The Return of the Swing

I am liking fast bowling at the moment. Fast bowlers in Test cricket in 2012 generally do something with the ball and do it intentionally. The ability to keep the seam upright and swing the ball is almost mandatory for Test bowlers after 15 years of being out of fashion. And the most beautiful thing about this trend is that it has all but killed the legacy of the bounce bowlers.

Courtney Walsh - pure doggerel in motion

You know the ones: Courtney Walsh; Curtly Ambrose; Glenn McGrath; Shaun Pollock – not an ounce of real cricket skill between them. Sure, they were fit, they were accurate, they could even be scary. But where was the skill? Could they bend the ball at the last nanosecond like Hadlee? Could they cut the ball both ways like Lillee? Could they even keep the seam straight like Shayne O’Connor?

Unfortunately, they were very effective. We’re talking about four of the top eight Test wicket-takers between 1990 and 2005. They bowled long spells with ugly front-on actions, usually back of a length and outside off stump, and relied on the batsman’s impatience, on high bounce, and on the occasional bit of accidental movement off a seam that had landed sideways after wobbling pointlessly down the strip.

Glenn McGrath - simplicity is not always beautiful

These were cricket’s baseliners; the ones who decided that there was no point racing around the court playing deft drops and volleys when you could get the job done by standing in the shade and hitting the fuzz off the ball.

Of course, not all of them chose to be boring. Glenn McGrath bowled terribly in the 1994 Brisbane Test against England after Mark Taylor had told him that he wouldn’t make it as an international bowler unless he learned to swing the ball. Regrettably, Taylor was wrong, although he did later try telling his Channel 9 audience that the elder McGrath had evolved into a great swing bowler. After he said that, I’m sure I heard a distant coyote howling.

But others did choose to be boring. Jason Gillespie had the skill to make the ball zip in any direction but usually stuck relentlessly to the back-of-a-length game plan. Allan Donald and Devon Malcolm produced some of the most fearsome spells in Test cricket but often spent hours just keeping the ball outside off stump and waiting for the error.

This trend, of course, helped keep Australia at the top of world cricket. Part of the reason that they didn’t lose a home series for 16 years was that even if a visiting bowler could overcome the dry conditions and the flat, grassless pitches, he would still have to contend with the Kookaburra cricket ball which, like a schoolgirl, would never swing after 11 o’clock.

Troy Cooley gives the first lesson in swing bowling

The end of the bounce bowlers began when Troy Cooley became the England bowling coach and realised that he had been presented with a planet full of opposition batsmen who had never faced decent swing bowling. It is still astonishing how quickly he turned Hoggard, Harmison, Flintoff and Jones into the most skilful pace quartet in living memory. Even though they had nothing on the West Indian quartets of the 70s and 80s when it came to pace and bounce, they were armed with high-seamed cricket balls and the ability to keep those seams upright.

Dale Steyn - actually, his action isn't that pretty either

The South African selectors dealt another sizeable blow to the bounce bowlers on the 2007 tour to Pakistan when they dropped Pollock from the Test team. Dale Steyn moved up a rung in the Protea hierarchy and announced himself as the fastest swing bowler since Malcolm Marshall. By the end of the summer, it was between him and Brett Lee for the title of world’s best fast bowler. A year later again, Steyn was miles in front and hasn’t really had a rival since.

It is significant, however, that those closest behind Steyn have either been genuine swing bowlers (James Anderson, Zaheer Khan, Ryan Harris) or have produced their best performances when they have stopped trying to bang the ball into the pitch and started moving it sideways (Mitchell Johnson, Stuart Broad, Ishant Sharma, Peter Siddle). Shane Watson probably best personifies the change in fashion given that he had almost no success as a Test bowler until he reduced his pace and started using the seam.

Of the old style bounce bowler, it’s really only Morne Morkel remaining and he has already been overtaken in the pecking order by Vernon Philander. Bowlers like Chris Tremlett and James Pattinson who, only a few years ago, might have been encouraged to forget about swing and just keep the batsman on the back foot are now pitching the ball up and getting movement.

It’s unreasonable to expect the change to be permanent. The problem with any competitive pursuit is its attractiveness to pragmatists. But for now, I plan to enjoy an era of cricket in which the beautiful approach to fast bowling is also seen as the most valuable – at least until another pig-shooting thug comes along.

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