It don’t mean a thing if it don’t got that swing
The Champions Trophy is on in England, and it’s the first time in a long time that I’d been anticipating a cricket event more eagerly than a football event (The Champions League final). It’d been too long since I’d watched a proper full game of cricket and I’d started to doubt my Indianness, because, you know, there’s a lot of doubt about people’s Indianness in general these days. But I digress. The IPL came and went, and was largely uneventful. The charm of the IPL, and maybe even cricket, is lost on me. My interest in it waned during the time that the Chennai Super Kings were facing their two year ban/suspension. Coincidence? I’m not sure.
My newly piqued interest in cricket and the Champions Trophy can be ascribed to the 2015 World Cup. It was played in Australia and New Zealand, and for once it was an even competition between bat and ball. In a few lines, I’ll try to describe what it was like to see the bowlers go about doing their thing in that tournament. Generally, the conditions and pitches in Australia and New Zealand are similar to those in England in the aspect that they aid fast bowlers, albeit in different ways.
I have a soft corner for fast bowlers. On the field in a match, they’re the most relentless and persistent bunch. Getting thrashed around for fours and sixes by bellicose batsmen who are often simply swinging for the fences, being plagued by back and shoulder issues, and overall just busting their posteriors for little credit must not feel nice. But it’s not just my pity they elicit. I am especially awestruck by swing bowling. So imagine my delight when in the 2015 World Cup, Trent Boult, Tim Southee, Mitchell Starc, Mohammed Shami and few others were making the ball sway around, befuddling batsman, forcing them to dance and look ugly when they misstep. It was a truly wondrous sight, a throwback to the days of old when the duo of Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis would beguile batsmen, but not quite as destructive.
Red arrow indicating outswing, and blue indicating reverse swing
Swing bowling is the ultimate skill that a fast bowler can possess, but off late it has become a bit of a lost art form. Its origins go way back, documented as early as the time of the great WG Grace, described as a “peculiar flight”. Swing is also as much a science as it is an art. It works somewhat as follows: The cricket ball is split into two halves by a seam, and usually after a couple of overs, one side is rougher than the other. The shinier side is kept towards the batsman and the seam position, depending on out or in swing is positioned accordingly. As the ball travels through the air, a thin film of air covers the ball (akin to a comet but without the cool flames). Pressure differences on either side of the ball and and the tripping of the seam in the intended direction causes the ball to curve in the air, manifesting in the macro phenomenon we call ‘conventional swing’. Then there is the properly wicked variant of swing called ‘reverse swing’ which works in almost preternatural ways. Well that’s at least how the batsmen see it. It curves in the opposite direction and it is more effective at greater speeds. The actual physics of swing is so complicated, in fact, that a comprehensive article was written for ESPNCricinfo by NASA scientist Rabindra Mehta who has studied cricket ball aerodynamics for nearly three decades! While I would love to get into the details of that article, it is consummately technical and nuanced.
So, what exactly is my gripe here? I have waited much too long to witness quality swing bowling. I tried to put off writing this just long enough in hopes that I would be proved wrong in the first few matches of the Champions Trophy, but for the most part, it wasn’t to be. Swing bowling is dying. It is being killed off systematically by the establishment in favour of runs. Either the pitches are too flat and dusty, or too wet. It is one of very few means to keep batsmen in check and give the sport proper balance. Test cricket might be the only domain where it can freely flourish and that is quite a pity, because who even watches test cricket anymore? I sincerely hope that this is just a phase fast bowling is going through, and that this lamentation will read silly a few months or years down the line. A renaissance of sorts is needed, maybe augured by modern day ‘Sultans of Swing’, the Mohammed Amirs and the Mitchell Starcs of world cricket. But until then, the state of swing bowling is in dire straits.
– Ashwin Sridhar