Two years before the ‘Ball of the Century’, a young Shane Warne had to negotiate the tough crowds and tricky conditions of the Lancashire League. Scott Oliver narrates the delightful tale of how he turned around a tough start.
On June 4, 1993, not long before tea on the second day of the Ashes curtain-raiser at Old Trafford, the cricketing world’s collective jaw was lowered when a young blonde leg-spinner from Melbourne’s first delivery in Ashes cricket fizzed, curved and then ripped along such an improbable flight path that England’s best player of spin, Mike Gatting, had to seek confirmation from the umpire that the ball that he’d seen (or not seen) rag past the outside edge of his bat, had in fact hit the stumps. It was soon anointed the ‘Ball of the Century’, and much like the film of the Twin Towers collapsing on 9/11 or JFK’s assassination, no-one who saw it live will forget where they were when it happened. Cricket would never be the same again.
Just two short years earlier, however, and only 30 miles up the road, the same SK Warne was being booed from the field after his home debut for Accrington in the Lancashire League. “Send ‘im back!” bellowed one or two members. “Go ‘ome, pro” foghorned a few more. Tough crowd! (But then, previous pros had included Wes Hall, Eddie Barlow and Bobby Simpson, while Graeme ‘Foxy’ Fowler and David ‘Bumble’ Lloyd were homegrown stars.)
Warne had just had his off stump sent cartwheeling, first ball, by Ramsbottom’s Steve ‘Dasher’ Dearden (father of Leicestershire’s Harry), this after an earlier spell of 16-1-82-2 during which Jack Simpson (father of Middlesex’s Jonny) had swept him to distraction. “The very first ball he bowled at me pitched outside leg stump,” Simpson recalls, “and I was looking to help it on its way, but I absolutely nailed it and it went for four. He came down the wicket, saying: ‘What’s your f****** game, sweeping leg-spin?’ I said: ‘If you keep bowling there, I’ll keep sweeping you’.”
The previous week, on debut away at Burnley, where an eight-year-old Jimmy Anderson was helping operate the scoreboard, Warne had recorded tidy figures of 15-3-34-2 but had then been run out for two, which wasn’t all that well received by the club’s hierarchy. “The committee called me”, recalls Warne in his recent autobiography, No Spin, “and said, ‘Listen, the pro never gets run out. You have to learn to turn your back on the bloke and burn him’. I argued back, saying the run out was just one of those things and that I wasn’t going to be burning anyone. ‘No way’, they said, ‘the pro doesn’t get run out’. End of story.”
Even for someone as famously straight-shooting as Warne, it was all a bit of a culture shock and certainly far removed from his first experience of English club cricket, two years earlier, when, with his heart still belonging to Australian Rules football, he had played for the now defunct Imperial CC in Bristol, tagging along with a friend, Ricky Gough, and sleeping in the pavilion. “I was 19 years old and began to hang out with a bunch of great guys who loved a beer and taught me how to drink a pint”, writes Warne. “We’re talking truckloads of them. I was 79 kilograms on the scales when I left Oz and I came back 99 kilos. I learned to drink, play cricket and, well, a few other things about life too! It was competitive enough for me to have to pull a finger out or be the Aussie pro who made a goose of himself.”
I was young & I think I had been in the sun…. Hahahaahah pic.twitter.com/SuvxPOhQ
— Shane Warne (@ShaneWarne) September 27, 2012
He had stayed home for the following southern hemisphere winter, and only learned of the Accrington offer when his career-long bowling mentor Terry Jenner introduced him to the agent and ex-Test player Neil Hawke, a former pro at both Nelson and East Lancashire. Hawke explained that Accrington’s first choice, Shaun Young, the Tasmanian all-rounder, had sustained a serious shoulder injury and they needed a last-minute replacement, so Warne took the plunge.
“I kind of wanted to go back to Bristol,” he writes, “but I was on a fiver a week there for painting the fences. At Accrington I was offered between £1,500 and £2,000 – plus car, airfare and accommodation. I thought, ‘Wow, I’ve got to do this’. So I used to drive miles up and down the motorway to get on the piss with the boys in Bristol through the night and then, too often, arrive back at Accy the next morning worse for wear.”
This home-from-homesickness and long-distance carousing may have explained Warne’s early struggles, for after the Burnley and Ramsbottom losses he sent down 11-0-40-0 in defeat to East Lancs, whose pro, Warne’s fellow Victorian and soon to be Australia teammate, Paul Reiffel, struck an unbeaten 70 while Phil Mooney castled him for 2 to leave his batting average sitting at 1.33, while his bowling average was a portly 39.
Even so, skipper Andy Barker, half-brother of the former Warwickshire swing bowler Keith Barker, is adamant that Warne’s extra-curricular behaviour was nothing particularly untoward and only once impinged upon his cricket, when he turned up late for the start of a game, had to be admonished and never repeated the infraction. Indeed, aside from lauding his competitiveness and generosity, his Accrington teammates attest to his enthusiasm and diligence at training, where he introduced professional drills and the then-novelty of stretching. He could invariably be found bowling for hours on end in the nets, even on non-training days with a group of Aussie professionals located in the North West.
He may not have been entirely the model pro in other areas of his life, however, with Barker recalling how “he was a lot chubbier then. He was carrying a bit of timber. He used to live off McDonald’s. And his terrace house wasn’t the cleanest or tidiest place you’ve ever seen. I wouldn’t have fancied a cup of tea there. It was like Men Behaving Badly.”
With my mum the day I got picked in the Australian cricket team, Dec 1991 !!!!!! Hahaha Love you Harry ( Nickname ) pic.twitter.com/atTPgxvUM1
— Shane Warne (@ShaneWarne) May 11, 2013
Warne’s indifferent start to the season moved Barker to take morale-boosting action: “I decided to take him out to a local nightspot, Martholme Grange. Strippers and chicken in a basket. He was a bit down. You could see it in his face. He was only 21 years old, trying to be a professional in a team with a lot of guys who were older than him, which isn’t easy, whoever you are. We were in transition – we’d lost five or six players, and ‘Bumble’ had retired – but because we’d always been there challenging for the league there was a lot of pressure on him from the members. It was the first time we’d seen him relaxed. We all had a few drinks and said: our season starts now.”
Things began to improve the very next weekend – personally, at least, as Warne returned 15-3-38-4 against another Victorian, Colin Miller’s Rawtenstall and scored 34 (he was stumped, charging at Keith Roscoe). But it was the following day that finally got his season jumping. The Worsley Cup first-round match against Ramsbottom has entered Lancashire League folklore as one of the ‘Matches of a Lifetime’, with Accrington defending a middling score of 166 and the opposition having reached 107-2 in reply, with 18 overs left, when the game was interrupted by rain and had to be finished off on the Monday evening. Inspired by Warne’s 19-7-46-5 – which included a final over that began with 10 to defend and went: leg-bye, two missed stumpings, slogged six, stumping, dot – Accrington got home by 2 runs.
However, it would be a further month before they won their first game in the league, the return fixture against East Lancs, who would finish the season in second place. Warne picked up 4-45, another step in placating his detractors among the membership, another step in his understanding of the culture, as he explains in No Spin. “I hadn’t realised how important this Lancashire League cricket was – it was more important than Test cricket in their world. The supporters got there really early and I remember thinking, ‘Whoa, look at this lot!’ In Bristol a few blokes came along for a beer but in Accy there were loads of people setting up their barbecues and stuff – there were people everywhere… The rules were simple: if you didn’t perform they bagged you! Or worse, they didn’t even bother to talk to you.”`
Despite the uptick in performance, Warne would have to wait until after the summer equinox for his first league ‘Michelle’ five-for (and the fabled ‘collection hat’, which Warne habitually put back behind the bar for team drinks), taking 6-63 at Rishton, whose own Australian leg-spinning pro, Peter Sleep, nevertheless edged the head-to-head (taking 6-24 and scoring 60) as he would in the return fixture, with 100 not out and 4-32 to Warne’s 4-58. Sleep wouldn’t be the only gnarled old pro of the leagues to school the young blonde tyro on these alien northern pitches, either, with Bacup’s West Indian all-rounder Roger Harper also having the better of things.
It had taken Warne a while to get to grips with conditions – on the field, at least, for Shane was no stranger to the town’s main nightspot, Lar-de-dars, reputed to be the country’s first million-pound nightclub (tipple: daiquiri and lemonade) – but Barker never lost faith and knew, beyond the stats, that he had a gem on his hand. The problem, he says, was that diabolical close-catching and even worse wicketkeeping failed to support Warne’s emergent genius.
“We dropped about 30 catches off him, if not more, and the amount of missed stumpings was unbelievable. It was also The Season of Byes and I ended up virtually putting a longstop in. We even used three keepers in one game! We had one of the top keepers in the league at the time, Billy Rawstron, and Shane was making him look as though he’d never kept before. We tried a code for when he bowled his variations. He used to scratch his backside, tie his shoelace, all sorts. It was no use. He ended up throwing his gloves down and said: ‘I can’t pick him!’ He was quite agitated. It was painful.”
These issues notwithstanding, Warne duly followed his six-for at Rishton with 5-35 against Ramsbottom, for whom Jack Simpson once again made a half-century to become one of only two amateur players to get twin fifties against Warne that summer. The other was Nelson’s Ian Clarkson, an insurance salesman who scored 69 and 50, both not out, ably assisted by yet another Aussie pro, Joe Scuderi, who made 121 and 52, also both unbeaten.
Clarkson admits he couldn’t pick him: “Joe told me I’d spot the googly because he drops his arm. His first googly, I never saw it. It was like a snake. But if he tossed it up I couldn’t resist. We became quite friendly and he got us tickets for Old Trafford, the day he bowled the Gatting ball.”
Warne’s combined figures for the two Nelson games were a less than flash 20-0-119-0, but one quality he could never be said to lack was self-belief, and so the game after being marmalised to the tune of 14-0-87-0 he somehow managed to talk his way into opening the batting – and this at a point in the season when he had just 77 league runs at 8.55. He duly chipped in with 39 in Accrington’s victory over Enfield, one of just two league wins before August, and a few weeks later made his solitary half-century, against eventual champions Haslingden. He finished with 329 runs at 14.95.
Accrington would only win two more games before Warne’s early departure for an Australia A tour of Zimbabwe, both against bottom side Colne, and ended up just one spot above the wooden spoon, having come fourth and second the previous two years. Barker felt this was less a reflection of Warne’s contribution – 73 wickets at 15.43 and sixth in the wicket charts despite missing the last three games – more “a squad in transition”, and he was unequivocal when consulted about retaining the leggie for the following season. “I said he’d benefit enormously from having a year under his belt and that he’d play for Australia within twelve months, and people in the committee room laughed at me.”
As it transpired, Warne wouldn’t have been available. On the second day of the following year, four months and a day after his Accrington farewell, he made a Test debut at the SCG and after that… well, it’s rumoured to have gone fairly well for him.
Read more from Scott Oliver in the Wisden Club Cricket Hall of Fame series
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