November 21, 2015

Let's keep the ball talking

Christian Drury
There's nothing quite as magical in cricket as moving the ball in the air at speed

Matthew Hoggard had an instinctive connection with the conditions and could use them to his advantage © Getty Images

My one sporting skill is the ability to make a cricket ball swing. I can't catch one very well, hit one very far or bowl one very fast. But sometimes I can steer one in the air, curve five and a half ounces of cork and leather and twine in an elegant arc. Sometimes I can't, of course. It's a fickle craft, one that eludes the mastery of even its finest practitioners, let alone the club player on a village green.

Part of the appeal of swing bowling, for the practitioner and the admirer, is the mystery. The direction of swing is usually determined by the bowler's action, and variation by the position of the ball and the wrist. But alignment doesn't always translate into movement. Conditions are usually thought to play a role, especially by players themselves. Humidity and cloud cover, two staples of an English summer, are believed to be particularly fecund. But often there can be a placebo effect - you, the bowler, think it ought to swing, so it does.

Attempts to explain the mechanics of swing often end up quite literally being rocket science. The language of aerodynamics, talk of turbulence and roughness, is quite different to the language employed by the ordinary player or fan to describe swing. The layperson speaks of shape, hoop, swerve. The cliché of "making the ball talk" is, in fact, a rich metaphor. You can imagine the bowler extorting movement out of the ball, the bad cop trying to extract what they can within legal means, or alternatively, trying to coax an ally into helping: protection and solidarity against the violence of the batsman.

This communication is always partial, fragmented. It can be a trickle or a flood. One of the finest swing bowling sights is when the ball suddenly begins to move dramatically after a period of inertia in inhospitable conditions. No scientific explanation can capture the magic or skill of swing from nowhere - relief for the bowlers like manna from heaven. Reverse swing, in particular, has become a way of transcending the difficulties of unhelpful conditions. Bowlers like Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis simply ignored the handicap of an unresponsive pitch.

Modern swing bowlers have a hipsterish air of those taking up a craft against the grain of society

The fitful nature of swing enhances the awe when you see it practised artfully. It changes the nature of the bowler's labour, from manual to skilled.

The bowling actions of the finest virtuosos are conduits for magic. Akram's shuffling delivery stride, feet pointing opposite directions, like in a child's drawing. The elegant curves and fluid motion of James Anderson's action, calling to mind the smooth energy of Natalia Goncharova's futurism in The Cyclist. Malcolm Marshall, the swerve of his action foreshadowing the movement of the ball. In club cricket, swing bowlers tend to have less graceful, more idiosyncratic approaches. But on a good day, the arc of a well-bowled delivery can be reminiscent of the work of the masters.

Reverse swing is alien to the amateur game, especially in England, where outfields are rarely abrasive and players lack the skill to prepare the ball, by means fair or foul. Even after the 2005 Ashes, when the method was belatedly recognised as legitimate by most English players and fans, orthodoxy prevailed. Tape-ball cricket has offered a decent simulacrum in Pakistan, a space to practise the searing yorker. But while the English village player might lack the dry palms necessary to nurture reverse swing, each club will probably have a stalwart swing bowler who seems as much part of the ground as the tree inside the boundary or the rusting goalposts at long-on. They know the ground as well as anyone, and how to move the ball to their will.

Wasim Akram: master of dark, unpredictable arts Jack Atley / © Getty Images

One of the beauties of swing bowling is this connection to location and the conditions. Whilst scientific tests have failed to locate a firm correlation between air pressure, humidity and swing, the link is well established in the lore of the game. It is often extremely specific. At Hove, for example, the amount of movement is supposed to be linked to the tide. At Trent Bridge, building a new stand seemed to make the ball swing more. These quirks are particularly valuable for a game increasingly played in soulless grounds on identikit wickets. It's hardly surprising that many swing bowlers have acquired a reputation as yeoman figures - Matthew Hoggard springs immediately to mind. They have an old-fashioned connection to the air and the soil, are able to read conditions and use nature.

As rural figures in an urban age, modern swing bowlers have a hipsterish air of those taking up a craft against the grain of society. The exaggerated care for the ball, the fastidious perfectionism, can be seen as marks of authenticity, a disregard for the disposable and profligate. Swing bowling ought not to have survived in the age of T20. It ought to have been pushed aside by flat pitches and big bats.

But as bowlers like Mitchell Starc have shown, movement triumphs. Try slogging when it's swinging late. Swing offers an escape for the beleaguered bowler.

It also expands the cricketing imagination. One of the reasons that scientific explanations cannot fully account for swing is that sometimes it seems to break out of the boundaries of possibility. Think of Akram's delivery to Robert Croft in 1996 that seemed to be swinging in and down the leg side, only to straighten in the air past the outside edge and into Croft's pad. Swing offers mystery to the modern game. When the legerdemain of the mystery spinner is increasingly discouraged, the elegant bow of a swinging delivery offers inspiration in its unpredictability and aesthetics. There is poetry in it, even magic. It offers hope that the future of cricket is bright. Let's keep the ball talking.

Christian Drury is a blogger based in the UK

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Cricinfouser on November 27, 2015, 5:47 GMT

    Those who say that wasim did'nt move the bowl after piching should wath his two deliveries in the 92 worlcup final. That was movement of the pitch malcom marshal could not match. Not taking anything away from marshal though.

  • snow on November 25, 2015, 19:10 GMT

    I agree however i think marshall aas on top because he could swing it through the air and of the pitch wasim could swing it alot through the air but very little off the pitch

  • shafeen on November 25, 2015, 3:28 GMT

    Swing is great... but movement of the pitch - cutting or seaming - is more dangerous still.

    Obviously, the movement is later. and Secondly, in the case of seaming, even the bowler doesn't know which way the ball will go - so the batsmen have no chance!

    I think that's what set Marshall apart for me - he had both movement in the air and off the pitch. Akram didn't move the ball off the wicket as much, but was probably the best I've seen at swinging the ball both ways.

    Steyn's pretty awesome too - he usually goes away with new ball and back in with the old.

  • Harsh on November 24, 2015, 5:02 GMT

    To me the art of combining reverse swing or swing at absolute pace has touches of genius.Element of unpredictability is vital.The exponents of this art are like a technician and magician blended into one.Wasim Akram championed this skill more than any paceman ever with Malcolm Marshall,Waqar Younus,Imran Khan ,Andy Roberts and Dennis lillee just a shade below. Wasim and Marshall posessed imagination and artistry that set them apart,literally making the ball a poet and architect rolled into one.On his day Michael Holding could have joined the best with his perfect action resembling a Rolls Royce car.Ambroseposessed mastery of control and bounce but did not move the ball as much as Wasim or Marshall.

    One phenomena I note that some of the best like Lillee and Roberts or even Marshall were more effective or lethal at fast-medium rather than genuine quick or express pace.

  •   Madhusudhan B Mysooru on November 23, 2015, 5:35 GMT

    When ball starts talking, there is nothing else fascinating in cricket. Even ABDV or Eoin Morgan or Brendon McCullum or Dilshan cannot fascinate with their unique zombie or mind-boggling shots, as much as a moving ball mesmerizes. That is why Wasim Akram is even today revered so much without any borders or barriers across all cricket crazy nations. But IPL like T20 leagues and White ball cricket has denied the opportunities to cricket fans for witnessing such enthralling magic with ball.

  • Simon on November 23, 2015, 4:19 GMT

    Just as it takes many characteristics, skills and experience to produce a good batsman or fielder, so to it takes the right combination to create a good bowler. You mentioned tapeball and that is an attempt for all bowlers to have an edge, but of course some swing it more and more often. My action allowed me to swing a new and old ball conventionally, even in 40 degree heat with no air or pitch moisture to assist. Sure it was less than in overcast conditions with the wind coming over my bowling shoulder, but to me there was a simple reason; I took control of the ball I bowled and I taught other bowlers in my team to do the same. There's an art to polishing a ball and it changes with every ball depending on how it gets treated in a game. Spit & polish both sides for as long as possible and choose the least damaged after that. Not some batsman at cover; You, you're bowling it! I also believe the friction from polishing just before you run in makes a huge difference. Polish it yourself!

  • Cricinfouser on November 22, 2015, 15:53 GMT

    This article in Cricinfo sometime back, by Rabindra Mehta, an aerodynamics expert, tries to scientifically explain the magic a swinging ball produces. However, in some cases, I do agree that certain acts of magic of the red cherry by bowlers cannot be constrained by science!

  • Vinish on November 22, 2015, 13:23 GMT

    When we talk about Swing, lets not forget how Ambrose and Walsh swung the consistently, in mid 1990s. That art seems to have gone forever.

    For a particular swing action that is etched in my mind forever, it was Dion Nash against England in the World Cup match, in Pakistan. Nash was bowling to Atherton and the ball that swung by miles to bowl Atherton was one of its kind. Massive.

  •   Jayasankar Pillai on November 22, 2015, 12:53 GMT

    My. Natural delivery is outswinger to. Right hander, I've tried my. Best to get inswing, apart from occasional success I've no idea how to get an inswing, but it's always good to see the ball moving

  • Sandy on November 22, 2015, 8:12 GMT

    Thats why Bhuvi is so special. he can make the ball talk. AT his best, the worlds best swing bowler no doubt

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