The modern reverse swing

Simon Jones and Andrew Flintoff devasted the Aussies with their late, fast in-swinging yorkers.-AP

IN the course of its recorded seven hundred-year history, cricket has developed its own mystique and invented a distinctive specialist language: an idiosyncratic tongue suited to the description of the events and skills peculiar to this most English of sports. Small wonder that the newcomer to the game is mystified when the umpire shouts `no ball' — when the bowler is clearly holding a ball in his hand! Radio and television commentators puzzle the listener and viewer of the sport by stating that a bowler `swings it' — but we cannot hear any musical accompaniment to the delivery! When a batsman plays a defensive stroke `with soft hands' the spectator envisages that his hands have turned to putty. And when a player is said to be `backing up' does that mean that he is fielding running backwards? Modern players keep pace with the game's changing imagery. They are no longer satisfied with such terms as `outswing' and `a good spell.' Bowlers now `shape the ball out' or `hoop it' — and find the `ball coming out well.' Curiouser and curiouser!

The current buzz phrase around English cricket dressing rooms is `reverse or Irish swing.' Perhaps it should be `Welsh swing', for it is Glamorgan's speedster, Simon Jones, who, in tandem with Lancashire's `Freddie' Flintoff, is producing the devastatingly late fast in-swinging yorker which, in the Edgbaston and Old Trafford Tests, undermined the bastions of the Australian batting line-up, previously deemed impregnable.

But what does this apparently nonsense phrase — `reverse swing'— signify? Does it mean that, after the bowler releases the ball, instead of hurtling towards its target of the batsman's stumps, it back-tracks towards its source — the man who delivered it? Or does it describe a delivery which does the exact opposite of what the bowler intends it to do — and instead of moving laterally in the air — `swinging' — continues in the direction in which it started?

Apparently not. It merely explains a delivery which the bowler holds and bowls as for an outswinger, but which eventuates as an in-swinger. A corollary of that definition would be that it should also describe a ball which is intended as an in-swinger but turns out to be an outswinger.

I must protest at the looseness of modern cricket jargon. It induces inaccuracy, encourages the concept that near enough is good enough and loses just about everything in translation. Not for me. I still cling to the belief that all the skills of cricket are grounded on exact scientific explanations. Thus swinging a cricket ball — one which deviates laterally in flight before it bounces — can be attributed to changes in the air pressures created around the ball by the positioning of the seam and the rough side of the ball's casing. Orthodox swing with a new ball results from the vertical positioning of the prominent seam to the left or right of the ball's flight path towards the batsman. Release the ball with the seam pointing towards slips or towards fine leg and its stitching creates air turbulence and faster moving air to the left or right of the ball. Science tells us that fast moving air and turbulence has less pressure than slow moving air. If you doubt this, study the wing of an aircraft and you will note that its upper surface is curved and that air passing over that surface has to travel further and faster — and that consequently the air pressure above the wing is less than that beneath it. The slower air currents passing beneath the wing have more pressure and force the wing — and the aircraft — upwards and into the air.

Applying this theory to the cricket ball, one concludes that if a bowler can create air turbulence and greater air speed on the left of the ball by inclining its seam vertically towards the slips it results in the ball curving towards the zone of weaker air pressure. When a bowler inclines the seam towards fine-leg, he creates turbulence, greater air speed and less atmospheric pressure to the right of the ball. Result = the in-swinger.

The beauty of the modern concept of reverse swing is that it can be bowled with an old ball. Indeed it depends on the ball being old; and there seems to be an optimum worn stage when it can be bowled — approximately when 30 overs have been bowled with it — sometimes even earlier on the harder Australian pitches which roughen the ball much quicker. At this stage, the ball's seam has been flattened and consequently plays little or no part in the sideways movement of the ball through the air. Reverse swing is produced by the relative roughness of the two sides of the ball. The bowler polishes or smoothes just one of its sides, allowing the other to become as rough as possible. Indeed it has been known for some bowlers to increase its roughness — quite illegally — by rubbing soil into it or raising the quarter seam which runs at right angles to the stitching of the normal seam. This roughening of one side of the ball acts in much the same way as the seam of the new ball did — creating turbulence, greater air speed and less air pressure on that side. The bowler delivers the ball as he would an orthodox outswinger, with the worn seam held between the first and second fingers of the bowling hand and pointing towards the slips; importantly he maintains the position of rougher side of the ball on the right of the ball, and facing the batsman's leg-side. The side of the ball, which the bowler has been polishing faces, the batsman's off-side. Result = late reverse swing.

The unexpectedness of a delivery, which looks for all the world as if it were an orthodox outswinger but moves late in its flight in the opposite direction, made it a sure-fire wicket-taking ball in the hands of seasoned pace-bowling practitioners such as Pakistan's Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram. In the current Ashes series Flintoff and Jones are applying the finishing touches to their novel reverse-swing IBM — by bowling around the wicket, slanting it across the right-hander's body towards the slips and then moving it at the very last moment back into line with the stumps. This poses the problem to the batsman — to play or not to play? If the striker offers a shot and the reverse swing fails to materialise, he runs the risk of edging the angled delivery to the slips. If he refuses to be tempted and the ball ducks back — the result will probably be the nasty rattle of ball on stumps! There is also the bowling option of pitching the reverse in-swinger on a yorker length (there's another of those cricket words!) and directing it at the right-hander's leg stump, close to his body — thus cramping the batsman's scoring ambitions and denying him the room to mount an effective counter stroke. Life is becoming increasingly hard for batsmen! Look at the many bowling options now open to his opponents — orthodox and reverse swing, slower and faster deliveries, bouncers and yorkers, the orthodox slow bowler's regulation spinner, top-spinner and arm ball, Warne's slider and flipper (not to mention his orthodox leg-spinner, wrong-un and top-spinner). Muralitharan and Saqlain throw in their `doosra' and in days gone by, trundlers like Iverson, Gleeson and Connolly mystified opposing batsmen with their idiosyncratic brand of bent-finger spin and `knuckle balls' borrowed from the baseball code. Nowadays bowlers send down a Heinz's 57 variety of balls. Nor do I believe that we have seen the end of bowling invention; the recent fiat of the ICC legitimising the 15 degree kink of a bowler's arm seems certain to open the flood gates of further bowling innovations. In this case the ICC and not Necessity will be the mother of bowling invention. As a former fast bowler I can't say I am overly sympathetic to the batsman's cause! Getting the benefit of doubtful decisions, batting on shirt-front wickets against bowlers whose sole role in the game seemed to be that of presenting the ball in the hitting zone for the entertainment of the spectator — have for too long tipped the scales in his favour.