SPORT / Forget the rest, who were the best in '93?: Cricket: The ball that set the world turning - Shane Warne

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The Independent Online
IF (on the grounds that he could play until he was a hundred and never bowl another one like it) Shane Warne had announced his retirement from cricket after his first ball in an Ashes Test match, he would still have had a reasonable claim as the year's outstanding performer.

You would have got better odds on Gower buzzing the ground astride a low-flying pig than someone spinning the ball twice the width of a Gatting, and the abiding memory of 1993 was the sight of the former England captain standing splay-footed at the crease sporting an expression he normally reserves for being given out leg-before in Pakistan.

The peroxide blond with a stud in his ear went on to take 33 more wickets in the series, a good few of them with deliveries almost as baffling as the one which did for Gatting. Graham Gooch had been bowled behind his legs before, but not with a ball that had pitched closer to the fielder at short leg than it had to him.

In one respect, Warne's performance made England's humiliation a good deal easier to take than when they were unhinged by Terry Alderman's swing in 1989. Leg-spinners not only enrich the game, but help give Test cricket the fascination and the identity it needs to survive.

The relentless encroachment of the one-day international was never more apparent than when India were presented with an itinerary for a tour to New Zealand that contained only one first-class fixture, and not a single Test match.

Warne, whose 34 Test wickets compared to the nine that England's three specialists captured on an entire winter tour to India, made an apparently indifferent start to the tour when he was brutalised by Graeme Hick in the tourists' opening game at Worcester.

However, even while the traffic on the New Road bypass was coming under serious mortar fire from Hick's bat, it was being rumoured that Warne was merely keeping his subtler variations for the more serious business ahead. Subsequent events did nothing to disprove this theory.

Not one English batsman threatened to unravel him, and in the case of Robin Smith, it was a contest that might easily have attracted a protest from the League Against Cruel Sports. Such was the uncertainty that Warne created that even his bad balls were viewed with suspicion, and in one Test Gooch plonked a full-toss straight into the hands of mid-on.

The bad balls, though, were few and far between - a rare thing in a leg-spinner, and the reason why most are regarded as over-expensive luxuries. In India the previous winter, Ian Salisbury almost guaranteed the home team one boundary per over, and when this happens, the batsman never comes under the pressure upon which a leg-spinner thrives.

Another difference between Warne and Salisbury highlights the Australian penchant for a gamble. There is scarcely a camp-fire in the outback that does not illuminate a game of two-up, or a supermarket check-out that does not ring up a bookful of Lotto tickets along with the groceries, and while it took 70 first-class matches for England to take a chance on Salisbury, Australia threw in Warne after only seven.

History suggests that leg-spinners have a comparatively short shelf-life at Test level, but if Warne - as most good judges believe - proves an exception, England's next Ashes series may be every bit as painful as the last three.

(Photograph omitted)

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