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What Shane Warne's greatest deliveries tell us

The ball is the fundamental unit of cricket, and with Warne, each one was a universe of possibilities

Osman Samiuddin
Osman Samiuddin
10-Mar-2022
Australia celebrate Andrew Strauss' dismissal by Shane Warne, England v Australia, 2nd Test, Edgbaston, 2nd day, August 5, 2005

Ever get the feeling you've been had? Strauss b Warne, Lord's 2005  •  Tom Shaw/Getty Images

If Shane Warne never took another wicket after Mike Gatting's, he would still live on. Not in as many minds, and certainly not as rich a figure, but a ball like that has its own life. It does not go forgotten. The reason it endures and that it was so instantaneously acclaimed is for what it did in the milliseconds of its existence, the mad physics around it, but also because it was legspin as a platonic ideal.
This is, of course, a truism. How else do all the great deliveries become great if not by doing something great? But that ball speaks to a fundamental often overlooked in cricket, which is that, broken down, the game is only the sum of the self-contained vignettes each of its individual deliveries represents. Only when stitched together do we then have a match, unto a series, unto a career. Each ball is a world by itself, of limitations and possibilities, and when you walked into the world of a Shane Warne delivery, you walked into a world with no limitations, where possibilities abounded. In this world the ball could, and did, behave in ways unlike any before Warne existed.
Think of the circumstances leading to that ball. It was Warne's first in a Test in England. Hardly anyone at Old Trafford that day would have seen him before. They might have heard of a new blond leggie who had helped win a Test in Colombo and run through West Indies, but few would've seen him. Then, without warning, he did that.
And if he could do that, then what couldn't he do every time he walked up to bowl?
In the days since his passing, scouring YouTube for his best moments has been a comfort. Quite likely this has been a universal response. A connoisseur will argue that 90-second videos of only wickets falling is to miss the point of Warne. That experiencing Warne without what Gideon Haigh calls the pageant of Warne is to know of Warne but not to feel Warne.
That theatre is essential. That walk back to his mark, the occasional pause to fix the field or to let doubts fester in the batter, to make them think something is amiss when nothing is. Then the amble in, so utterly lacking in foreboding it was as if Jaws was coming to shore to the title music of Finding Nemo. Then there were the traps, with ball but also with manner. The appeals, the gradual massaging of an umpire into his decision; the bluff of the oohs and aahs and smirks and sneers when he beat a bat, but especially when he found the middle of one. As much as Warne's wickets, everything before and around them is the eulogy.
But these videos make two points, the first a complementary one, that these grand and elaborate ploys and plots needed denouements to match and Warne delivered them with truly freakish quality and consistency. But second, that even as one-off deliveries that may never be bowled again, with no build-up or backstory or history, that only ever exist in bite-sized social media clips, these deliveries work. And how.
Not long after Gatting at Old Trafford, Warne would bowl Graham Gooch behind his legs at Edgbaston, coming in round the wicket. It is less iconic but notable because it became a leitmotif in the Warne canon: which other bowler, before or since, has bowled as many batters around their legs as Warne?
In a way this dismissal is a legspinner's ultimate flex. Sneaking in behind a batter is peak deception. And to do it, the ball must do what all leggies are supposed to make it do: spin leg to off and preferably big. The conceit is in treating the batter as if he is not there as an opponent: he's there as a marker, an obstacle around which to find the best route to the stumps. The calibration needs to be so precise, it's unfathomable: the angle, the spot where it must land, the degree of turn, all so that it misses pads, bat, and backside. In this instance the angles are even more outrageous because Warne, unusually, runs in from between the umpire and stumps.
There's an over to Craig McMillan that is priceless for how Warne sets his trap (Adam Gilchrist's cackling provides an assist). But the wicket ball is an absolute WTF for the lengths to which McMillan has gone to prevent being bowled behind his legs. Ultimately, as he bat-pads to short leg, he appears to be playing a forward-defensive to a delivery bowled by the square-leg umpire.
In no other sport is there an obvious equivalent to what is happening here. A fleeting kinship with football's nutmeg? There's greater consequence and a more acute geometry here, as when Warne famously nutmegged Basit Ali. Typical Warne that the tease - chatting with Ian Healy about whether to have pasta or Mexican for dinner (as if he wanted anything other than pizza) to stretch out the tension of the day's last ball - is as sweet.
Something of this mode, of the wrong-way-round-rightness, is elicited by the epic Roberto Carlos free kick against France in 1997. Carlos eschewed the obvious angle for his left foot by swerving the ball like an outswinger round the outside of the defensive wall, rather than curling it like an inswinger round the other side. That free kick was a one-off: Warne did it repeatedly.
The best of the genre isn't strictly of the genre. Poor MSK Prasad receives a Warne delivery from over the wicket that doesn't drift as much as get caught in a late and sudden patch of violent turbulence, pushing the ball down and to the leg side.
A quandary. Prasad has taken leg-stump guard and instinct is telling him to pad this away. Training and tradition are telling him to get real, because balls delivered from there are not padded away. That's not how cricket works. From flight, fight or freeze, Prasad chooses the last.
Even as the ball then hits the stumps behind him and Healy is starting to celebrate, Prasad is unmoved, staring at the spot the ball landed on - around a sixth-leg-stump line. How did it land there, his mind is failing to process, and where has it gone, it is asking. And how did it get there, behind him, as he hears the whooping.
There's more drift than on the Gatting ball, and a crazier angle than the Gooch ball. Until you saw it, it was impossible to conceive of such a delivery. And once you saw it, it was impossible to expect anything else anytime Warne appeared.
This was the end of 1999, by when Warne was a little less shiny, a little more worn. In the early years there was a real wildness in how much he spun the ball. Cricket had no sustained experience of it and it crashed through the sport's abstruseness and multitude of subtleties. Much of the balance between bat and ball pivots on millimetres. This much movement catches the edge but three millimetres more misses it; that much movement hits the pad, a millimetre more catches an inside edge.
An entire day of fast bowlers and offspinners can pass without their earnest, intricate endeavours being detected. A hint of swing, was it? Some break? Warne came and did Big, Shiny, Obvious things. He hit stumps and he hit them from confounding places. Here was a spinner who really spun the ball. Somebody who had never seen cricket could watch a big legbreak from Warne and understand immediately it was an elite athletic feat, sexy and dangerous, compelling and superior, unique and evolutionary. A single Warne legbreak was the game's gateway drug.
As time passed that spectacle became rarer, though not extinct. The most vivid occasions were against left-handers, where, because Warne was at them from round the wicket, and that TV cameras mess up depth perception, some of those balls looked like they were breaking at right angles.
Like with Andrew Strauss at Edgbaston, which nearly made it as the Cricket Monthly's ball of the (21st) century. It would have done, probably, had Strauss not appeared as discombobulated as Prasad had been. Granted, Strauss did not freeze, but in displaying the worst footwork since Elaine Benes hit the dance floor, he tarred the delivery a smidge with his own cluelessness.
Not that better positioning helped, as Shivnarine Chanderpaul once discovered at the SCG. He understood the ball's intentions from the line, so preposterously far outside off that Chanderpaul would need a visa to play it. He knew this was going to spit back into him. Having figured out the length and leaned forward, he changed plans and nimbly shifted his weight on to his back foot. Until this moment - 71 off 67 balls - Chanderpaul's plans against Warne had worked. Until ball 68, when Mike Tyson's famous musing about plans came to mind: "Everybody has a plan until they get hit." Or bowled by Shane Warne.
This was a central truth about Warne. Not only did he always have a ball that punched through the opponent's plans, he had one that punched through his own. As when he pulled off a near-exact replica of the Chanderpaul delivery in bowling Saeed Anwar in Hobart three years later.
Like Chanderpaul, Anwar was set. Like Chanderpaul, Anwar knew as soon as the ball left Warne's hand what it was going to do. Like Chanderpaul, he half stepped out but smartly leaned back, with aspirations to cut. Like Chanderpaul, those aspirations were swiftly turned to crud. Like Chanderpaul, he was bowled. Unlike Chanderpaul, this was the one time Anwar looked inelegant with bat in hand.
There's an even more cartoonish quality to this ball, an unreal defying of natural laws. For starters, it breaks the width of the Thames to hit leg stump. And ordinarily, when a ball lands on a pitch, it loses speed. This is science and we all signed up to science to understand how the world works. All except this ball. This ball springs off the pitch faster than it landed, so fast that it doesn't hit leg stump, it knocks it clean out of the ground. A ball produced by a spinner, with the consequence of one produced by a fast bowler.
What elevates this ball, though, is Richie Benaud. Prior to it, there's a commentary preamble from Mark Taylor about the plans Warne might be working on against Anwar. Those plans are binned as Warne switches to round the wicket and bowls this ball. Only Benaud can process and articulate: "Whatever Warne was planning, he has suddenly produced a ball entirely different from the others he has bowled and it has ripped back."
Which is to say, whatever else you had been watching, or not, whatever Warne plan you might have intuited, however much you knew about the game, if you watched this one ball, then you saw everything you needed to and you didn't need to know anything else.
Except this last thing: the flipper. In later years when Warne stopped bowling it, he started relying on the bastardised slider. Not the legbreak that didn't turn - let's call that the bluffer - which did for poor Ian Bell at Lord's and fooled even Benaud. The real slider got Andrew Flintoff later that same innings.
Neither was a patch on the flipper, which seemed a hellish delivery to bowl, let alone bowl well. The flipper, Warne would explain, required the ball to be released from an actual snap of the fingers, which was difficult but totally apt because it was presaging magic. Unlike Warne's big, showy legbreak, this was proper illusion. Batters saw that Warne had dragged it down, except he hadn't. Batters saw a long hop, or one short enough to cut or pull, except it wasn't. Batters saw it go straight and it did, except straight never felt so pretzelian.
It would be cruel to pick any of Daryll Cullinan's malfunctions; candy from kids Benaud said of one. It would also be impossible to pick just one. The one that got Richie Richardson, the world's introduction to it? Cullinan one, two or three? Ian Bishop, '96 World Cup, a place in the final on the line? Let's go Alec Stewart, usually such an expert judge and executor of the cut, getting it so wrong at the Gabba. Not as short as he saw, not the legbreak he saw, not as slow as he saw.
The flipper also didn't care for science, such was its acceleration on landing. This question sounds wrong, but it isn't: has a ball ever beaten batters for pace so comprehensively and so consistently as Warne's flipper?
Nothing does justice to the world of Shane Warne - to the world of a single Warne delivery - as watching these deliveries again the last week has made clear. Maybe they bring some succour. Maybe from them we see that even if Warne had lived long beyond last Friday, these deliveries could not be bowled again by anyone other than him. That even if he is now no longer of this world, we live on gratefully, eternally in his world. Rest in Peace, King.

Osman Samiuddin is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo