What has happened to the art of swing?

Dale Steyn in his bowling stride International Cricket Council

Duke Ellington composed the seminal jazz standard "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" in 1931, the season for which Hedley Verity was named one of Wisden's cricketers of the year, and the summer in which Harold Larwood took 129 wickets at 12.03 apiece. It may seem unwise to open a blog on the vital skills of swing by noting that a quick bowler grabbed a ton of victims with seam and pace. However, dear Harold was a one-off speedster. He didn't need the weapons of wind and shine to shift the ball sideways because it went straight on with such phenomenal force.

What made Malcolm Marshall and Wasim Akram better than the other pacemen was their ability to swing the ball. And not just in their era but any era: the two icons are often named in all-time XIs.

From the current "kings of of swing", Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander top the ICC table, with Peter Siddle at six and James Anderson at nine.

Lauded by cricketing stars past and present, Anderson admits that when he was first picked for Lancashire he "couldn't swing the ball". Coach Mike Watkinson taught him grip and seam position, and although the outswinger came naturally it took Anderson years to develop an inswinger. "And then another couple of years to actually get it straight." His armoury now includes both conventional and reverse swing, as well as his "wobble seam", a delivery created while watching Pakistan's Mohammad Asif bowl against England in 2010 - when Asif stepped over the crease and into cricket oblivion he was ranked the second-best bowler in the world. Bob Woolmer likened his control to McGrath's and Pollock's; Asif was a bowler who could "make the ball move both ways". By the time his match-fixing ban expires he'll need all the variations he can muster.

After the ODI run-fest between Australia and India, journalists have wondered if the bowler has been demoted to a bit part in the batting circus, a clown who lobs up balls to be fired out of the ground so fans can bop to the six jingle and watch the prancing cheerleaders. Bemoaning the fate of the hard-working bowler is nothing new. In 2006, Mike Atherton branded the one-day game legislation as discriminatory and wondered whether "a challenge to the court of human rights from some poor downtrodden member of the bowling fraternity" was only a matter of time.

Who ever called Marshall or Wasim downtrodden? Were Imran Khan, Richard Hadlee or Ian Botham habitually abused by punks with 3lb clubs? No. They swung the ball. Forget the bigger bats and shorter boundaries, the ramp and the helicopter shots, if a bowler hits the popping crease with a booming sidewinder that starts outside off and is about to uproot leg stump, that cheeky dink over the keeper is more likely to decapitate the batsman than delight the crowd.

So what has happened to the art of swing? It's hardly a new weapon, with various bowlers of the "peculiar flight" described by WG Grace being credited with the cunning invention over 200 years ago.

In the very first coaching session I attended, aged 11 and wearing blue trainers, the coach turned me side-on to the batsman and aligned my fingers along the seam. As if by magic, the ball moved away and I was hooked on repeating the delivery. Luckily my next coach was Ken Higgs, a stalwart of the county circuit and forgotten England swing demon. His kit bag contained as many cans of furniture polish as it did cricket balls, and without consulting theories on laminar states (the shiny side) and turbulent states (the rough side) he understood the laws of physics - for a superb thesis on The Science of Swing see this piece on ESPNcricinfo by NASA scientist Rabindra Mehta.

Higgs also taught me the importance of variations, the ball that nips back and takes off stump to bewitch the keen leaver. Before touring India last winter I honed my cutters and copied the Jade Dernbach fast legbreak to counter what I presumed would be dusty pitches without pace or the weather conditions for swing. Alas, our first ground had a watered square of green in the middle of a brown outfield, and until the new ball scuffed up, it scythed through the air. From 22 for 5 to a match-winning 160, our opponents recovered their innings when the ball stopped moving.

The next evening heavy dew created banana parabolas. Until a long hop became a lost ball in the adjacent train yard eight overs had gone for a miserly 22 runs. The replacement was as dead as a dodo, and though it didn't swing it certainly flew - over the boundary rope again and again. When the new ball wobbled, our amateur clubmen competed with the pros, but without lateral movement we were cannon fodder for the budding IPL players.

Pitches, bats and rules - handing the ball back to the umpire between fallen wickets and losing polishing time is a particularly discriminatory law - have threatened this subtle art. The bedraggled bowlers should be encouraged by Steyn at his best, a combatant in the mould of Marshall or Akram who can make a gifted batsman look foolish when he makes the cherry sing.

Admittedly swing is dependent on an array of variables, from the brand of ball to wind direction, cloud cover to humidity, and even what side of the ball is damaged with that pull shot into the advertising boards. What we do know is that up and down won't suffice in the modern hit parade, and as Duke Ellington advised all those seasons ago, "It don't mean a thing (If it ain't got that swing)."