The cricket world called him a magician. He could do anything with the cricket ball. But the only spin he couldn’t control was the spin of life. A man of incredible talent, Shane Warne was born blessed. He could do unimaginable things with the ball on the field. Win games and stun opponents. Bowl the Ball of the Century, and win Australia many a match single-handedly. And 30 years ago today, he bowled one of the those balls that will forever be talked about in the annals of world cricket.
You can still decode the delivery frame by frame. Warne comes with his two-step action to the crease and gives the ball a real rip. Mike Gatting, who sees the ball pitch on leg stump, gets ready to play it and then sees magic unfold. The ball keeps spinning and all Gatting can do is watch in awe. Even as it cannons into the stumps, Gatting is more of a stunned spectator than anything else. And while walking back, all he could do was shake his head in disbelief.
I did ask Gatting about this delivery once when I met him at Lord’s. And he was still in awe. “At least I am in the history books!” he had said jokingly. The impact of that one ball cannot be overstated either. From cruising at 80-1 to 210 all out as Warne took out Graham Gooch and Robin Smith as well on his way to figures of 4-51. He would finish the series with 33 wickets, and Australia would win 4-1. Over the next decade and a half, the sight of Warne at the top of his mark was enough to induce panic in many an English batter. Even lost causes like Adelaide in 2006 were transformed by Warne’s aura.
A genius, Warne could change matches from any situation. The 1996 and 1999 World Cups were prime examples. Just as the South Africans looked in control in the 1999 World Cup semi-final, Warne stepped up with his magic to change things completely. He bowled the spell of a lifetime to get Australia to the final. Even when he was past his prime and had retired from international cricket, he could do magic with the ball. The IPL was witness to his wizardry when he won Rajasthan Royals the title in the inaugural year in 2008.
In fact, he was tempted to play the IPL when Manoj Badale, the Rajasthan co-owner, managed to touch a real raw nerve, captaincy. Only when Badale told Warne that the IPL would be a platform for him to show the world that he was the best captain never to lead Australia was he convinced about coming to India to lead the Royals. His leadership philosophy, aggressive and inspirational, added to the Warne aura. The way he discovered Ravindra Jadeja and encouraged him to become a better player is exactly how captains should nurture youngsters and get the best out of them.
With Warne, you had two things – unparalleled self-belief and the zeal to never be second-best. He just knew how to win. He knew how to get out of tough situations and get the best out of his boys. He knew how to bowl the best in impossible situations and up his game when it mattered the most. Even in the commentary box, he was a whiff of fresh air. A man with a tremendous sense of humour, Warne could light up a conclave or an informal discussion in a manner few could ever imagine. That’s why he was a genius and one who can never be rivalled.
When we celebrate him today, we must remember that for all the talent, he also worked the hardest, something profoundly evident from his autobiography. On the cricket field, Warne never resorted to a shortcut. From conceding 200 runs in his first Test against India to picking up 700 wickets in his career, he had seen it all. And in the process, had established himself as one of the biggest match-winners the sport has ever seen.
Today, while we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Ball of the Century, suffice to say Warne went too soon. He may be no more, but his deeds on the 22 yards will forever remain. And to think it was the first ball of his Ashes career!