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