The Ball of the Century

I hardly need set the scene for this recollection, do I? The title identifies the time, the place, the people, the moment. It brings up the picture in all cricket fans’ minds, that twenty years after, still has the power to awe us.
But this blog is for more than just the already aware, so let me describe what I’m talking about.
It was 4 June 1993, after lunch, on the Second Day of the First Test between England and Australia, at Old Trafford, a somewhat dark, overcast day, with the threat of rain at several points. I was, as usual, holidaying from work, taking the full five days of the Test, and sat in the Pavilion. Australia had won the toss and elected to bat, and had scored 289 all out. England began their reply comfortably enough, scoring 71 for the first wicket, which had brought former captain Mike Gatting to the wicket.
I confess to not liking Gatting, especially as an England captain. Everybody spoke of his qualities as a leader, that the players would follow him anywhere, without ever conceding that he had no idea where to lead his team. He’d played under Mike Brearley and hadn’t even absorbed Brearley’s simplest maxim – if it isn’t working, try something else. Nor could I admire his habit of deliberately misunderstanding the question whenever he was called upon to defend himself over the way he had thrown away his wicket, and England’s chances of success, in the 1989 World Cup Final against Australia.
Personally, I didn’t believe he deserved his place, but I wasn’t a Selector, and have never suffered from the apparent belief of Selectors everywhere that past success demands a player be selected forever. That he was to be at the wicket added a personal pinch of spice for me.
Australia had brought over a bowler, a leg-spinner, who was being boosted as the next greatest thing. And a leggy as well: that art had been virtually dead until Abdul Qadir opened the tomb and started entertaining everyone. His name was Shane Warne, and he looked like a bleached beach-bum and surfer, and in his only Tour Match to date, against Worcestershire, Graeme Hick had taken him apart quite thoroughly. So, another Aussie wonderboy who would prove to be unable to make an impression outside his native land, then. They got us with that one, and good.
Border decided that it was time to bring Warne into the attack, his first Test over in English conditions. They placed the field, somewhat conventionally. Gatting, the master of spin, the aggressor and smiter of the twirly men. Except in one mean and malicious heart, sat before the Pavilion, everyone was mentally settling in for some lusty blows from Fatty Gatting.
So Warne started ambling in for his first ball. Just an aimless few paces, wandering forward, before springing into his delivery stride: pretty much what I did when I bowled, in fact! Gatting clearly decided it should be left alone and didn’t play at the ball.
But wait! The Aussie slip cordon and the keeper were roaring, and sprinting forward, waving their arms! Warne was celebrating. Gatting was standing there, looking the picture of What The Hell. Was he out? He was out? How the Hell…?
Those people who were sat in Old Trafford with something like a straight on view of the wicket already knew what Warne had done: the rest of us, including the whole Pavilion, were left to look at the big digital screen for a replay of what we had witnessed but been unable to interpret. Even Gatting, heading back to the Pavilion, stopped to look at just what had been done to him.
These early big screens were far from HD, and often the ball was visible only as a dark blur, or smear, if it could be seen at all. It took two replays to comprehend it. One to simply stare in disbelief, the other to begin to look, with cold calculation, at what it was we were seeing.
Warne brought his arm over, released the ball. It was the prototypical loosener, pitched on leg stump and then drifting further out in its trajectory to pitch well wide of leg: imagine into existence a second set of stumps, continuing the line, and this would have pitched middle stump on set 2. And then it leapt, yes, leapt, spun viciously back on itself, spat past the precautionary edge of Gatting’s bat and hit off stump on the corporeal set.
Could a ball do that? I mean, it had, but it had never done that before, not in my life or my experience. In the moment of that first replay, there was a strange sound from the crowd, myself included. It was shock, awe, appreciation, all mixed into the sound of a moment of passage from past into future,
It was just a ball, just a bloody good leg-spinner, but in that moment, Shane Warne won not merely the First Test but the entire series, and he shifted Cricket itself into a future where, having shown what could be done, he had initiated a furious race to do it again. We have lived in Shane Warne’s world since then, and cricket has been immeasurably better for it.
And it was his first bloody ball too! What would he do when he’d warmed up?
The first thing he went on to show was that that was not a fluke, as if, in some corners of desperate English minds there was the faintest of hopes that it might have been some sort of freak ball, something that could never happen again. But later in that innings, he bowled one to Alec Stewart that pitched on leg stump of the imaginary set and came back so far it passed outside off stump of the real set.
The two sides were playing in different dimensions from that point on. The crowd was intent upon Warne’s every delivery, none of this relax and wait for him to come in and bowl, every delivery could be something unforgettable and no-one wanted to miss any of it. From the Pavilion, we were all helplessly reliant on the big screen to show us what we were watching. I remember laughing my head off, unable to control myself, when Warne induced Gooch to throw his wicket away with a hasty swipe to mid on: it wasn’t that ball that got Gooch out but the half dozen before it, the balls that Warne were making boom every which way, and Gooch unable to pick anything, until the sloppy full toss came straight at him and his desperate resistance broke in the chance of a hittable ball, an actual hittable ball, and he bagged it straight to the fielder.
Oddly, the same game offered another I was There moment on the final day. England were batting for the draw, hoping to hold out, and generally managing with relative comfort, thanks to the captain’s innings by Graham Gooch, which had already reached 133 runs. And in comes the gloriously moustached Merv Hughes, with his mincing, almost tiptoe run and his upper body bulk, and unleashing a delivery. Gooch tries to cut but it’s too close to his body. He chops the ball down into the ground behind him: it bounces to waist height and drops back. It’s going to hit the stumps, but Gooch sweeps his right arm at him, knocks it away off his forearm, and I’m going ‘oh shit’ and that’s before the Aussies go up.
He’s out. I’ve never seen it happened, but I know the Laws, he’s handled the ball. He could have knocked it away with his bat, and it would have been Hit Twice but he’d have been ok because of In Defence of Wicket. He’d have been safe with the back of his hand, as long as it held the bat. But his arm was free and he’s used his forearm and he’s Out. Only the sixth English player in Test History to be out Handled the Ball.
Dickie Bird knows it’s out, the Aussies know it’s out, but he tries to give them the chance to withdraw it, to not do this, for some, unbelievable reason to not claim the wicket of a top rank opponent holding out against victory, for a perfectly legitimate, merely rare dismissal. Are you sure you want to do this? he asks out there, as the crowd waits in suspense for a decision. But he’s out, clear as day, and why should Australia withdraw? So Goochie has to walk, and with him goes the faint hope of denying the Aussies victory.
Two incidents in one memorable Test. The Ball of the Century and a Handled the Ball, in one game. Almost an embarrassment of riches. You don’t expect such things to come to you in clusters, but they did, and I was there.

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