabbergasted look on batsman and keeper's face and not to mention his own expression like he knew it all this time. All this along with the TV made Shane Warne's ball "the ball of the century"

  • Ashok on August 4, 2013, 13:01 GMT

    Shane Warne was a great leg spinner following in the footsteps of Benaud & Bobby Simpson. Warne relied more on pace than on flight variations as typical RH leg spinners do. Perhaps this may have been the result of watching Benaud & following his style. But despite what Trueman said, Warne proved him wrong by becoming one of the greatest RH leg spinners in the history. Fortunately he had the backing of Bobby Simpson's Captaincy, another leg spinner. But I must confess Trueman was dead right when he praised the Indian spinners. Subash Gupte was rated as the best leg spinner ever by Great Gary Sobers. He had easy 3 steps run up & delivered the ball exactly where he wanted with pin point accuracy. He spun(leg spin & googlies) the ball like a top with prodigious turn even on dead Indian wkts.He bowled many batsmen round behind their legs! He mystified the 3 W's of WI with his magical spin. Unfortunately Gupte lived in an era with fewest matches & remained unheralded despite his greatness!

  • Trevor on August 4, 2013, 7:16 GMT

    Quite a few people here who can't appreciate a great delivery. Perhaps your team has been so terrorized by Warne in the past that you continue to hold a grudge against him and can't give the guy some credit when it is quite obviously deserved? The ball was pure magic, plain and simple, curving viciously in the air to pitch a foot outside of leg stump then ripping back past Gatting's bat to clip the top of off stump. A miraculous ball.

  • Roger on August 4, 2013, 0:40 GMT

    Calling this the ball of the century is a big insult to many great bowlers of 20th century. This wicket shows the lethargic approach of Gatting to playing the ball rather than any bowling magic. Warne has bowled similar balls many times in his career but other batsman without any similar "magic" happening.

  • V on August 3, 2013, 20:16 GMT

    An excellent delivery no doubt. But having watched the game for half a century, I am disgusted with all the hype about this being the ball of the century. It is not even the best delivery from a leggie that I have seen. Unfortunately, this is one of those rare occasions where I have to agree with Sunny Gavaskar that the English and Aussie media have played this to the hilt. The delivery from Chandrasekar that bowled Gordon Greenidge was a huge googly and Greenidge shouldered arms because it was pitched so far outside the off stump! Sadly there was no television then to capture the moment or create a media frenzy.

  • Aruhn on August 3, 2013, 18:38 GMT

    It indeed is the Ball of the century, because the drift, the length (not so full but full enough) & the break-back is just so romantic & perfect...this combination just happens to a leg spinner, very very rarely, when he is unaware. In all honesty, the bowler's intent while accidentally delivering these specials is just to give it a rip and land it outside leg, not really aiming as much to hit the top of off as to get an outside edge from the spit..Warne is so right..you just can't answer or describe it..happened to me few times at club level..while team-mates were gobsmacked I just felt blank..not even happy..and you can't reproduce that at will..

  • Milind on August 3, 2013, 17:17 GMT

    A different batsman and it might have been "rocked on the backfoot and four through the covers". It did happen exactly this way -- Chennai 1998 on a fourth day turning wicket.

  • Ranga on August 3, 2013, 16:47 GMT

    @robelgordo: Gatting's play against spin is highly overrated. This is a batsman who kept hammering second string spinners of the mid to late 80s. Then enters Kumble, Warne and Murali in 1992. Jayananda Warnaweera was running hot in 1992-4 period. These four spinners DEMOLISHED Gatting. IIRC he averages less than 20 when one of the above bowlers were in the opposition.

    Warnaweera did bowl a doosra too. And Gatting got one pitched on off which went awaytaking the edge to keeper, the look on his face was similar (1992-3 series in SL). Gatting was one of the poorest batsmen I have seen against three great spinners of the era.