An occasional series looking at the defining moments which explain why sport captivates us so much ...
Sport’s superstars often arrive on the scene in a blaze of youthful glory, producing outstanding debut games or seasons. Football has given us teenage sensations such as Wayne Rooney and Lionel Messi, cricket the likes of Sachin Tendulkar (Test debut at 16, a centurion at 17, captain at 23), and women’s tennis a production line of prodigies from Tracy Austin to the Williams sisters.
, have departed almost before they have arrived, but many have gone on to be dominant figures in their sport for many years. Austin
The sporting annals are littered with examples of great debuts. Few, however, can claim to have had such a profound impact - not just on a match, but on his entire sport - as the showman fittingly nicknamed ‘Hollywood’.
England v Australia, 1st Ashes Test, Old Trafford, June 1993
MW Gatting b SK Warne 4
These are the bare facts as recorded by the match scorecard. In cricketing circles, though, it is referred to in hushed tones as “the ball of the century”. No other ball is as well remembered as Shane Warne’s first ever delivery in an Ashes Test match.
It’s the second day of the first Test.
England have started well in their attempt to regain the Ashes – 80 for 1 in response to ’s modest 289. The blond-haired wrist spinner is brought into the attack for the first time. Warne measures out his run-up for his debut over against Australia and measures up the opposing batsman. England
The pugnacious, bulldog-like face of Mike Gatting stares back at him. The former
captain is an excellent player of spin bowling and is hugely experienced. This is his 73rd Test, two days short of his 36th birthday, and he has seen pretty much everything there is to see in cricket. England
But he has never seen anything like this. Warne’s first ball pitches well outside leg stump, then darts sharply back like a spherical stump-seeking missile to clip the outside of off stump. Bowled!
Gatting stands aghast, unwilling to believe the evidence of his own eyes, before finally acknowledging the umpire’s signal and trudging off the pitch, still shaking his head in bewilderment.
Just in case there are any thoughts that the ‘Gatting ball’ is a one-in-a-million fluke, Warne wastes little time in proving otherwise. The first ball of his second over is a carbon copy. Robin Smith misjudges the ball and edges to slip. Seven balls, two wickets! In the space of less than ten minutes, Shane Warne has set the tone for the match, indeed for the entire series.
’s batsmen will never really get to grips with his magician’s tricks throughout the summer, and the Ashes are as good as lost already. England
Warne finishes the match with eight wickets, and goes on to claim a total of 34 victims and the Man of the Series award as
romp away with the series. Australia
Ashes Tests are supposed to be intimidating affairs for the uninitiated; after all, this is one of the oldest and most intense of all sporting rivalries, dating back to 1877. An Ashes debutant isn’t supposed to march brashly in and destroy the opposition on their home turf. But that’s exactly what Shane Warne did in 1993, and it all started with one ball.
Not bad for a beginner.
It’s all too easy to attach clichéd labels to Shane Warne such as ‘prodigious’, ‘phenomenon’ and ‘reinventing the art of spin bowling’, but then to look at Warne is to see something of a cliché anyway. He resembles not so much a modern, professional cricketer as a stereotypical Aussie who has wandered into the SCG after catching the morning surf at Bondi, with his burly frame, bottle-blond hair and macho, fun-loving brashness. So let’s work with the clichés.
In all honesty, there are few words that describe Warne’s ability to spin the ball so extravagantly as well as ‘prodigious’. He produced the equivalent of the ‘Gatting ball’ – no more than an extreme version of his standard leg break - repeatedly in his career. Warne frequently left batsmen bamboozled, groping futilely at thin air as the ball spun past the bat. What was particularly impressive was his ability to bowl long, tiring spells with sustained control, accuracy and aggression.
Was he a phenomenon? Unquestionably. To announce your arrival on the Ashes stage in the way that Warne did at Old Trafford and sustain that level of success for more than a decade showed that he is no flash in the pan. He stands second on the all-time wicket takers list (708 in 145 Tests), was voted fourth in Wisden’s Player of the 20th Century poll (being both the highest placed bowler and contemporary player), and has been described by no less an authority than Richie Benaud as “the best leg spinner I’ve ever seen”. Glowing praise, indeed.
Did he reinvent the art of spin bowling? Perhaps not, but he certainly changed people’s perceptions of it. Prior to his arrival, spin was becoming an increasingly rare and largely defensive art outside of the Asian nations. Warne turned that on its head by presenting spin bowling as a genuinely attacking – and, in cricketing terms, positively sexy - option. You need only look now – virtually every leading Test nation has a spin bowler who is single-handedly capable of turning (if you will forgive the pun) a match. Shane Warne’s legacy extends far beyond the Australian coastline or the time defined by the length of his career.
I was fortunate enough to see the 1993 Old Trafford Test live on television, and I can vividly remember my reaction to the moment Warne delivered that ball. I empathised with Gatting’s disbelief, then, watching the replay, I found myself quietly applauding in the solitude of my own living room as it began to dawn on me that I had just witnessed something truly special. It didn’t matter that it had cost my side a key wicket; such moments of sporting genius transcend something as petty as mere competition. I just knew that I had witnessed, as it happened, one of those precious moments that people would talk about for years to come.