Cricket: In search of the secrets of the underworld: Richard Williams discovers what has made the Old Trafford pitch turn

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THE BEST ball ever seen in Test cricket was delivered at precisely five minutes past three on Friday afternoon. In all of the game's recorded history there may have been deliveries as good as the leg- break with which Shane Warne trimmed Mike Gatting's off stump at Old Trafford in the first innings of the first Test; there has surely never been a better one.

Influenced by the side-cut of his turning hand and by the breeze blowing up and across from third man, Warne's first ball in his debut against England drifted sharply towards the leg side late in its flight before pitching five or six inches outside the line of leg stump, on a perfect length and just short of the scars made by the big boots of Craig McDermott and Merv Hughes. A watchful Gatting came half-forward, bat and pad apparently offering a secure shield. He was in good nick, and confident: less than 10 minutes before he had played the shot of the match, sending a delivery from Brendon Julian to the cover boundary with a regal flourish. But now Warne's ball gripped, turned and leaped across him.

At that moment, anyone who has ever tried to roll his wrist and flick the ball out of the back of the hand would have recognised young Warne's jubilation and, regardless of allegiance, shared in his pleasure. For a practitioner of the most arcane and elusive of all the cricketing arts, this was a moment of perfection such as few will ever know. Being a leg-spinner is a lonely occupation: there are few people to learn from, and therefore few to offer meaningful sympathy when things go wrong. Not many captains really understand or respond to such a precarious and sometimes costly talent. Maybe Gatting, should he resume the leadership of his country later in the year, will remember what happened to him in the first innings of this match. His astonishment, his momentary refusal to accept the evidence of his own eyes, paid the highest of compliments to the 23-year-old surfie from Ferntree Gully.

Warne was bowling from the end at which Tony Lock got what will forever be thought of as the other wicket in Laker's Test against the Aussies 37 years ago. Bert Flack, Old Trafford's groundsman from 1948 to 1983, prepared the strip that provided the platform for Laker's immortality, and he was at the ground early yesterday to watch Peter Marron, his protege and successor, applying two and a half tons of heavy roller to the same patch of earth and dwarf rye grass, in an attempt to calm it down.

Marron, groundsman of the year for the past two seasons, was being ruefully philosophical about a track which was shaping the course of an extraordinarily entertaining match. Soaked by days of rain, it had been left unprotected during a Sunday league fixture and was far from Marron's usual offerings in appearance and behaviour. 'I've had two years of people saying this wicket's too good,' he said. 'Now look at it] They've been calling this a rogue wicket, and of course I'd like it to have more pace and bounce. For a rogue wicket, though, it's producing a great game, isn't it?'

If there is a more arcane art in cricket than leg-spin bowling, it can only be the curating of pitches. Flack, now a mischievous and mutton-chopped 83, reminisced about the days when he would dress the Old Trafford playing surface with a mixture of sand, marl and the contents of cows' intestines. 'I used to go over the road to the old abattoir to get the tripe bags, remove the contents - it's the purest stuff - and mix it up with the dressing.' What did it smell like? 'Oh, not bad. We'd get a few blowflies and maggots, mind.'

Some tricks were less noxious. Just before the visit of the West Indies in 1976, Flack noticed a crack in the strip an inch wide. 'Bert got us lads to Polyfilla it with Surrey loam,' said Marron, then the old man's apprentice. 'And when they came out to inspect the pitch, he made us all stand across it. Selvey got four wickets for England, and then they got us out for 70-odd. Nobody spotted it until much later.' The West Indies, with Roberts and Holding in full cry, won by 425 runs.

Flack handed over to Marron in 1983 and tried retiring to Devon. When they closed the local post office, forcing him to travel to Exeter to pick up his pension, he moved back up to Bury. 'Now I can come straight here on the Metrorail,' he said, and looked over at Marron. 'But I don't come too often, do I?' Marron, remembering the days when Flack forbade his youngsters from talking while they dibbed the precious turf ('Well, when they talked, they didn't work'), just smiled.

Peter Such and Shane Warne, presented with the kind of opportunity rarely afforded to Test match spinners outside the subcontinent since the days of Laker and Lock, have probably already cast their votes for groundsman of the year.