Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis were masters of the art
Nothing is more beautiful in cricket than bowlers running in and swinging the ball continuously. It’s an art that needs to be perfected and the very best in business, despite having a natural flair for it, have toiled away rigorously to achieve success.
Though relegated woefully to the domain of Test cricket nowadays, swing bowling is a feature that still makes the longest format of the game beautiful. It ensures that pinch-hitters who have built a career idolising T20 superstars do not get away swinging their thick blades without judgement or perfection.
James Anderson can be considered to be one of the finest exponents of swing bowling who has carried forth the legacy of some of the great masters of yesteryear.
A simple explanation from Anderson exemplifies the very basics of imparting swing on the ball. While the explanations might seem easy to understand, the execution takes hours of practice to achieve perfection.
The very basics of imparting swing on the ball are quite simple. The aim of a good out-swinging delivery is to take the ball away from the batsman and entice him to end up edging the ball.
The ball needs to be full or just a good length delivery to provoke the batsman into playing a drive preferably towards the mid-on or cover region.
For bowling an out-swinger, the bowler needs to grip the ball with a vertical seam pointing towards the first or second slip at a 15 degree angle, with the fingers running right across the seam.
The shiny side should be directed towards the batsman and the rough side towards the slips to build up increased air resistance on the rough side.
The in-swing is exactly the opposite where the bowler tries to bring the ball into the batsman from a release point wide of the crease to get him out bowled or leg before the wicket. As the ball travels through the air at great speed, a thin layer of air called the boundary layer forms around the ball which is the actual reason behind the swing.
The boundary layer has a smooth, laminar state and a chaotic, turbulent state — it is the transition between these states at a critical speed determined by the roughness of the surface that causes the swing.
In case of conventional swing, that is normal in-swing or out-swing, the ball generally swings in the direction in which the seam is pointing.
When the ball is travelling at a great speed towards the batsman after the point of release, the laminar boundary layer separates at the apex of the ball while it is tripped into a turbulent state along the top surface thus delaying the separation.
This results in a pressure difference and the side force makes the ball swing in the direction of the seam.
Another key to swing ball is therefore continuously working on the ball and maintaining a shiny, laminar side as opposed to a rough side at the other end. This is usually done by the bowlers as well as the close-in fielders by putting saliva on the shinny side and rubbing it clean.
HOW REVERSE SWING IS DIFFERENT
A serious study of cricket ball aerodynamics throws up the reason why and how the ball undergoes reverse swing. Most ardent cricket fans would surely know that even the best exponents of reverse swing can ply their art only with an older ball.
The trick however is, since the ball in this case swings in the opposite direction of the seam, it baffles the batsman and is traditionally hard to pick.
In case of the reverse swing, the boundary layer of the ball changes to the turbulent state quite early in its flight, before reaching the seam location. The asymmetry therefore changes in this case making the ball swing in the opposite direction of the seam.
Though this can be best achieved with speeds of over 90 mph, the critical speed to impart reverse swing decreases as the roughness of the ball on the other side increases.
This is why reverse swing can be achieved only with older balls though it is best achieved only by bowlers clocking up a certain pace. Even a conventional out-swing bowler can achieve reverse swing with an older ball and too without changing the grip of the ball.
Reverse swing can also gained notoriety as it is constantly linked with accusations of ball tampering. The common accusation is that since bowlers know the importance of the rough surface to achieve reverse swing, they try to scratch the surface with foreign objects to hasten the process of degradation on one side of the ball.
But a little known fact is that dirt struck to the ball’s surface with saliva or glue can make reverse swing possible even with the new ball at nominal speeds.
A SHORT HISTORY OF REVERSE SWING
Though consensus about the birth of reverse swing is clouded with uncertainty, it is believed to have been first used in Pakistan around the 1940s. It however first achieved legendary status thanks to the pair of Imran Khan and Sarfaraz Nawaz in the 1970s.
The Melbourne Test between Pakistan and Australia in 1979 instantly comes to mind. Chasing 382 for victory in the 4th innings, Australia seemed to be cruising at 305 for 3 with Allan Border and Kim Hughes at the crease.
Nawaz was then handed the ball and he finished with figures of 9 for 86 — Australia lost their last 7 wickets for 5 runs and were bundled out for 310.
The Pakistan versus India Test at Karachi in December, 1982 is another fine example. India trailing by 283 runs in the second innings, tried hard to save the match with Gavaskar and Vengsarkar taking them to 102 for 1 after tea.
Imran Khan then returning for his second spell with an older ball, produced a devastating spell of reverse-swing bowling. Imran finished with five wickets that day, four of them bowled, as India slumped to 118 for 7 at the end of the day’s play. It was not even a contest in the end as Pakistan won by an innings and 86 runs.
The legacy was carried forward by the terrific Pakistani duo of Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis who largely popularized reverse swing in the 1990s. In the series against England in 1992, the duo were at their unplayable best, sharing 43 wickets between them.
Wasim and Waqar scared oppositions throughout the 90s and formed possibly the best fast bowling pair in the decade that effectively marked the end of the golden era of swing bowling.
Recent examples also come to the mind. Shoaib Akhtar, though not as effective as the former Pakistani quicks with his reverse swing, certainly kept the tradition alive until the baton was passed on to some of the current greats like Dale Steyn, Brett Lee, Andrew Flintoff and James Anderson (to name a few).
Sadly, some of the greatest exponents of reverse swing, like Waqar and Wasim, have been no strangers to controversy and allegations of ball-tampering have never deserted them.
What needs to be conceded that to achieve perfection with it, one not only needs the utmost dedication and practice, but also a natural flair for it. Because when it comes off, it looks outrageous and magical.
West Indian mystery spinner Sunil Narine continues to top the ODI Bowler Rankings with a rating of 759, but it was Australia’s Mitchell Starc who was the most significant mover in the latest ICC update.
The 26-year-old ended the ODI series against Sri Lanka as the top wicket-taker with 12 scalps to his name at an average of 18.16 and moves up to from fifth place into third on the list.
Starc was the number one ODI bowler for long periods in 2015 after a stellar World Cup, but an injury late in the year saw him miss months of action and plummet in the rankings.
New Zealand pacer Trent Boult, who has a rating of 731, is sandwiched between Narine and Starc.
Other big movers from the Sri Lanka-Australia ODI series were James Faulkner and John Hastings. Faulkner, who was the man of the match in the World Cup final last year, has risen to 18th while Hastings has reached a career high ranking of 24.
The England-Pakistan ODI series saw English bowlers gain as Adil Rashid, Chris Woakes and Liam Plunkett all made big strides. Rashid, who took eight wickets at 27.75 a piece, has snuck into the top ten, while Woakes (16th) and Plunkett (48th) jumped 13 and 25 places respectively.
The highest ranked Indian bowler is Ravichandran Ashwin who is 12th, with Axar Patel just one place behind him.