THERE are moments in history when you can remember exactly what you were doing when something truly mind-blowing occurs. For my mother’s generation, it was the assassination of American president John F Kennedy on November 22, 1963. For others, it might have been the planes striking the twin towers in New York on September 11, 2001, during 9/11.
Sport too has its own unbelievable moments and for most cricket lovers, especially those in England and Australia, that special day came on June 4, 1993. It was certainly a moment I won’t forget as I was sitting a couple of hundred meters away in the press box at Old Trafford when Shane Warne bowled what became known as ‘The ball of the century’ to England’s Mike Gatting.
More than 27 years later I am still not sure how I ended up there on that day but I am so glad I can say, ‘I was there’. I have always been a cricket tragic, having started playing the game at an early age. The history of cricket had always fascinated me, and the Ashes was a true love growing up. When the chance of going to a Test match between the two old enemies arose, it was something that could not be ignored.
I was a mature student at the University of Central Lancashire on a journalism course. Part of our course was to put together a newspaper (of sorts) and myself and a mate were chosen to run the sports department. We wanted to make our section stand out, so we explored the possibility of press passes for the Test at Old Trafford, about a 30-minute train ride from Preston where the university was based. With not much confidence we put together an application for tickets to what was then the Test and County Cricket Board (now the ECB). But to our huge surprise the tickets were sent out and we set off for Manchester for the second day of the first Test of a six-match Ashes series.
England skipper Graham Gooch had put Australia in on the first day and thanks to a hundred from Mark Taylor, Allan Border’s men scored 289 in their first innings. That total looked to be below par on an Old Trafford pitch which typically favoured the batsmen. However, Manchester wickets also traditionally were good for spinners and with England in good shape at 1-77 when Mike Gatting strode to the crease, Border decided to throw the ball to Warne.
Few people, me included, knew much about this chubby leg spinner from Victoria with the bleached blond hair. He had played in 11 Test matches prior to his first appearance in a five-day game in England.
He had taken 7-52 against the West Indies and starred against New Zealand, where Kiwi batting star Martin Crowe sung his praises. But he had been clubbed around by English batsman in a tour game against Worcester in the build-up to the Test match, so nobody, even Warne himself, was not expecting what came next.
The English press, of which I was (laughingly) part of for that one special day, had been typically scathing of the new kid from Down Under and he was bowling to England’s best player of spin in Gatting. Warne remembers Border just said run up and bowl and thought he would just try to put in his biggest-spinning leg breaker and see what happened.
There was a hush in the press box as if they all knew that something extraordinary was about to happen; and they were not far wrong. Warne trundled in and the ball pitched a foot or so outside leg stump gripped and turned to clip the top of off stump.
The press box went from a hushed expectancy to a cacophony of sound as journalists sought the words to describe what they had just witnessed. Seasoned hacks were on the phone to their editors and I swear I heard something I had never heard before or since; ‘hold the front page’. And another exclaimed ‘we have just seen the ball of the century’. This fledgling journalist was just dumbstruck by it all. This was sport delivering the perfect storm and I was loving every minute of it.
I remember hearing the doyen of cricket commentary Richie Benaud describe the moment as it was replayed time after time. “He’s done it,” Benaud, in his own laconic style, said.
“He’s started off with the most beautiful delivery. Gatting doesn’t know what happened to it – still doesn’t.”
Big screens at sporting venues had only recently been introduced, so Gatting and the rest of us had plenty of chances to see what had happened. No one at Old Trafford that day knew what was coming but they all went home with name Shane Warne rattling around in their heads. Warne went on to take eight wickets on his Ashes debut in England to take man-of-the-match honours.
The ball of the century marked the beginning of Warne’s dominance over the world’s batsmen for the next decade and beyond. As an Englishman he was always a thorn in our side but as a cricket fan he was a joy to watch. I am glad I can say that I was there when Warne stunned us all.
It is a moment that will last in my memory forever.