February 26, 2016

Australia's reversal of fortune

For years, they were seen as being slow on the ball on reverse swing. Not so in the New Zealand series

Pattinson, Hazlewood and Marsh got the ball to curl around in the two-Test series against New Zealand © Marty Melville/AFP/Getty Images

Australia's cricketers struck a note far more aspirational than triumphal at the conclusion of a Test summer that catapulted them to No. 1 in the world at exactly the right moment to scoop the ICC's $1 million annual prize. Rather than luxuriating in the achievement, they struck the tone of a new landowner who still has to build a house upon the plot.

On his return home the captain, Steven Smith, delivered an Instagram message for team-mates and supporters in which he spared only two sentences for celebration. By the third he was already talking about more needing to be done: "No. 1 in the world is a fantastic achievement but we have lots of hard work in front of us."

His deputy, David Warner, revealed that much of the previous night's celebrations in Christchurch had actually been spent plotting for future assignments. "We hung around at the team hotel," he said, "and talked about how we got to where we are and how we're going to have to work to extend that gap between second and first."

These are strong sentiments from the team leaders, indicating they are already thinking ahead. One area sure to be the focus of discussion is a skill the team did improve notably against New Zealand, something that will be critical should Smith's men manage to keep their current perch for any length of time: reverse swing.

Over the years, the art of bending the old ball has been mastered by numerous fast men around the world, most famously in Pakistan but also by internationally feared practitioners in England and India. Imran Khan, Wasim and Waqar, Darren Gough, Andrew Flintoff, Simon Jones, James Anderson, Zaheer Khan and Dale Steyn have been among them.

"Ray Lindwall came in, and I remember talking with him. He asked about reverse swing, because he said it wasn't around when he played"
Glenn McGrath

Australians, though, have always felt somewhat left out of this circle of swerve. Most will tell you that a common running theme of reverse swing for Australia is that their batsmen invariably seem to be the ones on the receiving end. Sarfraz Nawaz first unleashed it on a World Series Cricket-weakened team at the MCG in 1979, before Wasim, Waqar, Gough and Zaheer all had their moments.

Most memorably, the 2005 Ashes series has gone down as an encounter where England regained the urn for the first time in 16 years through the nefarious use of sugar-coated saliva to work on the ball - or so the conspiracy theorists had it. In truth Flintoff and Jones simply used a dry summer and abrasive pitches to great effect, meaning the ball was seldom if ever travelling gun-barrel straight. Anderson created similar levels of doubt at Trent Bridge eight years later.

Contrary to popular belief, Australia have actually had numerous quite expert reverse swing merchants. The likes of Geoff Lawson and Mike Whitney used it to excellent effect on the near-subcontinental SCG in the 1980s after learning from Imran, while Shane George did similarly well for a time in Adelaide. Glenn McGrath emerged from the shadow of the aforementioned New South Welshmen in 1992-93, and developed into a famously great bowler. Less spoken about is that he was arguably the greatest Australian exponent of reverse.

McGrath remembers swinging the ball against the shine for the first time in a Sheffield Shield game in Sydney, and also how other Test team-mates spent time trying to learn as much as possible about the concept whenever they crossed paths with Pakistan.

"We always spoke about reverse swing and how to achieve it," he says. "The Aussies were okay at getting it to reverse but teams like Pakistan and England were far better at it than we were. Once it started reversing, it was fairly easy to maintain. I think because I had pretty good control over where the ball was going, reverse swing was something that I enjoyed bowling.

"You just held the seam straight with the shiny side facing the way you wanted to swing and run in and bowl it. Bowlers who had more of a slingy action could reverse-swing the ball more, like Waqar Younis. It really helped bowlers on flat wickets, especially in the subcontinent. The Dukes and SG cricket balls reverse a lot more than the Kookaburra."

Mike Whitney was a fine practitioner of reverse swing in the 1980s © Getty Images

Exposure to bowling in Asia brought about a brief period when Australian fast men were able to use reverse quite consistently - 1998-99 now looks the apogee for old ball swing down under. From Michael Kasprowicz curling through Mohammad Azharuddin in Bangalore and Damien Fleming upending Mark Ramprakash in Adelaide, to McGrath's ripper to Gough in Sydney or another to Nehemiah Perry during the 1999 Barbados epic.

Even so, old-ball movement was never totally mastered, and its absence from mainstream Australian cricket culture was summed up when McGrath found one of his great forebears sitting beside him in Hobart one day: "Ray Lindwall came in, and I remember talking with him. He asked about reverse swing, because he said it wasn't around when he played." Little wonder overs like this one from Brett Lee to Ramnaresh Sarwan have been few and far between.

So it was a somewhat different experience over the past two weeks for many to see the old ball bending both ways in the hands of Australia's pace attack in Wellington and Christchurch. Josh Hazlewood, James Pattinson and Mitchell Marsh all had the ball curving around corners at times, as a well-drilled team made the right decision about which side to look after once the early blows of the batsmen had dictated the shiny side.

As ever with reverse swing, its arrival for one team and not the other tends to draw out questions of impropriety. The umpires were zealous in advising the Australians against bounce throws on the Hagley Oval square - though how this constitutes ball-tampering is a point worth debating - and so the whiff of unfair play was allowed to settle; never mind the strong suspicion that New Zealand were warned about this practice also.

Smith's Australians should not worry themselves too much about that. Nor should they think of getting the ball to swing as any sort of "dark art". Instead they can be quietly satisfied that in New Zealand they showed a developing ability to find a new challenge for batsmen on docile pitches for pace, exactly the sort of scenario they are likely to find themselves in on tours of Sri Lanka and India. Old-ball swing allied to discipline will take them a long way there: just ask McGrath.

"It's very important, he says. "The subcontinent is about using the new ball while it's hard, then it starts getting a bit softer and not doing anything. During this period you bowl more defensive lines with defensive field placements while working on the ball, really shining one side and keeping the other side absolutely dry. Once the ball starts reversing, you can start attacking more."

By the sounds of things, Smith and Warner have already taken note.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Peter on February 29, 2016, 17:48 GMT

    Looks like they have come a long way from individual expertise to a team based knowledge. Reverse has been long ignored in Oz simply due to the prevalence of conditions that did not require such mastery in ODIs and Tests. Losing the Ashes a few times and the rise of India changed all that given ECB and CA's wish to play India more simply based on income generation. Billion plus fans beats small millions anyday I think reverse will now be a consistent part of any pace bowler's armory if they wish to play in the baggy green. It's one way Oz can supplement the natural advantage of having good pace bowlers in the subcontinent. Sidds is on the outer now and should make way for Cummins or Behrendorff or Paris. The canny heads are now in sync. The prospect of three 190-195cm bowlers at speed is tantilising. They all differ in strengths. Add MM...not a bad lot

  • Kumarpal on February 27, 2016, 10:59 GMT

    Irfan Pathan hardly played much since 2007 for India except for a brief spell during 2012 WT20 bowling at high 120s.

  • DIVYANSHU on February 27, 2016, 9:55 GMT

    @Reddirt - Thanks for the elaborative biography of yours. But can't comprehend what u actually wanted to say !!!

  • Richard on February 26, 2016, 13:51 GMT

    I open bowled for every school I went to (9 schools) so I was fast and very good. At 12 years old I bowled Tony Grieg middle stump with an outswinger when he was only just retired and also my English teacher, international umpire Mel Johnson, this time with a tennis ball. My uncle was touted as being equal of Denis Lillee at the same age of 17 (and that is a big wrap on DK) and once bowled Martin Crowe Vic vs NZ for a duck, but his knee went on him. My grandfather was off scratch in golf, owned Neale Fraser at tennis, never missed at quoits, played billiards like Eddie Charlton, was 'keeper for his region, and once ironed out a golden gloves bully with just one punch. You could say I come from good stock.

    When I went to my first cricket training the coach asked me how I hold the cricket ball for an outswinger. I showed him. "That's not right" he said. "Yes it is" I said.

    No wonder we couldn't bowl reverse swing in Australia because the coaches didn't pick the ones who could.

  •   Maitreya Wagh on February 26, 2016, 13:21 GMT

    Smith's team achieved their feats on a majorly Starc-less summer... Watching Hazlewood become Australia's lead bowler was amusing, but it will be interesting to see how he adjusts when Starc is back from his injury... Starc, Siddle, Hazlewood, Pattinson, Marsh are a formidable bowling attack...I guess home matches should be experimented without Lyon...

  • hari on February 26, 2016, 10:08 GMT

    One thing is sure this team is not about resting on laurels. For such a young team - both in terms of age and experience, to talk about improving every game is heartening. Smith has surprised and impressed everyone with his maturity and professionalism. You can easily say he is the best captain today, though he has a long way to go. It also augurs well for the team if they are focussing on sub-continent so early. The WT20 and IPL will help many of them to learn about the conditions better and test their skills before the big 'tests' ahead. Someone said they will conquer SL and India. I would be very happy if they do so. Though I am from India, I would appreciate if someone comes and beats you in your own game. But to achieve that they need to bat really well. It is good that in Khawaja, Smith and Voges they have the right technique for these conditions. They need to perform to ensure their dream is fulfilled. Very eager to see them play here. Until then All the Best Smith & Co.

  • Hamish on February 26, 2016, 9:47 GMT

    Ashes redemption. The long and short of it is that they saw themselves coming second in the Ashes, despite being by far the better team on paper with Starc, Hazlewood, Smith, Rogers, Voges, Lyon, and did something about it. Reverse swing has always been something of a dark art, but Jimmy Anderson has mastered it and Australia has risen to the challenge.

  • Peter on February 26, 2016, 9:34 GMT

    MODERNUMPIRESPLZ. As far as figures go, you're correct, but he strangled one end while keeping up the pressure, the first test we won was on a dustbowl later given a poor rating, where all pace bowlers suffered. He probes & gives nothing away, and does reverse it, his effectiveness on Aussie pitches are not as pronounced, but IMHO, a horses for courses pick, but of course, he won't be considered. Out of all bowlers I see (although only NSW games) he is the standout for reverse swing bowling.

  • Viren on February 26, 2016, 9:03 GMT

    Irfan Pathan, one of the finest exponents of swing bowling doesn't get a mention, This guy was absolutely lethal in his prime and does currently get it right now and again, albeit at much reduced pace.....

  • Russell on February 26, 2016, 7:48 GMT

    Simon Jones and Freddie cleaning up the Aussies with reverse swing in 2005...happy days...the Aussies had no idea For the Aussies, I really think Mitch Marsh is worth keeping in the side - he definitely gets the ball to talk. He doesn't look like he'll cut the mustard as a genuine all-rounder but I think he might well end up as one of your 3 seam bowlers and a hard-hitting no.8

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