Swing bowling in cricket: Understanding the mystery

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Fast bowlers can rely on sheer pace to dismiss batsmen, but the very best have other weapons. One of these weapons is swing; an even deadlier weapon is reverse swing. Conventional swing involves in-swing (into the batsman) and out-swing (away from the batsman).

Conventional swing occurs when the superior airflow on the shiny side causes the ball to move in the direction of the seam. Reverse swing occurs when the ball swings in the opposite direction – in the direction of the shinier side of the ball.

Before the art and science of swing and reverse swing were understood better, there were some myths and controversy surrounding the practice. Sometimes, it can arouse suspicions of ball tampering. Indeed, the idea of swing can be tricky to explain or grasp to the average cricket follower. However, it can be understood better by comparing reverse swing with conventional swing.

What is swing?

The key to understanding swing bowling is to understand that air pressure differentials between the two sides of a cricket ball are a central concept to the phenomenon. The different points of separation of air from the two sides of the ball creates the pressure differential in the first instance. Delayed separation on one side of the ball produces a side force that creates a change in the forward motion of the ball; this is called swing.

There are a few characteristics of the ball that affect the strength of the side force that pushes the ball into the batsman (in-swing) or away from him (out-swing):

  • Seam position
  • Velocity of the ball
  • Asymmetrical surface (one side shinier than the other)

With normal swing, the ball moves in the direction of the rougher side of the ball. This is because that side of the ball experiences inferior aerodynamics, which increases the drag. With reverse swing, both sides of the ball are rough, but the seam has more of an effect; it increases the turbulence of the rougher side and makes the ball swing towards the shiny side.

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New-ball swing

Swing with the new ball seemed strange to some bowlers for a while. It was discovered that a pace bowler who has sufficient pace (at least 75 mph) can swing a new ball using the seam position to his advantage. The ball must be delivered in a certain way, with a seam that is angled against the flight path of the ball.

In addition, for maximum swing, a wobbly seam must be avoided; this is where the bowling action is a factor. Wasim Akram, one of the masters of swing bowling, suggested that swing is dependent on the combination of bowling action and the condition of the ball.

Whether it's in-swing, out-swing or reverse swing, good swing bowling (as opposed to movement of the pitch) can make fast bowlers a deadlier proposition. Batsmen find it much harder to play down the line of a ball that moves through the air. Indeed, they can find themselves contemplating how they should have played the delivery when they're back in the pavilion.

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