When Martin Crowe announced just before the 1993 Ashes series that Shane Warne was the best leg-spinner in the world, few alarm bells clanged in England. Such a declaration could be interpreted as an attempt to restore the confidence of Kiwi batsmen, notoriously vulnerable against spin, who had just been undermined by Warne. Moreover, no Australian wrist-spinner had made a significant impact in an English Test series since the days of Grimmett and O'Reilly between the wars. England, it was assumed, had to quell McDermott and Hughes to have a chance of retrieving the Ashes.
Such a complacent misconception was dispelled at Old Trafford by Warne's first delivery in Test cricket in England. It was bowled to Mike Gatting, an acknowledged master of spin. Warne does not indulge in low-risk looseners and that first ball was flicked vigorously out of the back of the hand. It set off on the line of Gatting's pads and then dipped in the air further towards the leg side until it was 18 inches adrift of the stumps; by this time Gatting was beginning to lose interest, until the ball bounced, turned and fizzed across his ample frame to clip the off bail. Gatting remained rooted at the crease for several seconds - in disbelief rather than dissent - before trudging off to the pavilion like a man betrayed. Now the Englishmen knew that Crowe's assessment was more than propaganda.
Throughout six Tests they could never master Warne. He bowled 439.5 overs in the series, took 34 wickets - surpassing Grimmett's 29 in the five Tests of 1930 - and also managed to concede under two runs per over, thereby flouting the tradition of profligate wrist-spinners buying their wickets. Some English batsmen were completely mesmerised; Robin Smith, England's banker in the middle order, was unable to detect any of his variations and had to be dropped. The admirable Gooch could obviously distinguish the googly from the leg-spinner, yet Warne still disposed of him five times in the series. Once Gooch carelessly clubbed a full toss to mid-on, but otherwise he was dismissed while playing the appropriate defensive stroke, the surest indication that Warne has a special talent.
Ominously for Test batsmen of the 1990s, Warne is not yet the complete wrist-spinner. His googly is not so penetrating or well-disguised as Mushtaq Ahmed's, which is one reason why he employs it so infrequently. His flipper is lethal if it is on target, but it often zooms down the leg side. But he is the most prodigious spinner of the ball of the last three decades, a gift which causes deceptive in-swing as well as excessive turn. He is also remarkably accurate, but if ever his control is threatened, he can regroup by bowling around the wicket to the right-handed batsman, thereby restricting him to just one scoring stroke, a risky sweep. Hence in the Ashes series his captain, Border, was able to use him as both shock and stock bowler.
Warne's success in 1993 was a triumph for the Australian selectors as well as his own resolve. They might easily have discarded him as a liability early in his career. SHANE KEITH WARNE, born in a smart bayside suburb of Melbourne on September 13, 1969, did not display many of the hallmarks of his predecessors - Grimmett, O'Reilly and Benaud - in his youth. Bleached blond hair, a stud in his ear plus a fondness for good life, which caused his waistline to expand with alarming speed, and an aversion to discipline, which in 1990 led to his departure under a cloud from the Australian Cricket Academy in Adelaide, do not reflect the perfect credentials for the modern Australian Test cricketer. Yet selectors trusted their judgment.
They pitched him into two Test matches against India in January 1992, after just four Sheffield Shield appearances, in which he had taken eight wickets. He had shown form on tour in Zimbabwe and against the West Indians. None the less, his state captain Simon O'Donnell expressed public reservations. Warne took one for 228 against the Indians and the gamble seemed to have backfired. Warne was then invited by Rod Marsh to return to the Academy, where he was coached by another reformed larrikin, Terry Jenner. Warne was now prepared to make the sort of sacrifices that impress Australians: he gave up beer, trained hard, lost 28 pounds and was rewarded by selection for the tour to Sri Lanka in August 1992.
In Colombo, having yielded 107 runs from 22 wicketless overs in the first innings of the opening Test, Warne took three for 11 from 5.1 overs in the second as Australia conjured a dramatic victory. His victims were only tailenders, but it was a start. That Border entrusted, him with the ball at all at such a crucial moment did wonders for his confidence. His seven for 52 against West Indies at Melbourne in December 1992 was an isolated success in that series but confirmed his match-winning potential. But his efforts in New Zealand (17 wickets in three matches) and in last summer's Ashes series have established Warne as an integral cog, perhaps the integral cog, of the Australian team.
On a broader scale he has triggered a mini-renaissance in the art of wrist-spin bowling. In the summer of 1993 young village cricketers could be spied on the outfield, no longer seeking to emulate Curtly Ambrose or Merv Hughes, but attempting to ape the more subtle skills of Warne. For that we should all be grateful. - Vic Marks.