Cricket's missing the reverse swing zing

By, Mumbai
Sep 25, 2023 09:24 PM IST

After the ODI rule change in 2011, which saw new balls being used from each end, the 50-overs format has not been the same

For the connoisseurs of fast bowling, perhaps their best chance of getting to see reverse swing during the upcoming World Cup will be if some pace bowler raises his game to the level that Wasim Akram did in that spectacular 35th over of the 1992 final against England at Melbourne.

One of the great sights in ODI cricket in the 1990s was Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis bowling in tandem with the old ball(Getty Images) PREMIUM
One of the great sights in ODI cricket in the 1990s was Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis bowling in tandem with the old ball(Getty Images)

With England’s 250-run chase under control at 138/4 following a 68-run partnership between Neil Fairbrother (37 runs) and Allan Lamb (31), Akram, bowling around the wicket, accounted for Lamb with a ball that came in with the angle before leaving at the last moment, knocking the batter’s off-stump. It was reverse swing at its best. The very next ball, he bowled all-rounder Chris Lewis with a delivery that came back in sharply to the right-hander.

Akram’s double strike of that 1992 final would certainly go down as one of the most fascinating overs in World Cup history because, in effect, the ball was only 17 overs old, which is too early to start reversing. In that tournament, two separate new balls were used from each end.

Like it will be in the 2023 World Cup, which will present the same challenge for fast bowlers as Akram & Co faced in 1992. After the ODI rule change in 2011, the 50-overs format has not been the same. If anything, it has tilted the balance in favour of batters even more.

The 1992 World Cup was an exception for Akram because it was the first time the global ICC ODI tournament was played in coloured clothing with white balls. For most of his career, the Pakistan legend got to enjoy doing his stuff with the old ball.

After the advent of Twenty20 cricket, the ICC decided to try out two new balls as the harder balls are conducive to better strokeplay, offering more boundary hits for the thrill of the viewing public increasing hooked on to the game’s T20 version.

In terms of entertainment on the batting front, it has worked splendidly -- with double centuries, a jump in batting averages and regular 400-plus totals. From Rohit Sharma‘s scintillating 264 against Sri Lanka at the Eden Gardens in 2014 to Martin Guptill’s unbeaten double ton in 2015, double hundreds have flowed with nine scored in the period from 2011 to 2023 after Sachin Tendulkar became the first double centurion in ODIs.

Out of 24 400-plus innings totals registered so far, 15 have come after the rule change, with four out of the five highest totals registered since.

Batting boom

This period has seen batting averages rise dramatically when compared with previous generation. Shubman Gill and David Malan, from the 2019-2023 bracket, both have an average of over 60. Babar Azam has an average of 58.16 while Kohli is fifth on the list with 57.38. From the pre-2011 era, Michael Bevan (1994-2004) is the only one who averaged above 50.

The great Viv Richards (1975-1991) got his 6721 runs at 47, Sachin Tendulkar (1989-2012), the batter with the most runs 18,426, averaged 44.83, Ricky Ponting (1995-2012) with 13,704 runs finished at 42.03, Kumar Sangakkara (2000-2015), 14234 runs at 41.98, Jacques Kallis (1996-2014), 11579 runs at 44.36, Sourav Ganguly (1992-2007), 11363 runs at 41.02, and Brian Lara (1990-2007) 10405 runs at 42.48. Were any of these lesser batters than the current lot?

Bowled out?

The rule change has come at the expense of bowlers. Reverse swing is, possibly, the most enigmatic phrase in cricket. It takes years of practice and perseverance to master. The prerequisite though is that it happens only with the old ball, which normally has both the sides scruffed up with the number of overs bowled.

One of the great sights in ODI cricket in the 1990s was Akram and Waqar Younis bowling in tandem with the old ball. Their full deliveries aimed at the toes, tailing in at the last moment were most dreaded and came to be termed as toe-crushers.

Since their exploits, the mystique of their art has been understood and grasped by bowlers around the world, says former pace bowler Madan Lal, a 1983 World Cup winner.

“Now, even the first-class bowlers have the skill to bowl reverse swing. Until one side is rough you won’t get to see it, that’s why you don’t get to see reverse now (in ODIs)," says Lal. “It is only effective when bowled at high speed or the batter will come on the front foot and easily play. Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami and Mitchell Starc are very good with reverse swing, Pat Cummins also has the speed. Even Mohammed Siraj can be effective with reverse as he has speed. When it starts happening, the bowlers come to know, then they use it effectively, you get leg before and clean bowled decisions also."

A World Cup in the sub-continent, on flat pitches and in dry conditions, would have been perfect for reverse swing.

Getting monotonous?

The question then is whether ICC’s move has had the desired effect. The highest run-getter in the game, Tendulkar, has been a vocal critic of the move, highlighting how it has made the game monotonous.

“Having 2 new balls in one-day cricket is a perfect recipe for disaster as each ball is not given the time to get old enough to reverse. We haven’t seen reverse swing, an integral part of the death overs, for a long time,” Tendulkar had said way back in 2018 after England registered 481 runs against Australia at Trent Bridge, Nottingham.

“It's getting monotonous without any doubt. Even though we are in the 40th over of the game, it's actually the 20th over of that ball," Tendulkar said. "But I think it only starts reversing around the 30th over or so. There was a bit of discoloration and the ball gets softer. When the ball started discoloring, to pick the shiny and the rough side becomes difficult. That element is missing today because of two new balls."

In response to Tendulkar, the master of reverse swing, Waqar Younis, had stated in a tweet: “Reason why we don’t produce many attacking fast bowlers..They all very defensive in their approach...always looking for change ups..totally agree with you @sachin_rt reverse swing is almost vanished.. #SAD”

Eyeing 500

As things stand, there's a good chance England could become the first team to breach the 500-run mark in ODIs during the World Cup. Since 2016, they have got closer and closer to it. In August 2016, playing against Pakistan at Nottingham they had improved the record for the highest innings total to 444/3. In June 2018, playing at the same venue, they bettered their own effort by amassing 481/6 against Australia. Last season, playing against Netherlands at Amstelveen, they almost pulled off the incredible when they finished at 498/4. If during the World Cup, this England line-up gets a pitch like the one India and Australia played the second ODI on at Indore, 500 is very much on the cards.

It is proof how batting has got easier in recent times. One can only imagine, though, how the likes of Starc, Bumrah, Shami, Haris Rauf, Cummins and Shaheen Shah Afridi would have loved to let it fly with an old ball.

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