On the 30th anniversary of one of the great Test series played in Australia, foxsports.com.au sat down with West Indies cricket legend Brian Lara for his reflections.
In the first of a three-part series, Lara recalls the moment Shane Warne truly announced himself to the world with a stunning display at the MCG.
Shane Warne credited the Gatting Ball as the delivery that changed his life, but it was a moment of brilliance six months earlier that truly marked the cricket legend’s arrival.
Warne’s first year in international cricket was not indicative of the greatness that would follow — until his first Test at his home ground, the MCG.
Before the West Indies touched down in Melbourne for the Boxing Day Test of 1992, Warne had played four matches that year without much joy.
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He had only taken four wickets at 96.50, and notably struggled on a tour of Sri Lanka, where it was hoped he’d enjoy a coming-of-age series.
As such, when Warne was picked to play on Boxing Day having been overlooked at the Gabba, the West Indies didn’t know what to expect.
“We honestly had not a lot of knowledge of his exploits,” cricket legend Brian Lara told foxsports.com.au.
“He’s a leg-spinner of course, you have to respect leg-spinners.
“Sometimes, West Indians get very fearful when they hear a leg-spinner is in the team.”
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Over the course of about 20 fourth innings overs, then 23-year-old Warne would prove that fear to be well-placed.
After captain Allan Border stuck his neck out for Warne, who wasn’t picked for the drawn Gabba Test, the leg-spinner was again failing to make an impression in Aussie whites.
Over the first four days in Melbourne, he had taken 1-65 with the ball and made scores of 1 and 5.
The Test was destined to end in another draw when the West Indies reached 1-143 on the final day, with Warne again failing to strike.
“I was sort of being written off by a lot of people saying ‘this guy’s no good, he can’t deliver’,” Warne later remembered for cricket.com.au.
Suddenly, as Warne wrote in his autobiography, “everything clicked, it felt like magic.”
It started with Warne undeterred and letting the ball fizz from his fingers. It ended with West Indies captain Richie Richardson looking dumbfounded.
What happened in the middle was a blur at the time, but it would go on to be known as the ‘flipper’; Warne’s most famous variation.
Instead of gripping the surface and spinning away from the right-hander, the ball scooted onwards, low and fast to leave Richardson suddenly defenceless.
The ball raced between his bat and pad and crashed into his stumps, with Warne later calling it “probably one of the best flippers” he ever bowled.
He had arrived — even if his arrival still wasn’t abundantly clear to everyone.
“The West Indies just thought it was a bad ball that ran along the ground. Not too many people in the early ‘90s had seen a flipper, a lot of these guys were just so used to fast bowling,” Warne told cricket.com.au.
“That day I went on to take 7-52 and that sort of made me believe that if I bowled well enough at Test level I’m good enough.”
Warne morphed into a wrecking ball: three of the next four wickets — Keith Arthurton, Carl Hooper, and Phil Simmons — all fell to Warne before the West Indies passed 200.
The one who didn’t was Lara, dismissed by Mike Whitney before he had much of a chance to face the leg-spinner.
“But I think what he produced is just amazing,” Lara recalled to foxsports.com.au. “It’s just ridiculous.
“That flipper he bowled to Richie Richardson… Luckily for me I didn’t pass in that drove of wickets.”
Mopping up the West Indies tail, Warne had spun Australia to a famous 139-run victory, finishing the innings with 7-52.
Not a single seven-wicket Test haul has been taken at the MCG since.
‘HE LOOKED THE BUSINESS’
The performance proved to be the breakout moment Warne had craved, setting the stocky blonde from Melbourne’s suburbs on the path to never-seen-before greatness.
But it contributed to a greater turning point in world’s cricketing landscape, with one-time powerhouse the West Indies beginning to look vulnerable.
The West Indies hadn’t lost a Test series since touring New Zealand in 1980 and hadn’t lost to Australia since 1975, when they arrived on these shores 30 years ago.
Big names that helped forge that era of dominance, however, were starting to vanish. Viv Richards, Gordon Greenidge and Malcolm Marshall had called it a day, while more retirements were on the horizon.
The West Indies then found themselves 1-0 down in a series against Australia with just three Tests to play. Making the situation more concerning was that they had just been undone by a spin masterclass — and the next Test was at Australia’s best spinning venue, the SCG.
Australia had only won six of 33 Tests against the West Indies since 1978, but the island nations hadn’t tasted victory at the SCG since 1961, seven attempts earlier.
“I believe at that point in time, the mood in our camp leaving Melbourne, knowing about our history at the SCG, I think a lot of panic set in,” Lara said.
“I think a lot of the guys were thinking ‘how can we save this Test match?’
“It wasn’t a negative attitude, but we were very wary of the fact that Sydney was not one of our hunting grounds, for want of a better word.
“And Shane Warne looked the business.
“And also, back in those days, Test cricket had a lot of people watching when the West Indies were playing, and the crowd really got behind him.”
Warne, however, would not be the only 23-year-old prospect to announce himself to the world in that series.
West Indies’ demise might’ve come to pass in Sydney, after losing 2-31 in reply to Australia’s 9-503d, if it were not for Lara’s own moment of magic.
Over the course of 372 balls and nearly eight hours at the crease, Lara — who had never made a double century at any level of the game — scored 277 to all but save a draw for the West Indies.
His double century remains arguably the greatest Test innings by a visiting batter on these shores, and is only outranked in runs by Tip Foster’s 287 at the same ground 89 years earlier, and Ross Taylor’s 290 for New Zealand in Perth in 2015.
“To me it was just great. I was young, excited about the whole thing. Really wanted to get my first Test hundred and then I blossomed into something much bigger,” Lara said.
“To get there and to see how it developed. I knew in that point in time I had what it took to be one of the better cricketers going around. It just gave me that confidence that I needed.”
The 1992-93 series was already building into something special, but no one could predict what would happen in the fourth Test in Adelaide.
Heading into the second innings with a 39-run lead, the West Indies capitulated with the bat to be all out for 149, leaving the door firmly open to Australia.
Warne was barely even required, bowling just eight overs in the match. Instead, it was local hero Tim May who did the damage with a scarcely believable 5-9 from seven overs in the second innings.
It left Australia with two days to get just 186 runs and finally beat the West Indies for the first time in nearly 20 years.
But it all went pear-shaped for Australia, too. The hosts crumbled to 8-102 with debutant Justin Langer the only form of resistance.
That was until May came to the crease and made an unbeaten 42, but the departure of Langer for 54 left No.11 Craig McDermott fighting to complete a thrilling one-wicket win.
A heartbreak to end all heartbreaks followed when Australia needed just one run to win the match, and series.
Courtney Walsh bowled a laser-like bouncer that McDermott turned his back to as the ball whipped past his helmet, and gloves that were tucked up to his body.
Walsh didn’t dare look back at the umpire. Instead he wheeled away amid sheer scenes of delirium for the West Indies, and utter despair for Australia.
The umpire’s finger went up in what was a controversial decision that couldn’t be ratified by DRS.
“There was definitely a noise, and lots of people had plenty to say later about what exactly the ball hit,” May, who was at the nonstriker’s end, wrote for Wisden in 2010.
“Back in the dressing room, though, no one said anything for 20 minutes. There was nothing left to say.
“It continues to hurt still.”
The one-run win remains the only one in the 145-year history of Test cricket.
‘A VERY SPECIAL OCCASION’
The series was now tied and with Australia still nursing the scars of a crushing defeat, and the final Test coming at a fast bowler’s paradise at the WACA, there was only going to be one winner.
Curtly Ambrose took 7-25 in the first innings, and Ian Bishop snared 6-40 in the second as Australia was skittled for 119 and 178 to lose by an innings and 25 runs.
The West Indies held aloft the Frank-Worrell trophy once more, but there was a feeling that the cricket giants had just got away with one.
Under the guidance of Border, and through the next generation of Warne, the Waugh twins and Langer, Australia’s future was looking bright.
Meanwhile, the West Indies would be left to contemplate their own invincibility, which would finally end on Australia’s tour of the Caribbean in 1995.
Nonetheless, the West Indies had just clinched one of Test cricket’s great series that Lara remembers fondly to this day.
Asked where it ranks in series he played in, Lara said: “I mean, that would be very much up there. If not No.1, (then) No.2.
“Over the years we dominated Australia, yes, but one of the teams we played against that we were very wary of was Australia.
“I was looking forward to that series and I was looking forward to playing Test cricket over a long period of time. It started at the Gabba and just went on to be one of the best Test series ever played.
“It was just a very special occasion.”
And it all started with a Shane Warne flipper.