No facet of the game holds more undeniable aesthetic pleasure than watching the leg-spinner plying his trade – and the First Test was dominated by the wrist-spin of 23-year old Shane Warne, who sent shockwaves through the entire series with his first delivery in England-Australia tests. That ball, known as “The Ball”, or “Warne’s Wonder Ball” or “The Ball of the Century” in the British papers, threw a battle-hardened press box into consternation. Through the binoculars I watched as it pitched a good foot-and-a-half outside Mike Gatting’s leg stump and seemed to disappear from sight. There was an almighty roar. The Australian players were jumping up and down while Gatting stood and stared at his broken wicket, as though he couldn’t believe what had happened. What had happened? It took the television replay to reveal that the ball, instead of coming back tamely onto Gatting’s pads, had spun viciously at a 45 degree angle, evaded his copy-book defensive shot, and struck the off-bail. Nobody among the assembled gentlemen of the press had ever seen anything like it. Just to prove it was no fluke, with the first delivery of his second over, Warne sent another big leg-break across Robin Smith’s bows, resulting in a catch to slip.
Even before then, while Gooch and Atherton were posting an unbeaten 50 partnership, the British journalists were speculating on the size of Australia’s first innings lead. Naively, I thought Australia had thrown away their first innings with a lot of loose shots, and were in danger of having their score of 289 overhauled. But the in-built pessimism of the old hands was proved correct. The English batsmen played Warne with caution verging on superstition, while Merv Hughes frightened the life out of them from the other end, with good bowling and bad language.
I had convinced myself that the Australians were batting with such excruciating slowness on the first day, because they had decided the main thing was not to lose wickets and were saving their aggression for day two. This idea was vanquished when Border came in at 3/221 and hoiked his first delivery into the outfield – pursuing a ‘psychological advantage’ in Arnold Schwarzenneger-style. Taylor clobbered two sixes off the spinners, then gave Such a limp return catch. Such bowled Steve Waugh ‘through the gate’ and a great start had been reduced to a shambles. The British journalists were excited about Peter Such’s six wickets on debut, but their overall fatalism was unassailable, as they speculated on what a mess England would make of their first innings.
True to form, the English team did their best to emulate and surpass Australia’s batting feats. After a good opening partnership of 71, between a masterful Gooch and a scratchy Atherton, they managed to lose wickets with comfortable regularity, to be 8/202 at stumps. The day, and the innings, had never recovered from The Ball sent down by Shane Warne, who got all the media attention, even though Merv Hughes proved every bit as effective. Hughes was the only fast bowler in the game who got any life out of the wicket, and there was an air of expectancy every time he approached the crease. He toiled furiously, bowling bumpers, balls which lifted into the batsman’s rib cage, the slow wrong ‘un, and even the odd good-length delivery.
Although he isn’t as fast as McDermott or even Caddick, Hughes worried every batsman. The BBC commentators tried to isolate his magic ingredient and came up with the word: “hostility”. This is generally considered a good thing, although it has an uncouth side which demands learned disapproval: Merv’s tendency to shout abuse at any batsman who has just played a false shot. When he gets someone out, he has an even more alarming habit of racing up to them and screaming “jolly bad luck” – or words to that effect – into their face. Graeme Hick, whose damp test career still refuses to ignite, was on the receiving end twice in this match. Judging by the ineffectual way he played the fast rising ball, he may be due to hear a lot more of Merv’s condolences.
The next morning the England innings concluded for 210, leaving Australia 79 runs in the lead. The rest of the day was a depressing experience for the Englishmen, as David Boon ground their attack into the dust, to finish with 85 not out, while Mark Waugh made an attractive 64. When Border joined Boon, after Waugh’s dismissal, he batted with composure, and Australia finished the day on 3/230, some 309 runs ahead.
The morning papers predicted disaster for England, but with the start of play all sanity disppeared, as Captain Grumpy turned, once more, into Mr Hyde, swinging his bat like a psychopath wielding an axe. After a couple of narrow escapes he skied a ball from Caddick, providing the bowler with an easy catch. Surprisngly, the rock-solid Boon soon followed, playing too early at a ball from Defreitas and presenting Mike Gatting with a 36th birthday present in the covers. That was England’s last moment of happiness. It had initially seemed as though there was more life in the pitch this morning, but Steve Waugh and Ian Healy settled in to compile an unbeaten partnership of 180 – a new 6th wicket record for an Australian team in England. In the process, Healy became only the third Australian wicket-keeper to score a test century, after Rod Marsh and Wayne Phillips.
Border held back the declaration until Australia had a lead of 511 – which left England with the task of scoring a hundred more than the highest ever winning total made in a fourth innings. It was merely a question of survival, although – from the way Gooch played that afternoon, obviously relishing the absence of his old nemesis Terry Alderman – it seemed as though he was out to make history. In fact he did go on to make history with this innings, though in a slightly less honorable way.
The first England wicket made 73, of which Atherton made only 25, before falling to a slips catch off Shane Warne. Mike Gatting came in, bristling with aggression after his first innings debacle against The Ball, and he and Gooch continued the onslaught on a wayward Australian attack. In 52 minutes, they added 60, with the captain reaching 81 by the close of play. But Merv Hughes had a final treat in store for Gatting’s birthday. In his second last over of the day, Hughes bounced a delivery up into Gatting’s chest. It struck the bat and looped up in the air, just short of a scrambling, diving Border. Predictably, the next delivery was also a bumper, and Gatting pulled it through square leg for four. Undaunted, Merv bowled another bumper which Gatting again pulled away to the boundary.
In the final over of the day, Gooch took a single from Hughes’s 5th delivery, leaving Gatting on strike for the last ball of the day. Once more the bumper? By any assessment of Merv’s temperament, Gatting must have been expecting it. Not for the first time, Hughes proved he is not as thick as he looks, by hurling down a fast yorker which ricocheted off Gatting’s pads and scattered his stumps. For the second time in the match, Gatting had found a spectacular, show-stopping way of getting out, and Merv Hughes had shown that there is a great deal of intelligence in all that overt ‘hostility’.
England had survived the first session of the final day for the loss of only one wicket, and Gooch was still there on 133 out of a total of 223, when Hughes pulled out another piece of ‘hostility’. The England captain played a sharply-rising delivery down into the pitch only to see it loop up and hovering menacingly over his stumps. Quick as a flash he whipped his right hand off the bat and gave the ball a furtive cuff. This induced a thunderous appeal from the Australian fieldsmen. Gooch’s expression looked even more furtive than his twitching glove – he knew what he had done. Since this kind of thing was once considered unlucky rather than unfair, Umpire Dickie Bird, asked Alan Border if he wanted to with draw the appeal. Stifling his laughter Border answered in the negative, and Gooch was on his way – the only Englishman ever to be given out “handled the ball”, and only the fifth in the history of test cricket. He should feel relieved that England is nominally a Christian country, since Islamic law might have demanded the loss of the right hand for such an offence. The next morning’s headlines read: “Gooch hands victory to Australians”.
With the end of Gooch’s mighty innings came the end of England’s effective resistance. Merv Hughes had Hick caught behind, after peppering him with short balls which he had barely managed to keep away from the fieldsmen. Ashen, poker-faced Alec Stewart snicked a ball from Warne to the keeper. Just before tea – Defreitas, for the second time in the match, managed to walk in front of one of the few straight balls which Brendon Julian bowled.
England’s tail held out until 35 minutes from the end, thanks largely to Alan Border, who persisted with an ineffectual Craig McDermott for an hour after tea. Chris Lewis, who had a wretched game with the ball, scored 43 runs while the fieldsmen clustered near the bat, before falling to a perfect leg-break from Warne. Andrew Caddick set out to take the quick bowlers and let Peter Such take Warne – a plan which prospered for a dozen overs, until Merv Hughes decided to go round the wicket and make it harder for Caddick to play the rising ball. Almost immediately Caddick played a short-pitched delivery off his hip and was caught by Shane Warne diving full-stretch, juggling the ball on his fingertips. In Hughes’s next over, Such, writhing like a cobra, popped up a short ball and was caught by a diving Border. In that ball, Border must have thought he could see the Ashes, so fiercely did he hold on to it.
The Sydney Review, June 1993