No one really knows what to make of what’s just happened, least of all Mike Gatting…
The rotund England number three stares at the pitch for a good few seconds before finally beginning the long walk back to the pavilion, confused and embarrassed. He offers one last look back towards the umpires, seemingly hoping to be told he can return to the crease because it was all just a ruse. Maybe there was some kind of landmine installed on the pitch? Maybe the ball was being driven by a tiny Martian?
Unfortunately for Gatting, the only explanation is that the “ball of the century” had just been delivered by a wizard.
Wind the clock back a minute and a blonde kid named Shane Warne is just about to bowl his first ball in Test cricket against England. It’s the first Test of the 1993 Ashes. Old Trafford. Warne – a little chubby, like the man facing him at the other end – hasn’t done too much in his career to date. After 11 Tests he’s taken 31 wickets at over 30, and been carted by the Indians and Sri Lankans alike.
He approaches with what will become his trademark walking delivery stride and sends down a stock leg break that is not stock at all. After it leaves Warne’s hand, the viciously spinning ball floats down the middle of the pitch before suddenly drifting to outside leg stump. The ball explodes off the deck, coming back what feels like a metre and takes the top of off stump. To be fair, Gatting did well to get as close to it as he did.
In the commentary box, another Australian spinner – this one already a legend – takes a few moments to realise what he’s just witnessed.
“He’s done it,” a subdued Richie Benaud says, with surprisingly little excitement in his voice.
Then it hits him.
“He’s started off with the most beautiful delivery,” he goes on. “Gatting has absolutely no idea what has happened to it. Still doesn’t know.”
Warne would explain later that the remarkable delivery was not necessarily his intention.
“I thought, ‘I’m a bit nervous, first time against England. What we’ll have to do here is just bowl a nice leg break that lands somewhere on the mark and can turn,’” he said.
It turned, all right. It turned cricket on its head.
Before that ball, leg spin was a dying art. Quicks were dominating the game and had done so since the fearsome Windies pace attack of the 1970s. Warne inspired a generation of young spinners while going on to become arguably the greatest bowler we’ve ever seen.
As for poor ol’ Gatts… well, he didn’t even get sympathy from his own teammates. Opener Graham Gooch, who was standing at the non-striker’s end when the famous ball was unleashed, said of Gatting’s completely bemused reaction: “He looked as though someone had just nicked his lunch.”