David Blackburn

The more Shane Warne practised, the more magical he got

The more Shane Warne practised, the more magical he got
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It was a placid start. A tubby kid with peroxide blond hair approached the crease in 6 easy steps. He skipped into the air and pulled his arms backwards to build forward momentum. His left leg hit the ground and he began to rotate his shoulders from right to left. This motion brought his right arm up through the air in a wide arc. He had to hold his left arm out in front of him for balance as the shoulder-turn accelerated. His hips began to follow in the direction of his shoulders, bringing his right flank around to the left. His right arm extended above his head and neared the top of its ascent. At that moment, Shane Warne snapped his right wrist anti-clockwise and released what would become known as the ‘Ball of the Century’.

TV two’s dimensions do not do justice to Mike Gatting’s attempt to play this legendary delivery. The camera behind the bowler mocks him. The grainy image (20-22) shows a leaden-footed man take a half-step forward and then stumble backwards soon after the ball has passed him. The stumble was involuntary, a cricketing death throe.

The stump camera behind Gatting is kinder (36-42). To begin with it shows cricket as a dialogue between ball and bat. Warne bowls. Gatting, a renowned player of spin bowling, picks callow Warne’s ploy immediately. He sees that the ball is a good length leg-break (ie, it will land close to Gatting and then turn sharply away to his right, causing him difficulties unless he takes precautions). Gatting knows that he must smother the spin by playing forward and straight, because it was a cricketing sin in those days for a batsman to allow a ball to turn or to play against the spin. Gatting presses forward in anticipation.

So far so safe from Gatting; but the Ball of the Century has not yet begun.

A nanosecond has passed since Warne delivered the ball. Gatting is poised to make a decisive move forward and commit to defence. The ball is decelerating and its trajectory is changing. It is heading for the ground; but gravity is not the only unseen force acting upon it. The ball begins to drift to Gatting’s left.

This lateral movement is unexpected, unprecedented even. Wily old Gatting ceases to be an actor in the drama. Every spectator is transfixed as the ball’s strange mischief deepens. It floats more than a yard to the left of Gatting, who is shaken from his trance by the realisation that the ball is about to land a few feet from him.

Gatting shifts his weight slightly back and to the left in order to defend; but the shock of the new has made him tentative when he must be bold. He is neither forward, nor back. He is caught on the crease, in No Man’s Land as it were. Now he remembers that he has a bat with which to play. He pushes it at the ball. He is committing the original batting sin of playing across the line; but it is no matter because he is already helpless.

Gatting’s passivity earlier in the piece has allowed the ball to do its worst. It has landed, gripped the turf and then turned with extraordinary force. The ball has spun at such velocity that it seems to have gathered pace, which is impossible. It has missed the edge of Gatting’s bat. It is on course to hit his exposed off-stump.

Gatting’s death throes begin. He stumbles to his right and into a new era. The ball hits the stump. The surrounding fielders leap and whoop in jubilation. It was the 23-year-old Warne’s first ever ball in an Ashes Test; he went on to take another 194 English wickets, a record.

Gideon Haigh, the great Australian cricket journalist, recently published his much anticipated book, On Warne. Its best sections describe what Haigh calls the ‘pageantry of Warne’ (what the late Christopher Martin-Jenkins termed Warne’s ‘gamesmanship’): his hammy appeals, his intimidation of opponents, his flirting with umpires and the time-consuming rituals of his run-up. This theatricality was contrived to augment Warne’s mystery. It was necessary, Warne argued, because ‘part of the art of bowling spin is to make the batsman think that something special is happening even when it isn’t.’

The other part of the art is to do something special. Haigh has written before that Warne’s ‘epic feats’ were the mark of an ‘extraordinary bowler’ and that this can’t be said enough. In that sense Haigh is expressing the belief that Warne was a sorcerer with irresistible powers. One of my favourite Haighisms is:

'[Warne] kept getting batsmen bowled. He get kept getting them lbw. He kept getting them WTF. He had almost no right to, but he did.'

This is all true; but Warne’s powers were not superhuman. The more he practised, the more magical he got. And he polished his talent long after his greatness was assured. During the 2006-07 Ashes whitewash, Warne dismissed an English batsman at the Melbourne Cricket Ground with the perfect ‘flipper’ – a difficult variety of delivery that the ageing bowler had removed from his armoury a few years earlier. He retired from international cricket the very next game; old in sporting terms, but essentially undiminished.

Cricket, at any level, is a game played predominantly in the mind, which perhaps explains why savvy Warne was so good at it. Yet even the very best and most assiduous need their break. Warne once said that the Ball of the Century was a fluke. If so it was uniquely propitious. Every batsman after Gatting took guard expecting something special. Those who got something special, and very many did, perpetuated the legend.