Sultans of swing

Pace alone can be quite a handful, but when combined with swing and accuracy, the bowling assumes a different dimension altogether. Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis are doing just that, and no one knows how they do it.

Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis... getting swing from an old ball.   -  Getty Images

Pakistan’s 2-1 victory in the five-Test series was so clear cut that England were grateful that rain in the first and third Tests prevented any sort of result. One day we may look back and wonder if that gratitude is misplaced, for the margin was not a true reflection of a contest in which the home side were seriously overwhelmed and the long-term results may be disastrous.

“Remarkably,” said Graham Gooch at the end-of-series captains’ Press conference after the ten-wicket defeat at the Oval in only three days and a session, “we were still in fighting in the final match.”

 

The rain at Edgbaston and Old Trafford covered the deficiencies of his side to the extent that the squad for India is unlikely to contain many new names and those same players who have still to prove their value at Test level are likely to be retained.

Gooch was unable to come up with any positive benefits from the series, save for the brief emergence of the leg-spinner Ian Salisbury and the rebirth of Mike Atherton following an operation on his back that forced him to miss last spring’s trip to New Zealand and the World Cup. Somehow he overlooked the new David Gower. Just forgetful, I guess.

The old brigade may suffice for the short tour of India and Sri Lanka early next year — or it may not — but when the fight to regain the Ashes starts next summer England may have to blood new players at a time when a solid team is needed to hold off the strong Australian side, particularly as Allan Border will be determined to make his last tour a memorable one.

 

Gooch’s response to criticism of England’s performance was a knowing grin. “Our batsman have lost their wickets because they have not learnt to deal with the way Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram get swing from an old ball. Again the knowing smile, implying some trick the rest of us had missed.

“We know how it is done,” he said. To his credit he added that it was not just the swing that had England mystified: it was swing bowled accurately and at speed by two highly talented performers.

Micky Stewart, the team manager for the last six years but in control for the last time at the Oval, again used the nod and the wink method to underscore his points. He refused to say directly how the two great fast bowlers made an old ball swing and in short order snapped that he had not implied any impropriety and that he would take no further questions.

At least one of Stewart’s colleagues at the Test and County Cricket Board concluded that Stewart was suffering from a bad case of stomach ache from eating sour grapes and perhaps he was distressed — “disappointed” is the word Stewart uses to cover all the ills that have followed England in the past few years — at defeat in his final match before passing on to overlord international progress from schools to Tests.

Stewart was also expressing the mutterings that have surrounded the series but which have still, at the time of writing, not been clearly expounded by reporters, cricketers, umpires or officials.

The mystery began to unfold at about the time Waqar Younis joined Surrey two years ago and has deepened. It is not confined to Pakistan bowlers. The same allegations were made during the Indian tour of Australia last winter, at least one umpire has pulled up a county side within the last few weeks and Gooch was shown a ball by the West Indian-born umpire John Holder and told it was in an unsatisfactory condition in the final Test against West Indies last year.

Holder, whose reputation for fair, play, good decisions and strong control resulted in a call along with John Hampshire to take over a Pakistan series, has not stood in any of the Tests this summer and some think that his keen eye for a rough ball is the reason although officially the TCCB says he is “rested.”

The suggestion is that the two Ws — great bowlers at the highest speed and with immaculate control — rough up the ball in order to get it to swing. That is, the whisperers conclude, why Pakistan never takes a new ball after 85 overs, why the new ball at the beginning of an innings never swings and why it is necessary for the umpires to have instructions that the ball must be inspected as often as necessary. But, I have been assured by TCCB officials, for all those inspections, and a separate examination of the ball at the end of each session by the match referee, that there has been no complaint.

The Pakistanis are angry at any thought that they are cheating. “Rubbish,” said Javed Miandad, who was near enough to hear all the hints dropped by Gooch and Stewart. “Let them prove it,” said Intikhab Alam, their team manager. Javed said his bowlers left one side of the ball rough and polished the other side. “We have been brought up in a climate where it is necessary to work hard on the ball in order to get swing,” he declared.

There are those who — and one great Indian cricketer has explained this system to English umpires who have been his fascinated pupils — believe that the Pakistanis also wet the rough side of the ball. The dampened side has more weight and produces the so-called reverse swing. That is to say the ball goes the opposite way from that expected by the batsman. All perfectly legal but so new it might be called a fast bowler’s googly.

Richie Benaud, who as Australia’s leading leg-break bowler since the War developed the ball that comes out of the front of the hand and is known as the flipper, says that the Pakistanis have made the biggest step forward for pace bowlers since the overarm action became acceptable.

Jack Bannister, a former Warwickshire quick bowler who took 1,181 wickets before he turned to writing and TV commentary, adds a marvellous tribute to the two Ws. “I admire what they do so much that I almost don’t care what they do to obtain their results.”

David Lloyd, the former England opening batsman, Lancashire captain, first-class umpire and now a favourite radio commentator, says: “It has always been done. It is like speeding in a car, you try it on and most of all you try not to be caught.”

So far, please note, no one has said they do anything underhand, immoral or illegal but in the way of cricket development there will, no doubt, be a lot of huffing and puffing before their methods are accepted.

When the method is so commonly used that there is no stopping it any longer, the two Ws’ swing method will be quietly built into the Laws, possibly by eliminating any reference to a new ball after 85 overs.

For years English seam bowlers used the new ball hoping that in the right conditions it would swing and that afterwards it would be rough enough to aid the spinners. It was replaced after 200 runs at one time; in 1948, in a move to compensate bowlers who had lost out on the new lbw rule, a new ball was offered every 55 overs.

That turned out to be just sufficient time for Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller to bowl out half the England side before they rested until the new ball gave them time to blow away the tail. This 55-over privilege was soon whipped away and bowlers were forced to earn their wickets once again by the sweat of their brows and the strength of their backs.

Little wonder then that when it was found the ball would hardly swing at all in Pakistan, teams resorted to added ingredients to produce any movement through the air — grease hair oil, Vaseline, lip salve and sweat but nothing like whatever mixture of moisture, dust and grip that produces the ball with which, for instance, Waqar removed Devon Malcolm at the end of the England second innings at the Oval.

Much less dangerous balls have removed Malcolm, and Conrad Hunte, the match referee at Old Trafford, insisted he was one of the world’s worst batsmen when Aaqib Javed peppered him with bouncers. But that is not the point. With a ball that had already been delivered 72 overs, Waqar hit the base of Malcolm’s leg-stump with a yorker that bent like a rocket-propelled boomerang. Wasim had just taken three wickets in 15 deliveries, only to be frustrated in his bid for a hat-trick by Malcolm’s broad bat. It was a delight to watch such high-velocity shells being delivered; even for those England enthusiasts who sometimes wonder where the next success is coming from.

This article was published in The Sportstar of August 22, 1992.