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Taking the reverse out of swing

July 12, 2012


Though reverse swing still lives on and always will, the way we saw it move in the air during the early 1990’s we may never see again, unless the laws are changed.

Few things in this world are serene, yet have the ability to get the adrenaline pumping; aesthetically artistic, yet capable of causing mayhem and destruction. There are a million ways to describe the first morning of a Test match but none do it greater justice than the sight of a man running in furiously from 25 metres and hurling down a shiny red cherry, swinging in the air and seaming off the turf. To complete this picture add some grass, four slips, a gully and a cloud cover making it a tad bit more exciting. While this was the case somewhat on the first day of the drawn third Test between Sri Lanka and Pakistan in Kandy, it did not last long.

There were no ‘spitting cobras’ from the slower bowlers either on the fifth day, and Pakistan’s inability to run through the Lankan batting line up brought memories of the great era when, the pitch was largely a non-issue for our fast bowlers’ pursuit of victory. Perhaps the secret ingredient is now missing?

Rewind to the summer of 1979. Australia were 305-3 chasing down a historic 381 in the fourth innings on the fifth afternoon at the MCG. That day, the old cherry in Sarfraz Nawaz’s hand did not need clouds, grass or men in catching positions to take his next seven wickets for one run. What it needed was pace, accuracy, a certain skill set and most importantly, leather that was reconditioned for swing. History was indeed made that afternoon but for reasons that were only to be known, practiced and fully understood over a decade later.

Sarfraz had figured that if one side of a cricket ball was roughed up and the other side was kept newer, the results could be unplayable. The greater the disparity in the condition between the two sides of the cork, the greater the disagreement of the speed they want to travel at, resulting in exaggerated movement leaning towards the shiny glossier side as it cuts through the air faster. He shared this enigma with his then good friend and bowling partner Imran Khan.

Whether the duo initially understood the complete science behind it or not did not matter, they knew they were changing the very fabric of fast bowling.

The Pakistani dressing room managed to keep this secret voodoo close to their heart until one fine summer in England it appeared on the front page of tabloids across the Island. Bewildered by the fast, late swing they accused the second generation of lethal, reverse-swinging duo of Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis of ball tampering and cheating with video evidence; the cat was now out of the bag.

Through the first half of the 1990’s, the two W’s ran through several batting line ups and it was virtually impossible to play their famous toe-crushers. Interestingly, they often did this on dead dry surfaces which in fact aid the ball to get roughed up faster. Many a bowler’s graveyard had now turned into a hunting ground for these fast men.

Was this the beginning of an era where reverse swing was going to rule the roost or was it the supreme most display of it that might never be witnessed again?

The entire team worked on the ball to induce it into a state where it would reverse. The keeper rolled the ball on the pitch back to the spinner(s), out fielders used the dry practice pitch, throwing the ball on the bounce back to the keeper. Hair cream and sun-block became essential cricket gear. The Pakistani team, being the best exponents of the dark art, remained in the centre of such allegations, which weren’t entirely false.

It can, however, safely be said that ball tampering has been a part of the game since its inception; it had never received any serious media coverage before 1992. Perhaps the utility of it was never this high and neither was its use this frequent or extensive, tampering was now more than just picking the seam. Michael Atherton tried dirt, Rahul Dravid used candy and Sachin Tendulkar acted on the ball, all of them were monetarily reprimanded by the ICC, while Waqar Younis became the first man in history to be handed a match ban for the offence in 2000.

Michael Holding said that any pace bowler who says he has never tampered with the ball is a liar while the late Bob Woolmer said, "Every single bowler I know from the time I played in 1968 to 1984 was guilty of some sort of ball tampering". When a South African fast bowler was photographed lifting the seam, Mike Procter retorted that 100 similar photographs could be taken during any match.

Is shining the ball with sun-block mixed sweat classified as tampering? Did Marcus Trescothick influence the Ashes 2005 win through his Murray Mints? Was Vivian Richard’s chewing gum a foreign substance? Is it cheating every time mud is removed from the ball without the supervision of the umpire? The crux of this quagmire might be rooted in the vague LAW 42.3which was termed as an “ass” by Woolmer.

Legendary fast men like Allan Donald and Sir Richard Hadlee have been in favour of changing the law where some form of alteration should be allowed to work in the bowler’s favour. Imran Khan, who admitted to have used a bottle top to scuff the ball in a county game, also feels some form of tampering should be made legal until the umpires feel the ball is in playable condition. Woolmer went one step further and said “I'd allow bowlers to use anything that naturally appears on the cricket field… they could rub the ball on the ground, pick the seam, and scratch it with their nail.” Manicure, anyone?

In today’s game, Lasith Malinga’s slinging action exaggerates late swing while other practitioners include the Aussie quadrant and glimpses are seen in teams with Zaheer Khan and Dale Steyn. James Anderson and Stuart Broad display good skill but when the ball went under English spikes, Michael Vaughan said “they were wrong to behave in the manner they did and I've no doubt that if a player from another country did the same we'd have said they were cheating” and Nasser Hussain questioned, “What would we have said if it was Pakistan?”. No official complaint was lodged against their pre-partition rulers.

Umar Gul is the only true exponent of reverse swing in the country of its birth. Mohammad Sami has the pace but is more in the Malcolm Marshall mould where his ball skids and hits the bat hard but seldom does he reverse it. Perhaps, if he was half the bowler Marshall was, he would not need to. The likes of Sohail Tanvir, Junaid Khan, and Aizaz Cheema also show little signs of reverse. Surprisingly it is Rana Naveed-ul-Hasan who swings the old ball further than his mates. Wahab Riaz has the right ingredients with his pace and round arm action but hasn’t done justice to his resources either, not yet.

Tragically for Pakistan, none of its current fast men truly became flag bearers of its iconic past in the trade. Waqar, who arguably was its greatest exponent and until recently their bowling coach, also made little headway.

Laws like free hit, restricted bouncers and two new balls have further shifted the balance of power in the batsmen’s favour. The growing popularity of Twenty20 cricket and grass less pitches have also contributed towards the decline of genuine fast bowling. While everyone enjoys runs in boundaries, the ardent followers would insist that there is nothing more enthralling than a tight fisted contest between bat and ball.

The International Cricket Council (ICC) has provided enough Yin to the game and perhaps it is time to offer some allowance to its Yang, for in their balance lies true actualisation of all existence.

Ian Chappell has suggested to “Rub the laws and start again… they should sit down with all the captains, and say - write down the list of all the things that make ball swing…. we will then go through the list and pick out - 6, 7, 8 …pick a number. Then we present the list to all the captains, and we ask them to pick one out of that lot, and make it legal and the rest is illegal. And if you are caught doing any of those - big trouble, you will be handed a suspension.” Biting the ball, though, would not have made it to the list of any captain in his right mind.

Though reverse swing still lives on and always will, the way we saw it move in the air during the early 1990’s we may never see again, unless the laws are changed. Amongst many reasons, a major one is that at least two cameras are almost always focused on the ball and the umpires keep a regular check on the ball. In the words of Tony Greig, it’s an open secret for 50 years amongst cricketers and, "Some may choose to deny it but most bowlers have technically indulged in ball-tampering" yet not everyone has had the same success as there is a high degree of art involved in reverse swing.

Exactly two decades ago, when the uncanny British press brought the art to limelight, it was thought that it would have a much larger impact on the game than it does today.

The sight of a 25-metre run-up has become rarer than ever before. The adrenaline pumps slightly slower than it did in the summer of 1992. Pakistan, once a mine of fast bowlers, has had an off-spinner quickly come on as first change in its last few Test series and opened their bowling in one of them. The fast bowling era seems to be a distant memory and there is a dearth of genuine toe-crushing and helmet-wrecking men around the world today. Any reasonable concession or encouragement that refuels their kind should be welcomed with an open mind if not open arms.

Ideally, with all due credit to the Sri Lankan batsmen, a fifth day’s pitch should not provide for such a comfortable stay at the crease as the Pallekele wicket did. It is a wonder that even in such conditions Junaid Khan provided some inspirational moments, his skill coming more off the pitch than the air.

Maybe the world needs the blessed land of Pakistan to mine more diamonds. The sight of two slips instead of four with a medium pacer ambling in instead of an express train on the first morning of a Test match is similar to a wedding ring without a rock.

The writer grew up in a home with sports as its religion and “The Cricketer” subscription of black and white pages as holy script. He resides in Istanbul and can be reached here.