Before the ‘Ball of the Century’, Shane Warne had a less successful first-class bow on English soil.
Shane Warne’s Ashes introduction was one of the most dramatic in history, with his ‘Ball of the Century’ confirming him as a player to be feared for years to come. But it was all the more remarkable for what came before it. Warne’s Test record was modest, and England’s first glimpse of the player who would torment them for more than a decade bore little to fear, with Graeme Hick smashing him around the ground for Worcestershire in a tour game.
There was little premonition of the imminent disaster that England were headed into in the 1993 Ashes, when Warne sent down more deliveries than any other bowler in a series before or since, an ever-present part of a thumping Australian victory.
Hick’s Ashes entrance, by contrast, was hotly anticipated. He had built up a reputation as one of the most fearsome batsmen in the country while playing out a lengthy qualification period, with feats including a quadruple century in the County Championship. While his career would end with him considered as one of the great unfulfilled talent, at this point England still had high hopes, and his brutalising of Australia’s young leg-spinner fuelled the hype.
Australia’s highly touted leg-spinner flew under the radar ahead of the series, although his returns in Test cricket up until that point were decent: 31 wickets in 11 Tests at 30.80, including a best of 7-52 against the Windies in Melbourne.
But England could not be blamed for taking him lightly, especially after what unfolded in the tour game against Worcestershire. Hick had bashed India around the Wankhede in February and took a liking to the blonde, rookie spinner from Australia.
Worcestershire had been asked to follow on after being skittled for 90 in the first innings, but Hick smashed his way to 187 in the second, butchering Warne in the process, including a streak of four sixes in 10 balls. Hick ended up with 187 off 220 balls, with 24 fours and eight sixes. Warne, meanwhile, had unflattering figures of 1-122 in 23 overs, conceding more than five an over.
What England didn’t know, however, was that Australia had bluffed them into believing that Warne was raw and unthreatening. Australia knew they had “someone special” in Warne, as Allan Border put it to Fox Sports years later, and they were content to let England think he was just another spinner.
“We didn’t want to show England anything, that we had this kid up our who we suspected could be the real deal,” Border said. “I was really excited about what I was seeing and what he potentially could bring to the table so I was keen to keep him under wraps.
“He (Hick) was a very good player of spin and Warnie got a bit frustrated, he was getting belted out of the ground thinking ‘stuff this, I’m getting towelled up here’. I said ‘it doesn’t matter, this is just about you getting some rhythm. Him thinking you can’t bowl works in our favour, show him nothing.’”
Unlike these days, there was a significant pre-series build-up, with Australia playing also playingfirst-class tour games against Worcestershire, Somerset and Sussex ahead of the ODI series that preceded the Tests and then against Surrey and Leicestershire after the ODIs. Warne played three further tour games before the first Test, claiming 18 wickets, but England got no glimpse of him in the ODI series, where again Australia carefully held him back.
Then, of course, at Old Trafford he would stroll in and clean up Mike Gatting with a leg break that turned as prodigiously as the heads in the England dressing room as they followed, wide-eyed, the trajectory the ball took to hit the stumps in disbelief.
The ‘Ball of the Century’ wasn’t by design as Warne himself says – “I never did it again. It just shows you it really was a fluke, and it was meant to be” – but the fact that England were taken aback by the leg-spinner no one was talking about was deliberate, a ploy envisaged to perfection by Border who had immense faith in the rookie leg-spinner. Warne’s first act of deception had already proved successful. Many more were to follow.
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