Master of illusion: Ball of the Century perfectly captured Shane Warne’s art and his legend

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Unlike some athletes, Warne had no issues with fame. He enjoyed its privileges, revelled in its dark interiors, and only disliked that it left a tiny window open for the media to squeeze through and gape at him.

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Shared News: March 5, 2022 6:56:44 am

Shane Warne dispensed with reality, made it whatever he wished it to be, and had bewitched batsmen sway to his machinations inside his world. He made them do what he wanted them to do. Hypnotised, they followed the pied piper. It was Warney’s world of illusions and no batsman, barring Sachin Tendulkar, has really glimpsed its true nature – for how does one play an illusion? You get played. They had no choice, really. That was his genius.

Good spinners try to open their trickery under the gaze of the batsman rather than reveal its perfection from the moment of release. Their deliveries are constructed for what a batsman might do, tailored to probe the anticipated response, and create a dent in their reality. Not Warne. He created the response he sought from the batsman. He lived rent-free in their head, long before he began that intoxicating walk towards them with ball in hand.

The Ball of the Century was no different, and it perfectly captured him, his art, and the hallucinatory effect on the batsman. The only difference was that he hadn’t yet begun his tenancy in batsmen’s heads and cricket-lovers’ hearts; this would kickstart that addiction. To us, it was addictive, to the batsmen it was destructive.

The story goes that it all started on the plane to England. A young Shane Warne quizzes the great Aussie larrikin Merv Hughes about the Ashes. “One, there are rest days, two, English are rubbish, and three, we are sponsored by XXXX beer.” “So, that’s all good, then,” thinks Warne.

A tour game against Warwickshire, Graeme Hick with the bat, Warne with the ball and Allan Border, the captain, sidled across. “Just bowl regular leg-breaks. He is bound to play the Tests. Let’s not give away anything.” Hick creams a hundred and Warne is left a touch frustrated, but appreciates the mind games of his skipper. In years to come, he would outdo Border in the mental calisthenics.

The moment arrives, finally. Warne with the ball, Border in his ear setting the field, and the rotund ageing Mike Gatting, still pretty good against spin, shadow-practising a straight drive.

Warne begins to walk in. If Abdul Qadir’s run-in was magical with whirring arms that would perhaps even make anti-orientalist scholar Edward Said hark to the stereotypes of the East, Warne’s walk was sparsely beautiful. No trickery, no stealth, no concealment, as if he was saying, ‘here is what I am going to do, you can have a good look at me. I don’t care’. Over the years, it began to seem like a walk in the anticipation of a triumph. Not that day, though, as Gatting tapped his bat and peered across, little knowing that he was going to be part of history. Warne’s.

One for the ages

“I was a bit nervous,” Warne once said about his pre-ball thoughts that day. One can see it in the replays. Face muscles tightened, a look here and there, a kind of look that was seldom seen since. There was to be incomprehension once on a magical Sharjah Tendulkar night, but this was different. And Border too sensed it. “It was the Ashes. England. It was bound to be, I could see it. I had seen worse in others,” he would say later.

“As soon as I released that ball, I felt really good. I didn’t know what it was going to do but I felt good.” It’s a physical sensation almost at the tip of the fingers which rapidly escalates into something more emotive, in the head and heart.

The batsman is the last to know. Gatting certainly went about as if he hadn’t seen any devil. The front leg moved out a touch – “LBW taken care off,” he would say – and shaped to pat it back. The lights went out, in his head then.

The ball had swerved outside leg stump, spat from the soil, and shot right across his bat and ample girth to gate-crash his off stump. Wicketkeeper Ian Healy jumps, Mark Taylor jumps, Warne has already landed and rushing ahead, screams everywhere and Gatting has this dazed look as he stood there, seemingly frozen, which when watched live and for years later, was interpreted as a haunted hallucinatory effect on batsmen after ingesting the Warne pill. Apparently, Gatting stood there because he thought it had missed everything. “I thought Healy had removed the bails and was running past me from the leg side to retrieve the ball. I heard no sound.” The crack of doom could be heard everywhere around the cricketing world.

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Shane Warne recently auctioned his Baggy Green for bushfire relief efforts. (FILE)

Mobbed by his teammates, the blondie gaped at the big screen, which would make one of its early appearances on a cricket field. Warne gazes and is astonished at his own reflection of his deed. “Now, I felt really good!” Over the years, his art and personality allowed him to individuate himself, and create a crowd of others.

No secrets

Unlike some athletes, Warne had no issues with fame. He enjoyed its privileges, revelled in its dark interiors, and only disliked that it left a tiny window open for the media to squeeze through and gape at him. Sometimes, it was him who left that window open. Once, in England, he was within a handshake away, sharing a smoke, and talking about an incident earlier in the afternoon. After a long night out, he had come to the ground way before the game, in which he was commentating, and chose to sleep away the night’s stains. Unfortunately, among all the empty rooms that opened out to that corridor, he had chosen the press box to crash. There he was, the greatest leg- spinner the world has ever seen, sprawled on the floor, mouth agape, and oblivious to the camera flashes of the media who had begun to file in for work. So, he asked, the smoke swirling away from his lips, “the pictures are all over, you know. You were there? Why would they take those pics?!” And as the silliness of the rhetorical query revealed itself to him, he laughed.

Rajasthan Royals captain Shane Warne with British actress Liz Hurley after their win over Kochi Tuskers Kerala in the IPL-4 cricket match in Jaipur on Sunday. (PTI)

That evening after bowling what has come to be known as the Gatting ball, he shared a beer with his victim and queried, “What happened?” I missed the ball, came the most factual reply of our times. “It didn’t spin all that much mate, next time do better,” Warne would tell him. When another Australian leg- spinner Arthur Mailey bowled the great, almost mythical, Australian batsman Victor Trumper in a domestic game once with a googly, he had said that he felt like a boy who killed a dove. No one can accuse Warne of that sentiment; he devoured the batsmen, and not just danced around their bodies after the act but announced it prior.

From that Gatting day on, the minimalist walk-in with the ball seemingly slowed down time and dramatically increased the anticipation of magic. To watch Warne simultaneously explore and explode the art of leg-spin was one of the greatest pleasures of this sport.