But with a steady supply of batsmen unused to spin bowling to feed upon, they gradually returned to dominate the Test game as match-winners, in much the same way as lone pike dominate small lakes. And Shane Warne is cricket's answer to the Great White Shark.
Since his Test debut almost two years ago, Warne has feasted well: after two days' play in his 20th Test, against New Zealand in Brisbane, he has taken 79 wickets in all. With 67 of them coming from 15 Tests in 1993 - the most for any spinner in a calendar year - Warne, 24, has the present Test and one other in which to beat the great Dennis Lillee's record of 85 wickets in only 13 Tests during 1981. Heady stuff for a man who, after his first few Tests, had serious doubts whether he could play at the highest level.
Leg spin is indeed a high-risk art. As is the case with lanky golfers and their long swings, there is much room for error in a discipline requiring split-second timing and co- ordination. Every leggie is likely to have days when batsmen gorge on their mistakes and even the most phlegmatic captain is going to consider them an expensive luxury.
But the torment wreaked when a leggie is on top of his game is one of the great sights in cricket and takes on a ghoulish fascination. Watching poor old Robin Smith's footwork being reduced to wet noodles by Warne was a sublime example of soft torture. There is nothing quite as chastening as being bowled by a googly in front of millions of armchair experts, all claiming to have read the deception.
Not that Warne bowls many wrong 'uns, at least not to right- handers. 'It's something I've got to work on, 'cos my wrong 'un is pretty ordinary at the moment, particularly to left-handers. I might show it to a batsman early on as a psychological ploy, but mainly I concentrate on spinning my leggie hard and landing it in the right place.' Graham Gooch concurs. 'He bowls such an attacking line around leg-stump, and is such a big spinner of the ball, that the googly, when it comes, is fairly obvious from both its line and the way it is released.' What impresses Gooch most, however, is Warne's accuracy. 'At Test level, you can't afford to bowl a four-ball an over, (something Ian Salisbury was guilty of in India). For a bloke who gets good pace off a short run and spins it as much as he does, his control is excellent.'
There is an ever-present element of kidology in spin bowling, and this started early on in last summer's Ashes campaign, when Graeme Hick smashed Warne to all parts of the ground on his way to a blistering 187 for Worcestershire in Australia's first three-day game of their tour. The Australian management then leaked the story that Warne had unveiled only one type of delivery, and that the Tests would be a different story. We had only to wait for Warne's first ball in the Ashes series to see they were not joking - Gatting b Warne 4.
Gooch, who watched it from the other end, explained: 'That ball would have got anybody out. It pitched eight or nine inches outside leg-stump and turned square to just clip the off peg. Gatt did everything right and he's a good player of spin. It was just the perfect ball.' If that delivery was a body blow that caused English feet to wobble, then Warne's lethal flippers (a quicker, skidding ball) were the quick combinations that finally finished them off. New Zealand are now experiencing similar pain. Before this weekend's Test in Brisbane, it is believed that Geoff Howarth, the New Zealand coach, cancelled the usual naughty-boy net practice that ritually follows humiliations and instead took his players down to the dolphinarium to show them what a flipper looks like.
Filling the most precarious niche in cricket has not always gone swimmingly for a man who looks like the archetypal Aussie surfer, complete with blond crop, white zinc and 'Terminator' sunglasses. His Test debut against India in 1992, made after just seven Sheffield Shield appearances for his state, Victoria, saw him take 1 for 150.
Allan Border and the selectors kept their nerve, however, and the turning point for Warne came in his third Test later that year, during Sri Lanka's second innings in Colombo. With the home side floundering at 45 for 6, chasing an Australian total of 181, Border could have been forgiven for trying to polish them off using his more experienced bowlers. Instead he gave the ball to Warne. This act of faith galvanised the young spinner and moments later Australia were celebrating an improbable victory, Warne having taken 3 for 11 in just more than five overs.
Despite its cricketing traditions, Victoria is also the heartland of Aussie Rules football, an uncompromising game whose tough rites of passage has an appeal most adolescent males in suburban Melbourne find irresistible. Warne was no exception. 'Basically I wanted to be a footie player. It wasn't until I was 13 or 14 that I started playing junior cricket and was shown the basics of leg spin. I've no idea why I stuck with it. I could never land the bloody thing then.'
But why the peroxide hair? 'Believe it or not, that came from playing footie with St Kilda. All the players were bottled blonds with sun tans. So I just joined them. Peer group pressure, I guess. When I started wearing an earring as well, one of the seasoned players at the club began to call me Hollywood. 'Son,' he used to say, 'you should be in Hollywood.' And it sort of stuck, but only when I play for Victoria.'
Apart from watching the odd video of Richie Benaud, he shares little of the Australian leg-break tradition and contact with more recent Australian leggies such as Jim Higgs and Terry Jenner has left Warne a little cold. 'They've been trying to get me to bowl more off-stump. But AB (Border) and I are happy with what I'm doing, which is bowling more leg-stump.' By doing this he has been able to bowl long spells without anyone really collaring him. With a man set round the corner for a miscued sweep, most right-handers' options are limited. When you can tie one end up all day and still pick up three or four wickets doing so, the pressure created manifests itself at both ends. As Border is aware, Warne's effect on the game is much more far-reaching than just his handsome tally of wickets.
He is a potent force, and is the latest example of what might be called 'Okker chic', but as his Test team-mate Mark Waugh points out: 'When you are the talk of the town everyone is looking for something to pick you up on, just so they can cut you down. If you didn't know Warney you might think he was a bit of a show pony. But really he's a simple fellow who likes simple things.'Reuse content