While the world sat admiring Dale Steyn's swing bowling, which caused India's capitulation in Nagpur
, the batsman in me couldn't help but feel sorry for our lot. Steyn was impeccable with his line and length, crippling even the best in the line-up. As he showed his calibre with a seven-wicket haul, I wondered if anybody spared a thought for how batsmen feel when the ball is darting around.
Why did Murali Vijay and Wriddhiman Saha shoulder arms when the ball was coming in? Why did Sachin Tendulkar play at the one going away only to nick it to the wicketkeeper?
It's harder to judge a swinging delivery than it looks. For one, it requires a lot of guesswork. Even the most skilled batsmen in the world rely on their instincts and years of practice to gauge where the ball will end up when it reaches them. There is no device to tell you the ball will move x inches in the air after release and y amount after pitching. And if the ball is moving at 145kph, the time to assess becomes shorter and the margin of error smaller.
There are certain things that a batsman keeps in mind while preparing to play the new ball. It helps if you have played the bowler in the past or if there is some video data to structure your game plan. If you're up against Matthew Hoggard or Brett Lee, who swing the ball away from the right-hander, you draw an imaginary line outside off stump and leave alone all balls that pitch outside that line. In fact, you have to play well within that line to cover the movement in the air and off the surface. You can't play balls outside off stump with a straight bat, for it doesn't cover for swing - you would probably end up nicking it to the keeper. You have to play with a slightly horizontal bat, which ensures that you cover the movement. A good example of covering for swing with a not-quite vertical bat would be Michael Vaughan's drive on the off side. In this case, the batsman is beaten only when the bounce is more or less than expected.
However, you will need to play with a straight bat when you're up against someone like Shane Bond, who swings it back into right-hander. Not just that, you'll also have to play late and close to the body to ensure there is no gap between the bat and pad.
Whether the ball is moving away or coming in, you need to constantly judge the amount of movement a bowler will get.
Be watchful of subtle changes in the bowling action, wrist and seam position, and the bowler's use of the crease. Bond and Makhaya Ntini, who predominantly get the ball back into the batsmen, bowl from wide of the crease to use the angle. Outswing bowlers, on the other hand, prefer bowling from close to the umpire, for that allows them to start their line from the middle stump, the better to be able to get the batsman to play at it.
Then there are bowlers like Shaun Pollock and Praveen Kumar, who though they bowl close to the stumps are able to move the ball both ways. And if that wasn't hard enough to read, bowlers set batsmen up by bowling outswingers from the corner of the crease and inswingers from close to the stumps.
The wrist position is a good indicator of the way the ball will come out of the hand. Ishant Sharma tilts his wrist to push the ball inwards, while Zaheer Khan and Steyn bowl with a straight wrist, which allows them to swing the ball both ways.
Once the ball is released, the seam can reveal some more. It will be tilted towards slip if the ball is set to move away, and towards fine leg if it is going to come in. That's not a guarantee, though. I remember getting bowled by Jason Gillespie in the third Test against Australia in Nagpur
in 2004. He bowled close to the stumps, his wrist was straight and the seam pointed towards second slip. So I expected it to move away and shaped myself for it, only to find the ball darting back in after pitching. I was bowled, and so was Rahul Dravid, under similar circumstances. The only difference being that he managed to get an inside edge. On these occasions, you have to consider yourself unlucky, and in this case I wasn't the only one.
If you can't see the shine while playing reverse-swing, as a right-hander you need to be ready for incoming deliveries, because for right-handers it moves in more appreciably than away. Play inside the line to ensure that you cover the movement coming in. If it moves away, the most it can do is to beat the bat
Another way of judging the path of the ball after release is to look for the shine. In case of traditional swing, the ball moves in the opposite direction to the side the shine is on; if the shine is on the right, the ball will move to the left and be an outswinger for a right-hand batsman. This is not guaranteed either. At times the ball misbehaves and holds its line - which may not be as bad as it swinging in the opposite direction but still causes trouble.
To make life difficult, bowlers like Zaheer have mastered the art of hiding from the batsman which side of the ball is shiny. When the ball is reverse-swinging it moves in the direction of the shine, unlike with conventional swing. If the shine is on the right, it will move towards the right, as an inswinger to the right-hand batsman. It's similar to traditional swing but the swing occurs a little later in the air. Good exponents of reverse-swing have the ability to delay the swing till about a few feet before it lands. Most batsmen get duped into believing it's a straight ball till it darts in or out at the very last moment. The later the movement, the more difficult it is to adjust.
It's slightly easier to gauge if you can see the shine, but a lot tougher if you can't. That's when the non-striker comes to your rescue, since he's in a better position to see which side is shiny. He can't tell you outright but his bat can. What he'll do is hold his bat on the side of the shine - in his right hand if the shine is on the right and vice versa. But there are times he isn't sure, so he'll keep the bat in the middle and you're left to deal with it by yourself.
If you can't see the shine while playing reverse-swing, as a right-hander you need to be ready for incoming deliveries because for right-handers it moves in more appreciably than it does away. Play inside the line to ensure you cover for the movement coming in. If it moves away, the most it can do is to beat the bat.
Bowlers like Mohammad Asif and Glenn McGrath rarely get the ball to swing in the air; they rely on movement off the pitch There's little a batsman can do against these bowlers, at least as long as the ball is new and the shiny side is not visible. What you look for are subtle changes: does the non-bowling arm drop slightly earlier in the action? That may mean an offcutter is on the way. If it is held on to till late, it is probably a legcutter. But again it's difficult to be sure every time.
Playing the swinging ball is a tough proposition. Admire the batsmen who do it with aplomb and sympathise with those who struggle.
Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of Beyond the Blues, an account of the 2007-08 Ranji Trophy season. His website is here