Weekly Sports Newsletter: Has the reverse swing become a casualty of Covid?

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Late one evening in October 1990, during a long net session in Faisalabad towards the end of the New Zealand-Pakistan Test series, master batsman Martin Crowe swung the ball miles in the air. It was to prove a eureka moment for his side who had been blown away by the reverse swing of Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram in the first two Tests. It would also open the world’s eyes to the magic that would unfold when a cricket ball was tampered with – half battered, half sparkling. It would even open a Pandora’s box.

On that trip, before magically transforming into the Sultan of Swing for a day, the late New Zealand legend had been repeatedly scammed by Akram. During the second test, Crowe would play for the inswing and the ball would go the other way. He was ignorant. It wasn’t something that happened too often to the deep thinking cricketer with flawless technique.

Trust a New Zealander to be curious, get to the heart of the problem and find a solution. In the same inning, Crowe would beat an Abdul Qadir leggie delivery to his feet to death, pick up the ball and examine it closely. To his horror, he saw that the leather on one side of the bullet was badly mangled. In contrast, the other hemisphere was largely intact and shiny. After the game, the Kiwis were experimenting in their training session. They used bottle caps to produce a Made in New Zealand designer ball.

And when even the most disconcerting Kiwi on the tour, burly flyhalf Mark Greatbatch, followed Crowe and shaped the ball the two Ws had, of course minus the pace, Pakistan’s big secret was out.

In years to come, referees and broadcasters would keep tabs on the field team trying to scrape the ball off. Sandpaper, blades, tin caps, zippers, dirt hidden in pockets would become the exhibits of many bullet tampering investigations. They would also be objects of embarrassment that would reduce men to tears.

As the examination intensified, it would become more difficult to damage the ball, but polishing it with wire would still be a legitimate ploy. Each team would have designated ball scouts. Keeping the ball pristine and sparkling was not a perfectly clean operation either. Players would tamper with the pin to get the extra shine from the ball so that it contrasts with the coarseness, natural or artificial, on the other side and thus is conducive to the reverse swing. Gum, mints and lozenges would be to cricket balls what cherry blossoms were to leather shoes.

The law of ball tampering was among the many ambiguities of this ancient English game. The definition of counterfeit was different on either side of the seam. The ICC remained open-minded towards the underhanded brilliance but had zero tolerance for scratching him. One was considered a white-collar crime that would hit the knuckles, but the other was broad daylight theft that was heinous and prohibited.

And then Covid arrived and inadvertently the rules evened out. Spit would become a four letter word. The ongoing India-England test in Edgbaston happens to be the second anniversary of the spit ban. This was the time when bowlers just used sweat to make the ball shine and they weren’t too happy about it. Interestingly, two England bowlers playing the test – James Anderson and Stuart Broad – saw their strike rates drop. It could be age or conditions, but it could also be spitting. The new rule allows the field team to use sweat to make the ball shine but not to lick their fingers and transfer saliva onto it.

Anderson, after his early impact with the new ball, would struggle on the opening day of the test. India would go from 98/5 in 28 overs to 338/7 in 73 overs. The reverse swing was conspicuous by its absence. There was no mid-inning excitement among the bowlers, the moment when the ball was battered enough to one side to do the kind of tricks the two made famous never came. The Indian batsmen came out but unlike Crowe, they had no idea which direction the ball would travel. Without the saliva treatment, the balloon didn’t really have a spirit.

The two best exponents of the fascinating art of moving the ball are expected to be pro-spit. Even during the pandemic, Akram was unafraid of being politically on the verge of error. The bowler in him emphasized that without the use of the pin it was not possible to move the ball. “The ban will turn bowlers into robots, coming to bowl without a swing,” he said.

Just before the India test, Anderson mentioned spitting while joining the chorus of criticism directed at the 2022 batch of allegedly soft Duke balls. His lament made headlines following the unusually high scores around the county circuit.

“It’s hard [for bowlers] especially since we’re playing on good courts and those balls don’t do much,” Anderson said. “Potentially, it could be that [lack of saliva making the ball not swing as much] but I’m not sure that will ever change, certainly in the foreseeable future, because of the Covid situation. Speaking to the bowlers after the game, they would like [saliva] be allowed, but I don’t see that happening.

Masters reject the ICC-recommended alternative for saliva, sweat, with contempt. Akram again. “Sweat alone was unlikely to generate swing because in some countries it was too cold. Sweat is just an add-on, add-on. Too much use of sweat will leave the cricket ball too wet,” says -he.

Scientifically, how different are pure and uncontaminated saliva and sweat from each other. Why do bowlers prefer saliva to sweat?

Bringing science into the debate will help understand another complexity of cricket. Reading two definitions from textbooks shows that Akram’s explanation is not sound. Spit and sweat are exactly the same.

Sweat is a liquid composed of 99% water and 1% salt and fat. Saliva is 99% water and 1% digestive enzymes, uric acid, electrolytes, mucus-forming proteins and cholesterol. It is bizarre and unscientific to agree that it is the 1% that rolls the ball back.

Chew it while watching the swing bowlers in action at Edgbaston, ideally with gum, mints and lozenges in your mouth.

Send your comments to [email protected]

Sandeep Dwivedi
National Sports Editor
The Indian Express

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