Weekly Sports Bulletin: Has the reverse swing become a victim of Covid?

Late one night 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 high into the air. It was to prove a eureka moment for his team that he had been impressed by the reverse swing of Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram in the first two Tests. He would also open the eyes of the world to the magic that would unfold when a cricket ball, half battered, half shiny, was handled. He would even open a can of worms.

On that trip, before magically transforming into the Sultan of Swing for a day, Akram had repeatedly fooled the late New Zealand legend. During the second Test, Crowe would play for inward movement and the ball would go the other direction. He had no idea. It was not something that happened too often to the deep thinking cricketer with impeccable technique.

Trust a New Zealander to be inquisitive, get to the heart of the problem and find a solution. During the same inning, Crowe hit a long-legged pitch from Abdul Qadir at his feet, took the ball and watched it closely. To his horror, he saw that the leather on one side of the ball was badly mutilated. In contrast, the other hemisphere was practically intact and bright. After the match, the Kiwis would experiment in their training session. They would use bottle caps to produce a Made in New Zealand designer ball.

And when even the most throwing-looking Kiwi on the tour, burly starter Mark Greatbatch, followed Crowe and gave the ball the shape that the two W’s had, minus the pace of course, Pakistan’s big secret was out. .

For years to come, umpires and announcers would keep an eagle eye on the fielding side trying to scratch the ball. Sandpaper, blades, tin lids, zippers, dirt hidden in pockets would become exhibits in many ball tampering investigations. They would also be objects of shame that would make men cry.

Gradually, as scrutiny intensified, it would become more difficult to damage the ball, but polishing it with saliva would still be a legitimate tactic. Each team would have designated ball-shinners. Keeping the ball spotless and shiny wasn’t a totally clean operation, either. Players doctor the spit to brighten the ball so that it contrasts with the coarseness, natural or man-made, on the other side and is therefore conducive to the reverse swing. Chewing gum, mints, and lozenges would be to a cricket ball what cherry blossoms are to leather shoes.

The law of handling the ball was one of the many ambiguities in this old English game. The definition of infringement was different on both sides of the seam. The ICC kept an open mind towards crafty brilliance, but had no tolerance for scratching it. One was considered a white-collar crime that would take a hit to the knuckle, but the other was a daylight robbery that received ignominy and bans.

And then Covid happened and inadvertently the rules were leveled. Spit would become a four-letter word. The ongoing India-England test at Edgbaston happens to be the second anniversary of the spitting ban. It has been the period when bowlers have only used sweat to make the ball shine and they are not very happy about it. Interestingly, two English bowlers who play the Test, James Anderson and Stuart Broad, have seen their hit rate drop. It could be age or conditions, but it could also be saliva. The new rule allows the downfield side 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 spin was conspicuous by its absence. There was no mid-inning excitement between the bowlers, the moment when the ball was hit just enough from one side to do the kind of tricks the two became famous for never came. The Indian batsmen came out, but unlike Crowe, they had no idea which way the ball would move. Without the saliva treatment, the ball had no mind of its own.

The two best exponents of the fascinating art of moving the ball have been, unsurprisingly, pro-spit. Even during the pandemic, Akram didn’t mind being borderline politically incorrect. The bowler hat on it emphasized that without the use of spit it was not possible to move the ball. “The ban will turn bowlers into robots, coming in and bowling with no swing,” he said.

Just before the India Test, Anderson mentioned spitting as he joined the chorus of criticism leveled at the 2022 batch of supposedly soft Duke balls. His regret made headlines in the wake of unusually high scores around the county circuit.

“It’s hard [for bowlers] especially since we’re playing on good courts and these balls aren’t doing much,” Anderson said. “It could potentially 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, due to the Covid situation. Talking to the bowlers after the game, they would like that. [saliva] be allowed, but I can’t see it happening.”

The teachers dismiss the ICC-recommended alternative to spitting, the sweat, with contempt. Akram again. “Sweat alone is unlikely to cause swing, as it was too cold in some countries. Sweat is just something like a supplement, a recharge. Too much use of sweat will leave the cricket ball too wet,” he says.

Scientifically, how different are pure, uncontaminated saliva and sweat from each other. What is the reason bowlers prefer saliva to sweat?

Bringing science into the debate will help to understand another complexity of cricket. Reading two textbook definitions shows that Akram’s explanation does not have strong legs. Saliva and sweat are exactly the same.

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

Chew on it while you watch the bowlers in action at Edgbaston, ideally with a piece of gum, mints and lozenges in your mouth.

Send your comments to sandydwivedi@gmail.com

Sandeep Dwivedi
National Sports Writer
the indian express

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