Sunday, August 16, 2009

Sultans of Swing

As we come to the business end of yet another gripping series of ashes( excluding the 2007-08 whitewash), the talk of tabloids is no longer Shane's wrong ones, as was the case for over 15 years. This time, swing is king.

After spin, there is no other subject in cricket that elicits more intrigue than the art of swing bowling. And as a subject, it seems a more difficult subject to comprehend.

Many fast bowlers rely heavily on swinging the ball to trouble batsmen. Naturally, there are known techniques and methods that such bowlers use to swing the ball. Sometimes the cricket ball swings in an unconventional manner, without a change in grip, seam position or bowling action. Yea, that nasty toe-breaker, made famous by Waqar Younis, called the inswinging yorker, or more commonly reverse swing.

It turns out, all the explanation that I was made to believe was nothing but pure imagination. And I don't mean imagination in the cricketers dancing their way to the bank on 'reality' TV kinda way.

For many years, I'd bought the notion that the ball swings when the atmosphere is a depressing grey, the pitch is moist, with shades of green. It turns out, much of my understanding is owing to cricket folklore that players and commentators have invoked to explain why the ball moved ferociously sometimes, but not at other times.

Says a Nasa scientist, in a typically patronizing stiff-upper lip tone - bollocks!

Rabindra Mehta, a Nasa scientist and schoolfriend of Imran Khan, the former Pakistan all-rounder, has studied the aerodynamics of cricket balls for three decades and has advised Troy Cooley, the Australia bowling coach. And he has been watching the Ashes on television from his California home in exasperation.

“What the commentators, cricketers I much admire, have been saying about swing is plain wrong,” he told The Times yesterday. “They’ve been talking about the clouds, how the new ball won’t swing until the lacquer has come off, and it’s just rubbish.”

As this Nasa scientist unveiled a scientific explanation of the art of swing (note the paradox), I figured over the years, many legends had sprung up about swing, the way plants and creepers do in the cracks of abandoned spectator stands at Guyana or Gwalior.

Contrary to common belief, there are three types of swing bowling, not two, he said. Seam position and bowling speed are critical to achieving all of them, but overcast weather conditions do no more than create the ambiance of despair in the minds of self-doubting batsmen.

As the ball moves through the air, a thin “boundary layer” of air hugs its surface before breaking away. If the boundary layer breaks later on one side of the ball than the other, pressure will be reduced, causing the ball to swing that way.

For conventional swing, the ball is gripped with the seam angled towards slip for an outswinger and fine leg for an inswinger. Part of the shiny side must face the batsman with the bowlers’ fingers resting next to the seam. As air catches the raised seam, it creates turbulence on that side only. The boundary layer breaks later on the other side of the seam, causing swing in that direction.

Reverse-swing works, as the name suggests, in reverse. The seam is pointed away from the direction in which the bowler wants swing and part of the rough side of the ball faces the batsman.

The roughness means the boundary layer starts off turbulent on both sides. The seam, however, weakens this turbulence on its side, causing the boundary layer to break earlier and sending the ball swinging in the other direction.

The condition of only one side of the ball is important: the shiny side for conventional and the rough side for reverse. “The new ball is perfectly capable of swinging this way: that the other side is shiny doesn’t matter,” said Dr. Mehta, unabashed. But a nasty toe-breaker it is, for somebody who thought he actually was starting to appreciate the art, much like a pseudo at his first visit to a Sotheby's auction.

Which makes me wonder why is it that swing bowling remains an enigma after almost 130 odd years of International cricket. Probably its because the best ones at the swing bowlers clique don't talk about it too much. Understandable, because when it really comes down to it, they gladly let the ball do the talking.