Reverse swing - a rough guide

Scyld Berry
Scyld Berry traces the history of a lethal weapon and gets the inside story from England's leading reverser - Darren Gough

The kind of (reverse) swing © Getty Images
In the beginning there was no swing. When the first purpose-made cricket balls were manufactured in the Garden of England around 1750, they were delivered underarm and could not have swung significantly at such a low trajectory and speed. The 1890s saw the first conventional swing on a regular basis, notably from the left hand of George Hirst of Yorkshire. By the 1920s inswing was common in English cricket. By the 1950s Ray Lindwall was combining in-and outswing at will and at pace.

Now we have reverse-swing to perplex batsmen and spectators alike. Just as physicists were starting to account for conventional swing with some conviction, along comes reverse-swing to be more inexplicable still. But if its causes are uncertain, it effects are not. The evolution of reverse-swing, along with the revival of wrist-spin, has stopped tailenders hanging around and brought about a higher proportion of definite conclusions in Test cricket - often in three or four days - than in the 1960s and'70s.

And if reverse-swing is not an inexact science, it doesn't have an exact history either, as it has always tended to be a cloak-and-dagger subject, inextricably associated with ball-tampering. But it has evolved in the same way that all other bowling techniques have evolved. As soon as cricket becomes too much of a batsman's game, bowlers devise a new form of attack to rectify the balance; at which point the game's administrators (almost invariably former batsmen, if they played at all) step in to curb the bowlers by banning Bodyline or too many bouncers or uncovered pitches. Then batsmen dominate again until bowlers come up with googlies or slower balls or new forms of swing and the process continues its cyclical course.

The first instances of reverse-swing that I've heard of date back to Pakistan in the 1940s, although no doubt the phenomenon occurred in other countries at earlier times without anyone identifying it by name. Mudassar Nazar, whose late father Nazar Mohammad also opened the batting for Pakistan, recounts that outswing bowlers in club cricket in Lahore in his father's time would come back for a second spell with the old ball and find it swinging into right-handers. A prime exponent of this phenomenon was Salim ( Bobby) Altaf, who played for Pakistan in the 1960s.

In the West Indies in the 1950s something similar was going on. Eric Atkinson, who died in May 1998, was the key man here, a strong medium-pacer who bowled long spells at Kensington Oval for Barbados and West Indies and wobbled the old ball around in the sea breezes. The expert on this subject is Richard Prof Edwards, the West Indian fast bowler of the late 1960s who continued to do it long afterwards in Bajan club cricket for Wanderers. He still gives a fascinating lecture on reverse-swing; unfortunately, as with most lectures, when I attended Prof's in the'80s I omitted to take notes.

The first major exponents at Test level were Sarfraz Nawaz, Imran Khan and Dennis Lillee. While in England for the World Cup, Imran recalled seeing Lillee reverse-swing into Pakistan's right-handed batsmen in a Test at Melbourne: that must have been 1976-77. From Australia Pakistan went straight on to the West Indies for one of the most entertaining five-Test series ever played. Their tour manager, the former Test allrounder Colonel Shujauddin, remembers Sarfraz and Imran rooming together and the ball starting to go round corners.

The first time I saw reverse-swing, though I didn't know it at the time, was when Australia played a Test at Faisalabad in the autumn of 1982. Peter Sleep came in at No. 6 to face an old ball and Imran in his prime: it is a picture I can never recall without thinking of a goat being tethered as bait for a tiger. Imran charged in, leapt, and his first ball at Sleep was angled towards first or second slip before boomeranging two-thirds of the way through its flight. It then veered in towards the right-handed Sleep, pitched a full length and detonated his stumps out of the ground. Looking back (a bit like Sleep did), I realize why Imran didn't take the second new ball at Lord's in the summer of 1982 when Pakistan were desperate to finish off England's second innings (they did so just in time to win by ten wickets). The English media could not understand why Imran waited until the 117th over on a flat wicket before taking the second ball. Taking the new ball is such a cliché, was all that Imran would say at the time. But now we know, a little.

Darren Gough by a long way, has been England's leading exponent of reverse-swing. He may be exaggerating when he says that out of his 132 wickets up until the Durban Test at least 40 would be reverse-swing- that would mean almost every bowled and l. b. w. dismissal - but not by much. As happy a memory of England's cricket as any in the'90s will be that of Gough, armed with an old ball, making it reverse-swing into right-handers to keep or pin them on their toes.

Gough, first learnt about reverse-swing in 1992 when the Pakistanis toured England and Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis brought off some amazing displays - and England collapses - in the Tests at Lord's, Headingley and The Oval, not to mention the one-day international at Lord's when the ball was confiscated and replaced after the umpires had detected tampering, although officialdom would not confirm it. It was mainly just watching Waqar on the telly, his action and the way he held the ball, and facing Wasim when he was playing for Lancashire, and I was amazed how he came round the wicket and made it go away.

I started bowling well for Yorkshire in 1993. When Jarvo [ Paul Jarvis] were injured I came into the side in the second half of the season and started reversing then. If you want to reverse-swing it really helps if you can bowl a yorker, and I've always bowled lots of yorkers and slower balls. I've always bowled at the death for Yorkshire too [and therefore the ball has been old]. Most youngsters bowl their overs in the middle of the innings in one-day cricket, but not me.

He is not alone in preferring Readers balls for the purpose: When the Pakistanis toured England, and some old-fashioned courtesy allowed them to select the make of ball if they won the toss of a coin, they wanted Readers too. Dukes don't `go' so much, and they do it later, says Gough. The Australian Kookaburra has reversed well for him too at Melbourne and Sydney [where Gough took a hat-trick] and Adelaide on the last tour. The Kookaburra is also used at all levels in South Africa on their equally hard pitches. When Gough toured the country with England A in 1993-94, he put his new technique into practice in the Test at Port Elizabeth where the wicket were bald and he took seven wickets. A wet and grassy pitch, and lush outfield, are the conditions least likely for reverse-swing. In the Port Elizabeth Test this winter the pitch was too grassy for reversing, insufficiently abrasive.

In Gough's experience Old Trafford is the best ground in England for reverse-swing, not so much because of the actual pitch but because the whole square has been bald in recent seasons: It can `go' as early as the sixth or seventh over. Headingley comes next: About 30 overs old on a dry day. But Gough has done it all over the place at some time or another, from Edgbaston on his one-day international debut for England in 1994 against New Zealand to Canterbury last summer, when he took his 100th ODI wicket in the World Cup match against Kenya and started one ball outside the left-handed Mohammad Sheikh's legs and hit his off stump.

Creating the conditions for reverse-swing can sometimes be more than a natural process. Cricket's whispered secrets include the county game when an eminent overseas player, from Pakistan, called for a bottle-opener to be brought out at a drinks interval, hacked one side of the ball with it, and wrapped up a match by reversing round corners. At Lord's in 1994 Mike Atherton dug deep (into his pocket) to get the ball to reverse, which he had seen happening to great effect in the West Indies the previous winter, notably in the hands of Kenny Benjamin. Gough laughs at the memory of Atherton's attempt: He basically hadn't got a clue what to do, and waves imaginary dirt over a ball. You keep one side as dry as possible and shine the other, and try to get the rest of the guys to do the same. Yorkshire are so clued in to get it right for me and Chalky [ Craig White].

My theory is keep the same side shiny - start with shining it for normal swing and keep that side shiny all the time. How it happens I haven't got a clue, it's just something I'm glad I can do because it gives you the ability to bowl on flat wickets and the higher you go the flatter they are. In one-day cricket especially, if you don't do something with the ball, you'll get slapped, lashed.

Among England bowlers Dean Headley comes second to Gough as a reverse-swinger: he made it go beautifully in the Melbourne and Sydney Tests last winter. Among overseas bowlers, Waqar, Shoaib Akhtar and Glenn McGrath are the leading right-arm exponents. They all have an action which gets a little outswing on a new ball and a lot of reverse-swing with an old one, particularly when delivered with a slightly low arm. Shorter people, and fast arm, are the essentials according to Gough; The quicker you bowl the more it reverses. The former South African swing bowler Fanie de Villiers confirms This: I didn't quite have the pace to reverse it a lot.

As Gough says, a well-grooved yorker helps too, not merely because it spends slightly more time in the air and can therefore swing further. The full-length ball will bring in the lbws, especially on a low pitch, as the batsman pushes half-forward; the yorker will go further and hit those stumps, all the more so if a new batsman has come to the crease. Gough's hat-tricks have usually featured reverse-swinging yorkers. Indeed it is because he and Headley, Waqar and Wasim, can all bowl reverse-swinging yorkers that they stand out as the leading hat-trick takers of modern times. I concentrate all the more now on that first ball at a batter, says Gough. People can tell him it's reversing but he doesn't know how much till he gets out there.

Most bowlers at the highest level who are capable of bowling at 85mph or more are basic outswingers. Most reverse-swingers therefore make the old ball go the other way, ie into right-handers. An exception is Allan Donald, who is more of an inswing new ball bowler and reverses it away. Another, on a lesser plane, was the New Zealand fast bowler Heath Davis when England faced him in 1997-98.

There have been two distinct forms of reverse-swing. One, popular among Australian and West Indian teams in the 1980s, was to dampen one side of the ball with sweat and thereby make it heavier. But this method has gone out of favour. As Gough explains: I don't like the wet theory because it makes the ball soft. The prevailing method now is to allow one side to become roughened up (or make it so) and keep the other side shining, as Gough does. But what exactly makes a ball suddenly start to swing one way first and then the other?

An erudite article on the subject was written a few years ago for South African Cricket Action magazine by Clive During. His explanation was: When a ball approaches 135kph, the boundary layers become turbulent of their own accord: in other words, no seam is required to cause the turbulence. In fact, the seam has the effect of `ramping' a turbulent layer off the ball. The sideways pressure is reversed; the layer on one side comes before the layer on the other side and the ball swings the other way. The idea then is to generate turbulence in the boundary layer ahead of the seam, and in order to do this the bowler has to deliver the ball at a speed of which very few are capable. So there you have reverse-swing. And preferably not on your toes on the line of middle stump.

Swing bowling, like the aeroplane, would not exists without the Bernoulli Effect. This is the simple rule that the pressure in a moving fluid (air, in this case) is lower than in a static fluid.

When the ball is bowled, it creates a kind of slipstream in the air, a low-pressure area called a boundary layer. If this is the same on both sides of the ball, the effect will balance out and there will be no swing. So the bowler's job is to make it uneven.

This is where the seam comes in. A rough or irregular surface creates turbulent in the boundary layer, and a turbulent boundary layer sticks to the ball longer than a smooth one (this is why golf balls have dimples). The bowler has turned the seam towards 11 o'clock, creating a turbulent layer on the left-hand side. On the right-hand side, the smooth layer moves out of contact with the ball at around 4 o'clock, leaving the stickier turbulent layer to suck the ball towards the left.

So how does reverse-swing square with all of this? The suggestion is that when (a) The ball is roughened up, and (b) it is bowled at 135 kph or more, both boundary layers become turbulent whatever the seam's position. In fact, the effect of the seam is reversed, the turbulence becomes so high on the left-hand side that the boundary layer flies off the ball immediately. Now the pressure is lower on the right-hand side, and the ball deviates in that direction, The rest - including factors like humidity, wind, and ball-type - is mystery.