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