South Africa v Shane Warne

 

by Matthew O’Connor

Unfortunately for South Africa, its return to the Test Cricket fold in 1993 coincided with the rise and rise of Liz Hurley’s fiancée. But more of that later.

To a 27yo Test Cricket following nut, the return of South Africa was a gift to be savoured. A whole box of new and exotic names to learn and appreciate: Fanie de Villiers, Hansie Cronje, Daryl Cullinan, Alan Donald, Jonty Rhodes. And led by the familiar, stodgy fighter, Kepler Wessels.

We can tend to forget that the South Africans’ first Test back was a one-off against the West Indies in Barbados in April 1992, and that they then hosted India for four tests before heading to Sri Lanka for three more. They had thus notched up eight tests by the time they got to Melbourne, with an overall record of two wins, one loss and five draws. Wessels had become, in Durban against the Indians, the first player to score Test hundreds for two different nations. He remains the only man to have achieved the feat.

South Africa had of course come back to international cricket by way of the World Cup in Australia and NZ in early 1992, unlucky not to make the final when rain cut short their bid for victory over England in the semi.

But the 1993/94 series was all about Test Cricket, and given this was pre-Foxtel, we were seeing these names in whites for the first time. For Australian traditionalists like me, this seemed to be their real return to the world stage (the “world” having not yet gone global in Melbourne back then). If we could glean anything from the World Cup, it was that Jonty could field like a feral cat, Donald was quick and that the South Africans remained proud and competitive.

Their Test resurrection was accompanied by a disproportionate amount of bad weather, partly explaining the five draws in their first eight outings. The last day of the Sri Lankan series was washed out, and the weather forecast for Boxing Day (and beyond) was miserable in the extreme.

We went along anyway, not wanting to miss the moment. Rain fell steadily throughout the morning, and after a few hours down in the old Bullring Bar, we decided to decamp to the London Tavern in Lennox St, convinced there’d be no cricket. But the skies parted briefly, and we scurried back to the soggy G in time to see Alan Donald – at 5pm – deliver the first ball in a South African/Australian Test since Mike Procter cleaned up the tail in Port Elizabeth in 1970.

If my memory serves me correctly (an odd assumption), Mark Taylor shouldered arms to that first ball and it thudded into Dave Richardson’s gloves. Taylor left many more of the 348 balls he faced after that one, batting until tea on the 4th day, when he was bowled by Pat Symcox for 170. By this stage, rain had washed the Test into the Yarra, and all eyes turned to Sydney and the New Year Test.

We did more than just turn our eyes to Sydney. Kristen and I (pre-kids) turned our little white Ford Laser left out of Moreland Rd and barrelled up the Hume. A week in Harbour Town, including two days at the cricket with new crime partner Anthony, would be a nice cure for the Melbourne wet.

Our day 1 seats were in the bottom deck behind the bowler’s arm at the Paddington End – the end from which SK Warne would attempt to set his SCG record straight.

It’s worth reflecting that this was precisely Warne’s second anniversary in Test Cricket, and that his two previous visits to the supposedly spin-friendly venue had yielded a combined two-innings total of 2/266. Ravi Shastri (206) and Sachin Tendulkar (148no) had no trouble dealing with him in his debut Test, and twelve months later he ran into a couple of hombres called Brian Lara (277) and Richie Richardson (109). This is the equivalent of competing  in Group 1 company before you’re out of maiden status.

Warne had however made some significant strides in the twelve months following the Windies mauling. Two lucrative three-Test series against New Zealand at either end of 1993 had yielded 35 cheap wickets, and in the NZ leg on smaller grounds he had conceded only 256 runs in 159 overs. But it was his first tour of England between those series that vindicated the selectors’ bold move to pluck him from obscurity at the start of the previous year.

His first ball of that series plunged Mike Gatting into folklore the way Jesaulenko’s 1970 Grand Final screamer did for Graeme “Jerker” Jenkin. He finished with 34 wickets for the series at 25.79, an excellent (if not astounding) return, particularly for a 23yo with only eight tests under his belt. But those figures disguise two important developments in Warne’s repertoire – his burgeoning capacity for hard work and his unerring accuracy. The figures in these cases DO speak for themselves. Warne bowled an astonishing 439 overs in the series, an average of 73 per Test. Even more astonishingly, 178 of those overs were maidens. 178 maidens in six Tests! Leg spinners weren’t supposed to bowl maidens, but here was a blonde bloke who could bowl better than one in three!

So, while you would have excused Warne a few butterflies as he embarked on his third SCG Test, he was clearly packing more artillery this time round. And there were no Laras or Tendulkars in the opposition batting order. The visitors won the toss and crawled to 1/63 at lunch with the pitch looking friendly enough. It was only when Craig McDermott removed the obdurate Cronje that the fun began.

We had the best seats in the house as Warne embarked on his post-lunch spell. Cullinan was the first to go, skittled by a fuller flipper than he had faced the ball before. Rhodes hung in for half an hour, but was then also undone by a flipper, trapped LBW. Left-handed Gary Kirsten was lured down the track and watched a wrong-un turn past his groping bat. A perfect leg break did for Richardson 10 minutes later, Mark Taylor adroitly snapping up the edge in his left hand. Wessels became victim number five on the stroke of tea, hitting a full toss straight back to his tormentor. In less than an hour, 2/110 had become 7/142. Bowled Shane.

I remember thinking how lucky I was to be watching such skill and control. I had never seen leg spin bowling like it, and all this on a reasonably benign first day pitch. We had dared not move to replenish refreshments, lest we miss another jaffer. The chatter at the tea break contained an excited lilt – perhaps a thrill of witnessing something special and an anticipation of more to come.

Five minutes into the last session, Warne had number six. Another perfect leg break was pouched by Taylor and Craig Matthews became the first nought, if not duck, in the shooting gallery. Perhaps the best of a brilliant batch was reserved for Pat Symcox, who proved the hardest to dislodge. Warne switched to around the wicket, and spun a huge turner behind Symcox and onto leg stump. The final analysis was 27 overs, 8 maidens, 7 for 56. A masterclass and the best spell of bowling I’ve had the pleasure to watch live.

The twist in the story is of course that somehow this magic spell did not win Australia the Test. Four days later and with bushfires circling Sydney, we stopped off in Yass on our return journey to have a feed and watch the final gripping moments in the pub. Australia had completely botched its 116 run victory target in the face of some superb pace bowling from de Villiers and Donald. When de Villiers caught and bowled Glen McGrath three minutes before lunch, South Africa had secured a famous and gritty 5 run win. It was the perfect resumption to hostilities after 24 years.

But despite the result, I don’t think South Africa has ever fully recovered from Warne’s welcome back to Test cricket. In the return visit that immediately followed, Warne piled up maiden after maiden as South African batsmen remained rooted to the spot, refusing to seize the initiative at critical moments. That series was drawn, as was the first series in Australia. The Australians have visited four times since, for four wins. Only the last trip did not include Warne.

South Africa won the 1970 series four-zip in one of most complete performances against an Australian side in history. They have not come close to repeating the dose since their international pardon, and have copped a couple of pastings into the bargain. Perhaps they see this series as the chance to finally gain the upper hand. What do we read, therefore, into the timing of Liz Hurley’s fiancee’s announcement of a return to competitive cricket yesterday? A coincidence? Maybe – but  he tends not to do things that way.

 

Comments

  1. John Butler says:

    Ah, memories…

    Thanks for that MOC.

  2. Steve Fahey says:

    Great writing Matt

    I remember that the first flipper to Cullinan was the sucker ball, and the second one went straight through him. I also remember Tubby uncharacteristically losing his cool after the MCG crowd gave it to him for both his slow batting and wanting to go off a couple of times. He quite reasonably pointed out that there was a bloke bowling at 150kms plus in ordinary light in the days before they could use the lights.

    Scary to think that Warney is still the best spinner in the country by a mile, even though he rarely plays, and even then only in the 20 over format. Even more scarey is that the figures support that Katich might be the second best !

  3. I remember that game. I was on the boundary on the hill and Hansie Cronje was fielding at deep square leg.

    I was lighting a lung buster (used to smoke then) and broke my last match as I tried to strike it. It fell to the ground over the fence.

    Hansie was great. When he saw my problem he just walked over and said ‘dern’t wuurry cobba, I crn fix a match’.

  4. John Butler says:

    Does anyone know what the emoticons for a kick drum and symbol are?

  5. Peter Flynn says:

    MOC,

    I was at the Sydney Test. Well described. Steve F is correct re the Bunny.

    Heat and hangovers. Weird atmospherics. Smoke on the water.

    Stodgy batting on the 4th night cost Australia badly.

    I reckon AB was bowled shouldering arms on the last morning.

    There was an obligatory idiotic run out.

    Standing next to the sightscreen at the Randwick End. What a view.

  6. MOC – brought back some great cricketing memories. Beating South Africa is almost better than beating the Poms.

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