Mike Selvey - on swing

Mike Selvey watches proceedings from the press box, South Africa v England, 5th Test, Centurion, January 21, 2005 © Getty Images

Personally, I have always regarded the great swing bowlers as the legspinners of the pace bowling world. A little bit of mystery, and a dollop of subtlety – something rather more cerebral than just banging the ball in short of a length and hoping. An efficient nutcracker with which to crack a nut, in fact, rather than the fast bowler’s sledgehammer. Swing bowlers may not sit cross-legged on Persian carpets and spin oranges to one another, as once did Shane Warne and Abdul Qadir. But when the clouds hang low and there is humidity in the air, the best of them could make a ball, polished on one side like a mahogany table, rough and matt on the other, not so much talk as recite the Gettysburg Address.

Two summers ago at the Oval, in the final Test of what had been an intriguing series against South Africa, I saw something the like of which old sweats such as myself thought had disappeared along with the dodo. Martin Bicknell, Surrey’s veteran bowler, had been recalled to the England side after years on the sidelines, and here was a horse for his own course.

He was bowling to the cocky young left-hander Jacques Rudolph, who may not have encountered his like before. One ball was shaped across his bows, swinging away towards the waiting slips and past a groping blade. The next ball was similar, but Rudolph was twice shy having once been bitten. The third began on a similar line, and the batsman offered a similar response, thrusting his front pad half forward, bat held theatrically aloft to allow the ball safe passage through to the keeper.

But this was different, and as Rudolph watched aghast, it curved back into him almost posthumously and pegged back his off stump. It was the three-card trick, the two leggers and a googly, the doosra after the offbreaks. Brilliantly hoodwinking and so, so satisfying.

Bowlers as a breed have forgotten how to swing the ball in the manner of the great manipulators. Now the concentration is on firm wrist position, scrambled seam, and strong grip when the opposite is required. Grip is personal but the fundamentals remain the same. Drop your bowling arm loosely to your side with fingers hanging neutrally; forefinger and middle finger are now naturally the correct distance apart (any further and you will feel tension through the wrist and up into the forearm, and tension is bad). Next, touch the tip of the ring finger to the pad of the thumb’s top joint. That will support the ball, which should be held loosely – caressed – in the fingertips so that no release is required. The action is irrelevant, acting merely as an aid to getting the hand into the right position – away swing can be bowled from chest-on and inswing from classically side-on but for late movement, the arm action should be high. The more pronounced the wrist and finger action in delivery, the better the gyroscopic backward rotation on the ball, which keeps the seam, whether tilted towards first slip for away swing or leg slip for the inner, upright.

Finally, use a mental image of an obstacle – a pole, say – halfway down the pitch, around which the ball has to be shaped, and simply force it round.

Continuous orthodox swing bowling, though, requires not just amenable conditions overhead but lush outfields and non-abrasive pitches, which are not generally found outside England. Necessity became the mother of invention, and out of the subcontinent came the art of reverse swing – not the music of the Glenn Miller orchestra played backwards but a different concept in which the damage done to the ball by sandpaper pitches and rough outfields is used to advantage. So instead of maintaining the ball in an aerodynamic state where, in the broadest of terms, the rough side creates more drag than the smooth, hence the movement, the rough side is encouraged to be even more so and kept tinder-dry while the shiny side is preserved in pristine condition and dampened with sweat, producing a silky finish. Reverse swing is all about weight imbalance, and can be bowled most successfully at high pace and the fullest of lengths to allow the movement to take effect.

It is this, as pioneered by the great Pakistan pace bowlers, from Sarfraz Narwaz and Imran Khan through to Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, that has revolutionised the modern game. Now bowlers have options, with decisions made at an early stage as to the type of ball maintenance necessary.

Reverse usually gets the nod. And so the real workers of the ball, the sultans of swing, those who hoop the ball around corners, become a footnote in cricket history. An art has been lost.