June 2, 2012

England

A scientific explanation for swing

Andrew Hughes
Wasim Akram bowls during a tour game, Lavina Duchess of Norfolk's XI v Pakistanis, Arundel, May 3, 1992
Wasim Akram: his field of expertise was sorcery not science  © Bob Thomas/Getty Images
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Wednesday, 30th May Today saw the publication of yet another scientific paper tackling one of mankind’s most pressing issues: what makes a cricket ball swing. Now, I’ve got nothing against scientists, I have many friends who fiddle with test tubes and Bunsen burners for a living, although obviously I don’t invite them to my parties or socialise with them in public.

But, admirable though they are, our lab coat-wearing friends tend to develop some rather unhealthy character traits, perhaps due to spending too many summers in dusty laboratories dissecting rat intestines whilst everyone else is outside having fun. One of these is an laissez-faire approach to personal grooming. Another is obsessiveness.

For years now, the scientific community has appeared obsessed with proving that cricket folk are wrong about swing. Periodically one of their number deigns to release a rather sniffy paper explaining with patronising diagrams and condescending paragraphs that there is no reason why a ball should swing, swerve or bend as it travels and that it is all in our fevered, unscientific imaginations.

This argument proved difficult to sustain after the 1992 World Cup final when viewers clearly witnessed a delivery from Wasim Akram swing in at least three different directions before bowling Chris Lewis. If the ball did not swing, Professor, then why was Mr Lewis looking hither when the ball and his bails had gone thither?

So scientists changed their minds. They decided that maybe we were right about the swing but that we were wrong about why it happened. It couldn’t possibly be down to humidity, since there is no link between the moisture content of air and the trajectory of a leather orb. But that’s because they were looking for a scientific link.

As every schoolboy knows, science doesn’t come into it. When the air gets clammy, the sky fairies get restless in their cloud hammocks and flutter down to earth. Now, as we all know, sky fairies are attracted to shiny things, so provided a bowler has worked enough spit into the ball to make it gleam, the little sprites will chase after it and the airflow turbulence from their wings makes it swerve or reverse swerve. It’s really quite straightforward.

Scientists will catch on in the end, but in the meantime they’ll blunder about, overcomplicating things, like Mr Duckworth and his friend. Before they foisted their algorithms and accompanying 187-page instruction manual on us, we had a range of perfectly fair methods of settling rain-affected games, such as tossing a coin, asking Richie Benaud to adjudicate or coming back a week next Tuesday to finish it off.

And believing that the ball swings because the afternoon is sweaty, the breeze is over the Pennines, there’s dew on the outfield or the bowler is wearing his lucky pink socks is much more satisfying to the human soul than talk of laminar air-flow and critical velocity. The church of cricket is rather like the Church of England. The cricket scripture is there for aesthetic purposes and to create a sense of mystery. Asking whether it’s true or not is, quite frankly, missing the point.

Thursday, 31st May We all remember last year’s unfortunate outbreak of hubrisitis within the England camp. It was thought that the pioneering treatment of a Dr Ajmal in Dubai had cured them of this irritating condition, which is characterised by fevered delusions and swollen egos.

Unfortunately, it seems that not everyone at Team England has been taking their medication. This week, David Saker, England’s head bowling facilitation coordinator declared that James Anderson and Graeme Swann are as good as Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne.

I understand that a specialist team are en route from South Africa to administer a stiff dose of reality vaccine, but in the meantime I prescribe a long lie-down in a darkened room, followed by an evening watching DVDs of Warne and McGrath in their heyday, and, when the hallucinations have passed, a hand-written letter of apology to the Australian embassy.

Andrew Hughes is a writer currently based in England

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Posted by Circe on (June 4, 2012, 20:08 GMT)

"Circe, I already feel more intelligent having read your comment, and I particularly like the phrase 'Navier-Stokes equations of fluid dynamics' which I will try on for size next time I'm speaking to a scientist. "

Thanks, Andrew, for taking the time to humour us scientists and scientists-in-training.

By the way, I forgot to say this in the "heat" of the moment in my last comment: Great article! :D

Posted by Saad Parekh on (June 3, 2012, 17:32 GMT)

This is the best non-Zaltsman article to appear on Page 2. Brilliant work Andrew.

Posted by Andrew Hughes on (June 3, 2012, 16:02 GMT)

Thanks to everyone who took the time to comment.

Circe, I already feel more intelligent having read your comment, and I particularly like the phrase 'Navier-Stokes equations of fluid dynamics' which I will try on for size next time I'm speaking to a scientist.

Mark, I had read David Saker's comments too, and reproduce the salient ones here:

'McGrath and Warne in tandem were amazing but I have seen some spells from Jimmy and Swanny that have been just as good or better at times.

It’s a bit like when Jimmy and Swann bowl together – it is not unlike McGrath and Warnie at times. There’s so much pressure on the batsmen. We should be saying our group is as good as them.'

So, technically he didn't say they were as good as Glen and Shane, he said that he should be saying that they are as good. And he went further, claiming that Anderson and Swann had bowled spells that were better than W & M, which I dispute. I think my rather gentle satire was justified based on the above.

Posted by Neil on (June 3, 2012, 7:49 GMT)

Thanks to this article, now I know I should skip reading Andrew Hughes articles here onwards.

Posted by Praxis on (June 3, 2012, 6:50 GMT)

Finally! Some sanity & a logical explanation of swing. Sky fairies do make sense now & will help me so much explaining it to my 11 year old niece.

Brilliant piece, Mr. Hughes.

Posted by Salahuddin Ahmed on (June 3, 2012, 5:44 GMT)

So brilliant! So enjoyable! I haven't read such brilliant write-up about Cricket before!

Posted by Circe on (June 3, 2012, 4:41 GMT)

People-in-lab-coat-dissecting-rats: you might not invite them to parties, but for them, you won't be having any parties, since you would be too busy dying of bacterial infections.

On a less (more?) serious note, the problem of the swing of the cricket ball is a special case of one of the most important open problems in Mathematics: achieving an understanding of turbulence through the solution of the so called Navier-Stokes equations of fluid dynamics. Solving this problem would give an explanation of turbulence in such systems as whirlpools, and tornadoes, with an explanation for the swing of the cricket ball and the swerve of the football free-kicks being a small add-on prize. The solution will also buy you instant Ramanujan-Euler level mathematical immortality, and also a million dollars promised by the Clay Mathematical Institute to the first solver(s).

Posted by vinod on (June 3, 2012, 4:40 GMT)

superb

Posted by ishfaque on (June 3, 2012, 3:31 GMT)

swinging the ball is an art which not many people have mastered, hence people try to find out conspiracy theories and scientific theories in order to demean the people who cab make the ball swing, people like imran khan and wasim akram and waqar have taken swing bowling to a level which is hard to replicate and we should give them the due respect instead of trying to come up with scientific logic, cheers for the post

Posted by narayan paudel on (June 3, 2012, 3:29 GMT)

just seems to be written with knowledge no more than that of school level physics...if somethings is there, it must be explained by science anyway

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andrew Hughes
Andrew Hughes is a writer and avid cricket watcher who has always retained a healthy suspicion of professional sportsmen, and like any right-thinking person rates Neville Cardus more highly than Don Bradman. His latest book is available here and here @hughandrews73

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