Moments that changed cricket forever: Reverse Swing – the dark art of cricket!

England v Pakistan

In the autumn of 1982, the Australians faced Pakistan at Faisalabad. Australia was four down and Imran Khan had the ball in his hand. As the number six batsman took guard, Imran Khan charged in and hurled the ball in. The seam of the ball was angled towards second slip but it sharply swerved in while two-thirds of the way through its flight. It dipped on the right-hander, pitched at a full length and made a mess of the furniture.

Imran Khan was a great bowler and often delivered match winning spells. However, this one against Australia was special. He ran havoc on a dead pitch, with a ball that well past fifty overs.

The story, though, began in 1972, when Pakistan lost their first three Tests against Australia. Pakistan was destined for a whitewash and as expected, lost the final one at Sydney as well. However, that Test at SCG ushered in a new era of fast bowling.

Sarfaraz Nawaz, making a comeback in the Pakistan team, ripped apart the famed Australians batting line-up in that Test match. The work horse from Lahore bamboozled the Aussies and amazed the cricket world with his new found ability of swinging the old ball.

He did it again when Pakistan toured England in 1973 and then he uprooted the mighty West Indies at Lahore in 1975, on a placid track. The batsmen were left clueless and the media confounded.

Pakistan were the masters of a mystery weapon and they called it – “the reverse swing”.

The mystery – the dark art

Playing swing bowling has always been a tough proposition for any batsman. Especially, with the new ball and over cast conditions, many a top order has found it a herculean task to face up to the moving cherry. The bowlers made merry as long as the ball was new and the conditions were tipped in their favor but things weren’t so easy on a bare track on a hot sultry afternoon with an old ball and two set batsmen.

Not many had the answer but Sarfaraz Nawaz, Sikander Bakht and Imran Khan stunned the batsmen with reverse swing. Their new weapon was slightly different from the conventional one. They swung the old ball and swung it the other way.

The science – behind the seam

According to England’s ex-bowling coach, Troy Cooley, “Reverse-swing isn’t rocket science – it’s a lot more complicated than that…”

Cooley is right because the phenomenon of reverse swing depends on a large number of factors. The surrounding temperature, the air-flow, air pressure, type of leather used in manufacturing the ball, the quality of stitching and even details like the letters stamped on either side of the ball.

While conventional swing is considered as an art-form, reverse swing, till recently, was regarded as the voodoo of the brown man. Though it was regarded as a mystery that cannot be explained, the laws of fluid dynamics busted the myth that surrounded reverse swing.

Reverse swing is the most misunderstood art in cricket. It’s no magic but complete science. According to Troy Cooley,

“Reverse swing is all to do with the deterioration of the ball and the seam position in flight. As the ball becomes rougher, it will take on a different characteristic as it deteriorates. So if you present the ball as an out-swinger, the ball has deteriorated so much on the rough side that it takes on the characteristics of the shiny side. Which means a natural out-swinger will become an in-swinger and conversely, an in-swinger into an out-swinger.”

To understand how the cricket ball swings as it travels through the air, here are a few basic facts.

Layers of air surrounding the ball

Layers of air surrounding the ball

When a cricket ball is released, there is a coating of air on the surface of the ball that envelopes it during its motion. As the ball moves further, there is another layer of air, in front, that is undisturbed by the ball’s motion. In between these two layers, there lies the thinnest layer known as the boundary layer.

This boundary layer is manipulated to deflect the ball in different directions which, in cricketing terms, is known as “swing”.

If the air-flow around the ball is laminar and is nearly parallel to the surface of the ball, it doesn’t really affect the ball’s motion. However, if the air-flow is turbulent, then the random fluctuations of the air particles directly affect the motion of the ball.

Conventional Swing

Conventional Swing

In conventional swing, the polished side of the new ball produces a laminar flow while the other side of the ball roughens up. By releasing the ball with an angled seam and the polished surface forward, the seam, the ball’s surface trips the air-flow into turbulence on the seam’s side. And since the turbulent flow hugs the contours of the ball, a pressure imbalance is set up. The ball is sucked to the seam’s side hence inducing side swing.

Reverse Swing

Reverse Swing

Now, with the scuffed-up side forward, when the ball is spun at a faster clip, the flow becomes turbulent on both sides. The seam deflects the turbulent flow away from the surface of the ball and leaves a low-pressure flow next to the ball on the opposite side, which results in the ball swinging in the reverse direction.

So, it’s evidently clear that reverse swing occurs when the side force acts in a direction that is opposite to the direction to which the seam points. So a bowler who primarily bowls out-swingers with the new ball can bend the ball in with an older one without any change in the grip. Similarly, an in-swing bowler should be able to take it away from the batsman while reversing the ball.

The Process – the secret of the shine!

Much has been written about when the ball starts to reverse and how to get the ball into the perfect reversing condition. Questions have been raised on how players, over the years, have used “different” methods to scuff up the ball in order to initiate reverse swing.

However, it has a little more to it. On field, to obtain reverse swing, the cricket ball has to be looked after by every single member of the side with meticulous devotion. If the ball bounces on the wrong side on the grass, the rough side might lose its roughness. If the sweaty palms touch the rough side of the ball, you can forget about reverse swing. The ball is thrown-in from the outfield to the keeper in a particular way and there are designated members who shine the ball.

So much effort is put into the preparation of the ball that certain players are barred from even touching the ball. Australian pacer Mike Kasprowicz was asked not to place his hand anywhere but the seam because of his excessive perspiration tendency and Saqlain Mushtaq was made to alter his grip because his fingers rubbed the ball in the wrong way.

Even after the ball’s ready and the conditions are in favor, you need the bowlers who can use it effectively because according to Waqar Younis – “Not every fast bowler can bowl the reverse swing…”

The bowler has to get the seam in a vertical position because without that, there would be no swing at all. So the bowler needs to have a perfect wrist action so as to release the seam in the optimum position.

That’s not enough. It has to be bowled with a slightly round-arm action and at an increased pace. At about 85 mph, it causes enough turbulence in the air-flow that makes the ball “trip” and go the other way.

The Artists –  The Pundits from Pakistan!

Wasim and Waqar: The two Ws of Pakistan

Wasim and Waqar: The two Ws of Pakistan

Sarfraz Nawaz was originally credited as the founder of reverse swing during the late 1970s. Nawaz passed on his knowledge to his team-mates Sikander Bakht and captain Imran Khan. Imran Khan then planted the seeds in his two disciples, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis.

Though Nawaz’s initial spells were viewed as sporadic greatness but his spell of 33 deliveries, in 1979, against the Aussies, where he picked up 7 wickets for 1 run, shook the cricket world. But it was only in the late 80s, that reverse swing took centre stage. Nawaz’s discovery was applied to devastating effects by the dynamic duo of Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis.

The two Ws of Pakistan elevated Nawaz’s skill into an art-form. It didn’t matter whether the pitch was flat, it didn’t matter whether the batsmen were on naught or past a hundred because they were never safe. Even on the flattest of tracks, one would suddenly dart in, smash into the base of leg stump and take their toes with it.

Now, the myth has been busted. From James Anderson to Zaheer Khan, everyone knows how to reverse the ball.

But Khan Mohammed didn’t.

Khan Mohammad, cricketer – if you Google search this name, you will learn a few things about him. Hailing from Lahore, he was the man who bowled Pakistan’s first ball and claimed Pakistan’s first wicket in Test cricket.

Sharing the new ball with the great, Fazal Mahmood, Khan Mohammad notched up 54 wickets in the 13 Tests he played. He wasn’t an express bowler but interestingly, most of his victims either lost their sticks or got trapped in front.

He left cricket after being marred with injuries and focused on coaching kids at the Gaddafi stadium. Coincidentally, Sarfaraz Nawaz also learnt his trade at the Gaddafi and in one of the u-16 camps in Multan, Khan Mohammed met a kid who could bowl really fast. His name was Waqar Younis.

Khan Mohammed wasn’t a special player and cricket history forgot about him but according to the keeper of his side, Imtiaz Ahmed, “He wasn’t easy to handle…he did strange things with the old ball!”

He wasn’t aware that he was reversing it but unknowingly he created a legacy that became so potent and so dangerous that it changed the face of cricket…forever!

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