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The ball of the century

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

Mike Gatting is bowled by Shane Warne, England v Australia, 1st Test, Old Trafford, June 4, 1993

"How anyone can spin a ball the width of Mike Gatting boggles the mind"  •  Getty Images

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