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

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