February 7, 2013

Swing: can't get enough of the thing

There's magic in the air when the ball hoops around corners

This is the year of the cheap bowl-out. Pakistan, New Zealand, Australia and West Indies - all skittled for a song, or fewer than 75 to be precise. And the common denominator? Swing.

Wonderful summer swing, nice and late and breathtaking in its effect. If you are yet to catch Mitchell Starc on a swing day, a treat awaits you. In he bounds, all rhythm and timing, to deliver at 145 kilometres per hour, and whoosh, in it hoops and over go the hobs. The ball that bowled Ramnaresh Sarwan in Perth last Friday was pure Wasim Akram, and you can't say fairer than that.

There have been three truly exceptional quick left-arm swing bowlers. Akram, perhaps first among equals; Garry Sobers; and Alan Davidson. "Davo's" figures are incredible: 186 wickets in 44 Tests at 20.53 each - a better average than Roberts, Holding, Marshall, Garner, Ambrose and Walsh. All three were immensely strong men, though Davidson's shoulders took the biscuit - still do, come to think of it. Starc is a surprisingly big man too. Perhaps it is the species.

Australia have really got something here, and pray he stays fit. The selectors' "informed player management" policy should, in theory, see to it.

There is something utterly compelling about fast swing bowling. From behind the arm, the ball appears momentarily suspended, allowing the viewer to appreciate its flight path before the last split-second change of direction that then homes in on the target. Sarwan missed the crackerjack Perth ball by a mile. Little did he know that 48 hours later he was to suffer a similar, though even more humiliating, fate.

It began with Starc trapping a mesmerised Chris Gayle in front of off stump with the fourth ball of his first over. Sarwan arrived in Gayle's stead, took itchy guard but then pushed the fifth ball to cover comfortably enough. "Over," called the umpire. Phew, thought Sarwan. Channel 9 went to an ad break. The fielders swapped ends and Starc trotted off to long leg. "Oops," said the umpire, "we're a ball light, back you go lads." Thus everyone rebooted, even 9, who crashed out of their ad break. Nice one ump, thought Sarwan, who barely saw what came next.

Starc's belated sixth ball might have been a guided missile for all the Guyanan knew of it. Just a tiny shuffle forward before the deadly strike, centre-point of the pad, slap in front of middle, halfway up. First the inswing, then the finger. Thanks ump, thought Sarwan and off he went, dragging the wretched twist of life with him.

Swing is the thing. The game expands because the ball must be pitched up. Batsmen have the drive at their behest but with risk in the back of their mind. Swing is a temptress, luring those with the willow to indiscretion. Swing at speed is killer - there one moment, gone the next. Swing surprises, shocks, disappoints and delights.

There is no explaining it. One day it does, the next it doesn't. They say it is the batch of balls, the weight of the ball, the size of the ball, the seam, the atmospheric conditions, moisture in the pitch or otherwise. Those are the materials. The workman must deliver the seam upright. To do so he must release the ball with his wrist behind it.

Some hold the ball firmly and deep in the hand. Others hold it lightly and at the tips of their fingers. Some have their thumb under the ball, resting under the seam; others have that thumb alongside the ball, resting on the leather. Experts swear by theories and other experts tear them apart. Sideways action to bowl outswing, front-on to bowl inswing? Not necessarily, proved Malcolm Marshall and Wasim Akram. Scientists analyse the hell out of swing. Coaches search for its holy grail. Bowlers spend as many hours on swing as in the bar.

Swing is a temptress, luring those with the willow to indiscretion. Swing at speed is killer - there one moment, gone the next. Swing surprises, shocks, disappoints and delights

Then there is reverse swing: still swing of course but with the ball turned 180 degrees in the hand so that the movement occurs against the conventional method. Usually the ball swings to the direction of the rough side of the ball. With reverse, it reverses itself. Bowlers who shine one side of a new ball, scratch, scuff or wet one side of an old ball. The more damaged the leather, the better. On the parched playing surfaces of the subcontinent, reverse swing is a must. In England in May, forget it.

Why does the reversed method swing later? Search me. Why do the great reverse-swing bowlers practise a slightly lower arm at the point of delivery? Search me. Why does reversed inswing move more than reversed outswing? Search me.

There has been a court case about reverse swing. There has been a Test match called off and awarded to the batting team because of reverse swing. There have been diplomatic incidents because of reverse swing. It is a thing mistrusted and a thing of jealousy. And by heaven, it is a thing of envy. When the old ball tails in, travelling most of the pitch before its snake-like strike, a class fast bowler can barely contain his excitement.

Red ball or white ball, which swings most? Search me. Some say the new white ball and the old red ball are the most likely, sometimes. Is that the dye in the leather, or the white paint? Search me. Bowlers prefer cricket balls that are dark red, almost brown. Some of them, that is, while others could not care less. Some use sweat to shine it. Others, well let's just say there is above board and below board. Come to think of it, why does the brand new ball swing? There is no difference to the condition of either side of the ball, so no change in its balance. Perhaps the proud seam is the perfect rudder, canting this way and that. Perhaps not.

A reasonable argument says let the bowler do to the ball as he wishes, of his own volition but not with an outside influence. Shine it, scratch it, pick it, wet it, rub it in the dirt till the crowd go home, but no bottle tops, no pen knives, no sticks or stones. Imagine the growth of fingernails amongst the fraternity! I say let it swing any which way, for cricket is poorer when the air is dead to swing or the length too short. T20 take note: let it swing.

As I write, Australia are playing West Indies with a white ball in a one-day match. Not a single delivery has swung, not even those offered by Starc. Weird, huh. Maybe Sarwan will get a few tonight. Maybe not. The game is a mystery.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Marius on February 10, 2013, 14:18 GMT

    @mikey. It is a pity that you call someone that differs from you clueless. I happen to agree with the view that Kallis, although not as flamboyant as Sobers, would be in my team above Sobers anyday. I find it ironic that you start off saying people get to wrapped up in stats, where Kallis is slaughtering Sobers, on all counts, but then immediately recall the 365 which wasn't beat for 40 years (also a stat but this time to suit you). @Mark. Your article is not as good as usual this time, if you want to discuss swing and the fact that you like what Starc is doing, don't quote stats not relevant to him. Saying this, I am a fan of your writing in general.

  • Helmut on February 9, 2013, 0:34 GMT

    @josh1942 I like you. I'm assuming you're English and therefore I definitely get a warm and fuzzy feeling eversince you decided to pick a side in this Sobers/Kallis debate. Biased maybe but I prefer to support your view on matters. Just as a side...we as SA's have come to accept not getting our dues when it matter. Kallis is not making a song and dance about, neither is anyone in his team or the whole country. We know what we have and that is what every other country can only dream about. Occassionaly you'll get the Kallis wannabe like a Watson, Flintoff or Hasan but honestly there realy have only been one true prince (or is it king?) for the last 17 years. I haven't seen Sobers play, but even, or especially Charles Darwin would only shake his head at the rediculousness of this debate. If evolution is widely accepted fact, it should be obvious that Kallis is better than Sobers. Like the numbers suggest, but because he is SA, the likes of Chappell would rather die than give him his due

  • michael on February 8, 2013, 22:03 GMT

    Josh1942. Your pretty clueless when it comes to cricket history. Sobers was a wonderful bowler who could bowl in many different styles. So what if his figures are not as good, people get too wrapped up in averages and how fast people bowl. As far as batting goes Sobers wins hands down, he scored 365 which wasn't beaten for 40 years. He could bat in any style and in any conditions against some of the games greatest bowlers.

  • Mark on February 8, 2013, 22:02 GMT

    Mark, I can understand if you are a born Aussie hyping Starc. He is a great bowler no question about it. But if you are writing about Swing, not too sure this is the place. He is a good fast bowler not a swing bowler. It is a real shame when Kulasekara gave such a hard time right through out the ODI series to Aussies but not even mentioning it. I guess you should change the heading to "Starc the Great Bowler" (btw I'm not a SL fan) Cricinfo please have guts to publish this.

  • Joshua on February 8, 2013, 20:57 GMT

    @Meety Sobers was a mediocre test bowler. His strike rate is not good. The job of a bowler is to get the batsman out. Not keep him in. Kallis stats against the minnows are right on his average and gained no advantage there.Nor did he get the new ball to bowl with as Sobers did. Stop trying to go against the facts, Kallis is a 50% better bowler in terms of results than Sobers was.And contrary to what you believe he averaged 145kmph as a fast bowler when he started his career with the odd ball near 150kmph. Even today he can get to 145kph if he wants to. He is genuinelyfast which Sobers never was. Sobers boweled military medium. And forget the old argument re Sobers bowling spin. He bowled on many spin friendly wickets and yet his spin stats are even worse than his medium pace. Face the facts - Kallis is a far superior bowler and probably the better batsman as well. As allrounders? Kalis by many a mile is far better than anyone who has played the game to date.

  • michael on February 8, 2013, 17:23 GMT

    BigBoodha. I didn't say Anderson was fast, merely too fast for Australia. And it was pretty dry in Australia in the last ashes wasn't it? Didn't see any rain in Adelaide when he was hooping the ball away in the air. Didn't see too much rain or cloud in India recently too. Very silly comments all round really. As for bashing other teams, well I'm afraid Randy/Jonesy easily take the biscuit on that one. Most people in England were quite happy to acknowledge Australia's greatness in the 90's and 00's. You just can't deal with the fact that your average right now.

  • private1 on February 8, 2013, 15:46 GMT

    How can all talk about Swing and reverse swing without ever managing to mention probaly one of the deadliest swing bowlers of all time Waqar Younis. He was far more lethal that Steyn, Philander etc...

  • John on February 8, 2013, 7:54 GMT

    Kapil Dev and Manoj Prabhakar would have ripped through any side in those kind of conditions. To me, they were a class act. In Ind tour of Aus 1990-91, they regularly broke the back of the Aussies only for our batsmen to give it away each time.

  • Andrew on February 8, 2013, 7:26 GMT

    @Mo Moosa - you clearly have no idea what you are talking about. MOST of Sobers career was against the 2 best two teams of the era (Oz & Eng). 60% of his games were against those two teams. For most of Kallis's career the top teams he could play against were Oz & India - he did that 28%. If you said Oz & Eng - it would be around 33%. Kallis's greatness is in his batting, slips fielding & longevity, the fact that he is a good seamer as well makes him one of the finest players to have ever played the game. I still stand by Sobers being a long shot better bowler than Kallis. By the way, pitches were coverd after WWII, - Sobers started playing tests 6 years AFTER WWII!

  • Andrew on February 8, 2013, 7:14 GMT

    @Mo Moosa - Kallis was NEVER a 150kph bowler! Donald was & was a lot faster than Kallis. Was a 140ish kph bowler who bowled heavy balls (like Flintoff & still does), meaning they hit the bat harder than other bowlers. Kallis has spent 30% of his career @ #3 averaging 50, Sobers @ #3 averaged 72, & batted # 3 or opened 21% - hardly much of a difference to qualify "... a large chunk..." If you remove Zim & Ban (cheap wickets) - his bowling ave is marginally worse & he only took 1.8 wickets per match - whereas Sobers 2.5 per match. This means that Sobers was more of a specialist bowler than Kallis. Shane Watson as a bowler averages 1.6 wickets a match & has a superior bowling averages/SR than Kallis - but who would say Watto is more of a specialist bowler than Kallis? @Chris_P - I have just noted you have taken almost exactly the same approach as me, but my ego has made me post my comment anyway! LOL!