The Last Ball of the Day and its Meaning

When Shane Warne bowled Basit Ali on the last ball of the day in 1995, there was a great interest in the back story to the ball. What had he and Ian Healy talked about at the top of his run-up before that fateful ball? Here was cricket at its best, telling a story while also sparking the curiosity of its audience for more details. Here also was its relationship with television at its best, allowing that medium to add its suggestive power to great effect to an audience of a size many times the physical one, who could then double down on their experience by reading what the great bowler and wicket-keeper had told dutiful journalists about the experience in the papers the next day.

Turns out the story was more mundane than what the most vivid imaginations had conjured: Warne, who felt he had been delayed by Ali enough over the course of the day, had called over Healy to keep him waiting while they discussed what to have for dinner, before Healy eventually told Warne to bowl a standard leg-break and went back to his position. At which point, he proceeded to see the plan come off to spectacular effect.

Richie Benaud, narrating that moment for his audience, grasped the truth that his ignorance of the contents of the conversation did not equal ignorance of the conversation’s effects in the light of the immediate wicket. His excellent piece of commentary, as is the dismissal as a whole, is covered in a video called Shane Warne: The King of Spin. As the Australians celebrated the wicket, he said, “Well, whatever it is that they talked about, you can bet your life in future it’ll be, ‘why don’t you give him the one that’ll bowl him between his legs?'”

The same video also mentions how one of Warne’s nicknames was Hollywood. Warne, after all, was rarely just a bowler. He was something more – insert your choice of adjective here. And he left you wanting more. That was the key.

This, of course, was well before cricket started to compete with Bollywood. Warne played his part in that process by his participation in the first two Indian Premier League seasons, but he also participated against other sport and entertainment choices in an Australian context for two seasons in the Big Bash League. This determination of cricket boards to provide content to an extent that even ODI cricket never managed, and for consumers to see them as primary source of content has had its positive aspects: more matches for those who want to watch more cricket, appeal to a wider audience and a path towards a job as a cricketer for Women through the Women’s Big Bash League. But it has also meant that the sense of conclusion to a day has become rarer, especially since Australian cricket has reverted to dealing with one free-to-air broadcaster and there is not even theoretical logic in avoiding promotion of a competitor’s product.

Often, when a Test and BBL matches are being played in tandem, an umpire’s call of stumps in a Test is so quickly followed by a call of play in a BBL game that it seems less like two separate games and more like one match with five oddly shaped sessions. The remedy, it could be argued, is in the fact that Australian cricket now reserves some content exclusively for pay-TV broadcaster as well, but the loss of access to an FTA mass market has its own problems, arguably bigger ones. Just ask the English.

Nevertheless, it was pleasing to see the second day of the Test between Australia and Sri Lanka end in a wicket off the last ball of the day for Pat Cummins, and to have that as the final talking point of a day which included no BBL or WBBL. While his dismissal of Dimuth (Karunaratne) will not be remembered as Warne’s bamboozling of Basit, one could do worse than remember Benaud’s wisdom and ask what this means in the broader context. In this case, it is hard to see how it changes how cricket will be played, but it could mean more in a different sense. That match at the SCG ended in a Pakistan victory, their most recent Test victory in Australia. Sri Lanka were Australia’s next opponents and that series has one in common with every other Test series they have played in the land of Hair and Hayden: a failure to break their duck when it comes to winning a Test in Australia. For all of Australia’s problems, that fact is unlikely to change in 2019.