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Swing is king in Test cricket

india Updated: Feb 14, 2010 00:55 IST

Dale Steyn's performance in India's first innings at Nagpur has proved once again that swing along with genuine pace are the two most potent weapons in a fast bowler's armoury.

Deceptive late swing, especially when delivered at good pace and accurately, is a skill that regularly troubles even the best batsmen. Steyn's masterpiece at Nagpur will now reside with some of the other historically famous performances that emphasise the point.

Bob Massie at Lord's in 1972, John Lever at Delhi in 1976-77, Sarfraz Nawaz at the MCG in 1978-79, Richard Hadlee at the Gabba in 1985-86 and the England pace quartet in 2005, to name a few.

These performances were produced in a variety of circumstances. Massie took eight wickets in each innings on debut; Sarfraz produced a devastating old-ball spell of 7/1 and Hadlee claimed all but one of the wickets on offer in clammy conditions at the Gabba. However, nearly all those performances had a common theme; they immediately provoked claims of cheating from various quarters.

In both Massie and Lever's case, there were cries of foul play via lip ice. Wherever Sarfraz went, controversy followed like a faithful puppy and in this case the culprit on the leash was rumoured to be ball-tampering. The England fast bowlers in 2005 were accused of using sweets, not to entice the batsmen but to help the old ball swing. Why, when it's crucial to cricket's competitiveness, do successful swing bowling exploits inevitably create a fuss?

Because raising the possibility of a conspiracy is preferable to an admission by batsmen that they find it difficult to cope with the late swinging delivery.

Recently, there's been an inordinate amount of time spent on finding ways to swing the old ball when the same effort applied to mastering the craft with the new cherry would make more sense. After all, if top-order batsmen are removed cheaply on a regular basis, it reduces the need for dramatic swing to ambush the middle and late order batsmen.

In theory, good new-ball swing bowlers strengthen the case for the inclusion of a spinner. After all, the capable spinner is well equipped to deal with middle and lower-order batsmen.

Why do batsmen have trouble with late swing?

During the 2005 Ashes series, there were complaints about the Australian batsmen flashing at deliveries wide of off stump, which resulted in edges taken behind the wicket. There's a simple reason for batsmen making what appears to be an ill-judged shot when the ball is swinging late; it's impossible to pull out of an attempted drive. The batsman is committed and has to hope he misses the delivery or if he does edge it, that the ball finds either a gap in the cordon or a butter-fingered fielder.

Therein lies the importance of swing bowling; the bowler provides the batsman with what appears to be a glorious opportunity to hit a four but in reality it's an invitation to participate in his own downfall. The cagey fox disguising himself to fool Little Red Riding Hood had nothing on a classy swing bowler.

Theories abound on how to play the late swinging delivery. Nevertheless, the batsman's best friends are a selectively bold approach and a bit of luck. If an attack is successful and the willow wielder can accumulate a few boundaries via daring drives he may persuade the bowler to pitch a little shorter so he isn't driven. Steyn's outstanding bowling performance has not only given South Africa a great chance of a rare series win in India but it was also a timely reminder of an important cricketing axiom. If you can't unearth genuine pacemen then the next best option is to seek good swing bowlers.