Ball of the Century: Check the expression on Mike Gatting's face    Getty Images
Ball of the Century: Check the expression on Mike Gatting’s face Getty Images

June 4, 1993. Shane Warne turned his first ball in an Ashes Test across the entire expanse of Mike Gatting to hit his off-stick after pitching in the hinterlands beyond the leg-stump. Arunabha Sengupta recalls the delivery which has become known as ‘Ball of the Century .

To think that all the drama might not have transpired had Robin Smith not got stuck in the toilet!

When Merv Hughes induced the edge off Mike Atherton, it was Smith who was supposed to walk out. But the curious bathroom blooper ensured that the stocky, bearded frame of Mike Gatting had to come trotting in to join captain Graham Gooch with the score reading 71 for 1.

Well, Shane Warne might have spun a delivery from outside leg to knock back Smith s off-stump as well. But, a ball zooming across the immensity of a flannelled Gatting as the backdrop added a degree of immortality to the occasion that best of bamboozled batsmen would find difficult to match.

It was not long after Gatting s arrival at the crease that skipper Allan Border tossed the ball to the much hyped blonde young leg-spinner. It was the 28th over of the innings and England looked steady at 80 for 1 in response to 289. The Old Trafford strip was responsive to spin. Peter Such had captured six first innings wickets with his off-breaks. And the world waited to see what miracles Warne would be able to work on this pitch.

Perhaps the English camp was quite happy at the turn of events. Not that this new leggie had an awesome record, his Test average read a modest 30. He had tormented the New Zealanders and had a seven wicket haul against the West Indies, but then those teams were crammed with the worst possible players of the turning ball. He had been touted as a potent weapon by the Australians but that could be put down to standard Ashes mind games.

In the tour games, he had picked up handy wickets against Surrey, Leicestershire and Somerset, but had been walloped by Graeme Hick and the others of Worcestershire. Someone had to put him in place quickly in the Test matches. And there was no one better qualified to do so than Gatting, a man who had long relished jumping out to spinners.

The bowler and captain conversed at length, placing the fieldsmen to minutest detail, as the crowd sat eagerly awaiting the leg-spinner s first ball in an Ashes Test match.

Finally, the field set to satisfaction, Warne ambled in. He approached with his half walk, half trot run up. The right arm went through a jerky circle, the ball was tossed up, with apparent harmlessness towards somewhere far outside the leg stump. Gatting stretched forward, perhaps lulled by the apparent innocuousness of the ball, not quite getting to the pitch. It drifted away even further down the leg-side, prompting scorers to raise their pencils to mark off another dot ball. And then it hit the turf. With an almost electric whizz, it turned across the face of the bat, across the voluminous expanse of Mike Gatting, and travelled an enormous distance to clip the off bail.

For both Gatting and Ian Healy, the first reaction was surprise, a sense of disbelief. Both viewed the wreckage in mystified trance. And then as the wicket-keeper erupted in joy, the veteran batsman made his shell-shocked way back to the pavilion.

Warne wore an expression of glee along with the scarcely believable suggestion that all along he had known what would happen.

What followed?

England never recovered from that ball not in that innings, not in that match, not till the Ashes was lost beyond recovery.

Warne picked up eight in the match, the best in England by an Australian leg-spinner since Bill O Reilly had captured 10 at Leeds in 1938. And as England struggled to hold on for a draw, Warne was in the act again, catching Andy Caddick brilliantly at backward square-leg off Merv Hughes to end a defiant ninth wicket partnership. Australia won with just less than 10 overs to spare.

The shadow of the ball that bowled Gatting loomed ominously over England whenever they played Warne in that series and remained a sinister presence for the next decade and a half. The 23-year-old captured 34 in the series, and picked up 195 in 36 Tests at 23.25 against the old Ashes rivals by the time he called it a day.

It was just not an Ashes landmark. That delivery later dubbed the “Ball of the Century” brought spin back into cricket in a big, big way around the world.

Brief scores:

Australia 289 (Mark Taylor 124, Michael Slater 58; Peter Such 6 for 67) and 432 for 5 dec (David Boon 93, Mark Waugh 64, Steve Waugh 78*, Ian Healy 102*) beat England 210 (Graham Gooch 65; Merv Hughes 4 for 59, Shane Warne 4 for 51) and 332 (Graham Gooch 133, Chris Lewis 43; Merv Hughes 4 for 92, Shane Warne 4 for 86) by 179 runs.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)