Turn so sharp it could cut through your psyche
England v Australia, Edgbaston, 2005
In early May 2005, 12 months on from a debut so excellent it prompted England's captain Nasser Hussain to retire and make way, at the end of a first year so bountiful it yielded five centuries and over 1200 runs in 12 Tests, Andrew Strauss of Middlesex faced Hampshire's Shane Warne at the Rose Bowl in Southampton. It did not go so well for Strauss.
Warne bowled him from out of the rough, and, naturally, had no hesitation in talking about it. "That was the first time I've ever bowled against him and I liked what I saw - the way he walked across to let balls go, and when he tried to reverse-sweep, I thought it was a sign that he wasn't sure what to do."
Duncan Fletcher, England's coach, was not so convinced about Strauss' technique either. "He had been trying to play with the spin, but by using his body rather than his hands, and so was finding himself outside the line of the ball," Fletcher wrote in Behind the Shades. As that summer's Ashes drew nearer, Strauss himself remained confident of his method. The coach's advice to stay inside the line, he remembered in Driving Ambition, felt "nothing more than Duncan trying to keep me on my toes".
After facing Warne in the first Test at Lord's, however, he realised there might be something to it. He spent the time between Tests, thus, sweating it out against a bowling machine called Merlyn, meant to have the magical ability to imitate Warne.
The human Warne seemed to be under no duress. His team had won the first Test handsomely, he had himself picked up six wickets. On match eve he was asked about the Gatting ball of 1993. "I'd give up sex to bowl a few more of those balls this summer, that's for sure," he quipped.
On the extraordinary first day at Edgbaston, as England racked up 400 at above five runs an over, Strauss was the first to fall: bowled Warne from round the wicket. The ball pitched in what, in the first session of the match, was already an incipient rough, turned with speed and snuck through a cut shot.
So frantic was the Test match that by the second evening Warne had another chance to bowl at Strauss. It was likely the final over of the day and England were 124 ahead. The ball was six overs old, hard and bright with the shine of a supermarket apple. Warne's first delivery, round the wicket again, was flattish, but it turned big and fast, sending the wicketkeeper down leg to collect it. At that Warne literally licked his lips. He commenced on some vintage Warnemongering. He chatted with his captain and with the fielders, he waved his arms about, adjusted them, doubled the close-in catchers from two to four, making sure all the while the batsman was listening, a little too aware.
"When you first come on to bowl you've got to create something that isn't there," he once said. "So there's that chaos and the batsman's mind is suddenly racing at a million miles an hour."
"I always felt that he was trying to look into my psyche in the middle," is how Strauss described it.
Strauss' front foot stays rooted way outside the off stump, a testament to the extravagance of the delivery
Tom Shaw / © Getty Images
Strauss' front foot stays rooted way outside the off stump, a testament to the extravagance of the delivery Tom Shaw / © Getty Images
You could feel the rising anticipation on the field, and in the stadium, which was no stranger to Warne's exploits, and in the commentary box - "I think Shane Warne quite fancies his chances," remarks Michael Atherton - and in all those to whom the words and pictures were going out on television. At last Shane Warne was ready to bowl his next ball.
He rips the break so hard you can almost hear seam scything through air (you can definitely hear the grunt). He gives it a bit more air than the previous one and yet, with so much action on it, it is a good 4mph quicker. But it is wide of off stump, so far wide that Strauss responds like a man perplexed to have been asked to deal with it. Should he at all, at this late hour, with all these fielders gathered around him? Maybe Warne has indeed looked into his psyche, seeded chaos, for when Strauss does shuffle towards the ball, he goes too far across, as his coach has warned him against doing, and without his bat ever coming down to play it. Nor does he get his foot close enough to the pitch to pad it away. Each of his movements indicates he has reasonable expectations from the delivery. Despite all his preparations, despite Fletcher and Merlyn, despite all he has seen and heard of the mighty, ghastly Shane Warne, he has faith in humanity, he seems to not believe that any ball's designs could be this malign.
As the ball lands, and with a puff of dust intimates its intentions, he belatedly scurries his front foot further along to block it: along to where he thinks it might go, that is. But the vicious little thing spins square, sweeping past his ridiculous leg, and with the zip of a pickpocket rushes into the metaphoric alley that is the exposed middle stump.
Afterwards, Channel 4's analysis would measure the landing spot as nine feet out from the popping crease - a full-length delivery - and in the short span between pitching and the batsman it turned two feet, three feet by the time it hit the wicket.
"If he had played the ball as we had discussed and practised," Fletcher would write in his problem-solving manner, "he would have been fine." The freeze frame just after ball hits stumps is more vivid: the keeper's arms are aloft as he looks down at the evidence, slip's off his feet, legs splayed in the air, Warne has his left arm up in success, and Strauss has completed his stride towards point like a Beatle at a zebra crossing.
The Strauss ball, like the Chanderpaul ball of 1996, never acquired the status of the Gatting ball. The Gatting ball was Warne's very first Ashes delivery, therefore totemic. It had an architectural perfection. As Ian Healy put it: "It just swung enough to bring Gatt towards it just enough. His front foot didn't move out just enough; his bat was just a bit slow; it spun just enough to hit just the top of the off stump."
The Strauss ball had a Gaudiesque excess. It was calculated but wild, its extravagance challenged the imagination. A coach might pin up a diagram of the Gatting ball and ask his pupils to aim for this platonic ideal of the legbreak. Nobody in their right minds would pin up the Strauss diagram. There are unreasonable expectations, then there are impossible ones.
Rahul Bhattacharya is the author of the cricket tour book Pundits from Pakistan and the novel The Sly Company of People Who Care
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