How reverse swing evolved

By: Bharath Ramaraj

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Survival of the fittest is a phrase that originated from Darwinian evolutionary theory as a way of describing the idea that species adapt and change by natural selection with the best suited mutations becoming dominant.Sarfraz

It is also a microcosm of the sporting world. Athletes create an illusion of precision via hard work – harnessing technique and talent. As the game evolves, so do the athletes. Cricket, as the others, has evolved with time too. Batsmen have explored new ways of looking to outsmart their adversaries – the bowlers. They have rewritten the well-established edicts of batsmanship.

Bowlers too have evolved by adding a slew of different variations and new kinds of deliveries to keep them in the game. In a subtle way, the game keeps shifting – more like “evolutionary biology”. One of the discoveries that has constantly evolved, and also widely debated, is reverse swing.

In the backdrop of the ball tampering saga that has suddenly engulfed the sport – with Australian in the Cape Town Test and Sri Lanka in Gros Islet – the phenomenon of reverse swing and the evolution of the art – some might call it an illicit practice – has come under the spotlight.

What is reverse swing?

With insights from Kiran Vaddi, a Doctoral Candidate in University at Buffalo – “Swing of cricket ball is due to the asymmetry in flow between two hemispheres of the cricket ball resulting in an effective side force. It can be generated by making use of seam of the ball and roughness of the ball surface. Both these properties help to alter the thin boundary layers formed and create asymmetry across the two hemispheres. With the new ball, where there is no bias in terms of surface roughness between the two hemispheres, bowlers can only make use of seam on the cricket ball (conventional swing).

With the old ball, bowlers can make use of both seam and surface roughness bias. Making use of both at the same time results in asymmetry opposite to conventional swing, better known as ‘reverse’ swing’.”

In simple words, when the ball gets older and is worn out, it will start to swing in the opposite direction. Hence in this case, an outswinger’s grip will tail into the batsman while an inswinger will move away from the batter.

So how did reverse swing evolve? What about origins of reverse swing?

It is difficult to trace the history of reverse swing, but the first recorded instance could be from the former Pakistan opener, Nazar Mohammad during the first half of the 20th century, recounting how bowlers who generally bowled outswing to right-handers would return for later spells and generate inswing in club cricket in Lahore. During the late 1960s and 1970s, Saleem ‘Bobby’ Altaf was believed to be a fine exponent of swing bowling with the old ball.

As per Wisden, Altaf found swing in difficult conditions in Australia in 1972-73. In the SCG Test, in particular, he shone brightly by bagging seven wickets (in the match) only for the visitors to crash to 106 all out in the second essay and lose by 52 runs.

In Australia, a few were beginning to understand the idea of exploring swing with the old ball. Alan Connolly, the Victoria, Australian and Middlesex pacer, was one of the early exponents of reverse swing. Connolly began his career as a tearaway but later worked on his fitness, shortened his run-up and turned into a smart operator.

While playing Sheffield Shield games for Victoria in 1970s, the pacer alongside the team’s wicketkeeper, Ray “Slug” Jordan, noticed that the old ball was moving around. After going through numerous trials, the pair decided to soak one side of the ball with sweat and saliva. The duo’s theory was to weigh one half of the ball. It was later proved that ‘weighting imbalance’ by wetting one side of the ball doesn’t have scientific basis attached to it but the pair of Jordan and Connolly envisaged something that many other pacers had no idea of.

Max Walker, who bowled wrong footed and with a windmill action, learnt the art of reverse swing from his Victorian teammate, Connolly, in 1972-73, and used it to deadly effect in the Caribbean that season by bagging 26 Test scalps. Jeff Hammond, the South Australian pacer, also found swing with the old ball in that series. During mid and late 1970s, the legendary Dennis Lillee was another worthy exponent of the craft.

The Caribbean fast bowlers weren’t to be left behind either. Eric Atkinson, the tall Barbados pacer, was a useful exponent of reverse swing way back in the late 1950s and 1960s. Atkinson, known for stamina and long spells, had a fondness for hair products and this caused some kind of suspicion among opposition teams that he was employing hair cream to gain more swing. When Hanif Mohammad cracked his epoch-making 337 in Barbados in the 1958 Test series versus Pakistan, he was wary about Atkinson using hair cream.

It turned out to be an interesting battle between them on the pitch. Incidentally, it wasn’t just his swing that troubled Hanif as Atkinson also had the unusual habit of whistling during his run-up, which disturbed the Pakistan opener from time to time. The Barbados pacer could only pick up a couple of scalps in the second innings of that Test despite initially troubling Hanif. He then gave a glimpse of his ability to swing the old ball with an eight-wicket haul (in a match) in the Jamaica Test.

There was also a bizarre incident surrounding John Lever, the Essex pacer, when England toured India in 1976-77. Lever bagged seven scalps in the warm-up match versus North Zone and swung the ball prodigiously, and was subsequently selected for the Delhi Test.

In Delhi, Indian openers had made a solid start, in reply to England’s 381, with the ball hardly moving in the air or off the seam. In the 11th over, the ball was changed as the umpires deemed it to be out of shape and Lever found appreciable swing to burst through the opposition’s batting order. Within no time, India slid from 43 for no loss to 49 for 4. On the next day, Sunil Gavaskar was dislodged for 38 as Lever finished with astounding figures of 7 for 46.

The fascinating story of Lever generating considerable swing didn’t stop there. In the third Test in Madras (now Chennai), after India had composed 262, the English pacers found it extremely difficult to bowl in excruciatingly hot and humid conditions at Cheapuk. Mike Selvey, who was a member of the squad, wrote in The Guardian: “Chepauk in mid-January is a Turkish bath”. During the break, Willis and Lever were exhausted.

At that juncture, Lever is believed to have asked Bernard Thomas, a former international gymnast and the set-up’s physio, for Vaseline. Lever also played football and had a tendency to use Vaseline on his forehead. With no Vaseline around, a ‘Vaseline-impregnated rough gauze’ was said to have been used by Lever, which eventually led to drama.

Lever later recalled in Wisden: “I wore the gauze after lunch on the third day, when we had them seven down, but discarded it quite quickly as it didn’t really work. I put it behind the stumps, but the umpire [Judah Reuben] picked it up and claimed it had come adrift while I was bowling. He obviously felt there was something underhand going on, and he reported it to Bishan Bedi, India’s captain, and then to the Indian board, who leaked it to the press.”

The umpires then sent a letter in addition to a piece of gauze to BCCI and noted: “There was every possibility of this greasy substance being used along with the sweat on the ball to retain the shine.” The ball also was sent for testing and traces of Vaseline was found. In the end, no action was taken. Bishan Singh Bedi, the Indian captain, though, continued to believe it was a case of ‘ball tampering’.

He once said to Wisden Cricketer: “If there had been an ICC in those days, a lot of people in the England camp might have lost their jobs.” During the Madras Test, Lever was also greeted with a banner that read, “cheater Lever go home”. Incidentally, he visited the stadium again in 2016 as a part of a group of cricket enthusiasts to watch the England versus India Test and was seated in the same stand.


Until late 1970s, however, reverse swing was mostly an unknown art, practised by only a few, who in turn, had developed theories via trial and error methods. Some credit Farrukh Ahmed Khan, who played nine first class matches, as the one who holds the unofficial patent for reverse swing. There was also Saleem Mir, who played for Punjab Cricket Club, and could bowl reverse swing. However, Sarfraz Nawaz later noted in Peter Oborne’s book – Wounded Tiger: A history of cricket in Pakistan: “He [ Farrukh] did not bowl reverse swing but in-cutters. He did not know about reverse swing, or he would have bowled it himself.”

Nawaz, who later went on to become one of the finest exponents of the craft instead said: “One day, I shone one side of a very old ball and it swung. It was rough on both sides but I shone one side and it swung towards the shine – it should not have done this.” And that was the game-changing moment in the sport’s landscape. Nawaz regularly practised at the Mozang Link Cricket Club in Lahore and honed his skills on reversing the ball to take it to an elevated level.

Nawaz largely kept the craft a secret before he was said to have passed the formula to one Imran Khan. The story goes in a 50-over game versus the Windies at Berbice in 1976-77, Imran was perplexed by Nawaz’s ability to swing the old ball. Nawaz later told Imran that he would give him insights about the craft in the nets. He kept his promise by displaying the art the very next day. His theory was to ensure the ball would get roughed up on one side and keep the other side weighty with spit and sweat.

As a result, the ball would swing towards the shiny side and impart late swing via speed. Nawaz noted that one could use dry tracks of Pakistan to good effect for reverse swing. He was also one of the first cricketers who would teach his bowling partners and fielders in relation to shining the ball.

His protege Imran turned out to be one of the greatest cricketers to play the game. He wasn’t just a great fast bowler but developed his batting to such an extent that he started to bat at No.3. He was arguably Pakistan’s finest captain, taking Pakistan to World Cup glory. He was also one of the greatest practitioners of reverse swing.

Wasim Akram extended the boundaries of what could be done with a leather ball. He could veer it early or late; in addition to it, he could seam and cut in and away at angles. Akram could expertly even impart swing and extract seam in one offering to befuddle the best. Just recollect the delivery he bowled to Rahul Dravid in Chennai in 1999.

Imran first gave a glimpse of his ability to reverse the old ball in the MCG Test in 1977 when he bagged a five-wicket haul in the second innings. By the time Pakistan bowled in the second innings, the conditions were such that it had resulted in ‘lumps’ coming out of the ball and Imran put up a fine show of reverse swing. The result was four victims dismissed via bowled or LBW. In the years to come, LBWs and bowleds would become a trademark mode of dismissal of Pakistan’s fast bowlers.

At his peak, Imran terrorised batsmen with reverse swing at rapid pace. The former captain’s greatest bowling performance perhaps came in the Karachi Test against their arch-rivals India in 1982. Trailing by 283 runs after the first innings, Gavaskar and Dilip Vengsakar had given India a semblance of respectability by propelling the visitors to 102 for 1. At that time of the innings, Imran produced a blistering spell of reverse swing as the tourists were reduced to 118 for 7 within no time.

Gavaskar was castled by the one that dipped in late while Mohinder Amarnath was trapped in front. But he reserved his best for Gundappa Viswanath. With the assistance of a strong breeze, he bowled a delivery that seemed to be pitching around the sixth stump line, but dipped suddenly and bent extremely late to remove the off-stump, with a bewildered Vishwanath shouldering arms. Imran snared an eight-wicket haul in the second innings as India were crushed by an innings and 86 runs. The all-rounder, who bagged an astonishing tally of 40 scalps in that series, by then had become a national icon and fans had started to compare his fast bowling with American fighter planes.

Wasim Akram extended the boundaries of what could be done with a leather ball

Wasim Akram extended the boundaries of what could be done with a leather ball © Getty

By mid 1980s, Imran himself was struggling with shin problems and Pakistan were in search of that next great fast bowler. Then emerged a magician with the ball – Wasim Akram. The left-armer e. He could veer it early or late; in addition to it, he could seam and cut in and away at angles. Akram could expertly even impart swing and extract seam in one offering to befuddle the best. Just recollect the delivery he bowled to Rahul Dravid in Chennai in 1999.

As the Darwin theory goes, he developed and evolved with time to become a master craftsman of swing and seam who “better exploited diverse resources”. Interestingly, just like many other Pakistan greats, he was unearthed through accident and outside the traditional cricketing systems. The great pacer, who impressed Miandad in an Under-19 practice net session, was picked for a tour game versus the visiting New Zealand side in Rawalpindi, where he bagged a seven-for. He was subsequently selected for the tour of New Zealand in 1984-85. In his second Test versus New Zealand in Dunedin, he snared 10 wickets to hit the headlines.

Not surprisingly, Imran started to mentor a promising Akram. Imran once reckoned that Akram and the West Indian great Michael Holding were two of the most naturally gifted fast bowlers of the last century. He also told Akram during Pakistan’s tour of England in 1987 “you have to work like a dog, Wasim” to succeed. The fast bowler listened to his mentor’s words diligently and mesmerised the cricketing world with his dollops of skills.

Akram terrorised batsmen across frontiers – England, New Zealand, Pakistan, Australia, India and Sharjah. In the 1992 World Cup, he played a major role in scripting Pakistan’s finest moment – title triumph – by removing Allan Lamb and Chris Lewis. By the 35th over of the World Cup final versus England, the ball had started to reverse and Imran threw it to Akram. The left-armer did the rest.

By late 1980s, Akram was also playing County cricket for Lancashire and he showcased to the English public the art of making the old ball talk. His 10-wicket match haul against Yorkshire on an abrasive Old Trafford wicket in 1989 was peak Akram. Against Leicestershire in the Benson and Hedges Cup semifinal, he took a five-fer for just 10 runs. The inswinging yorker to James Whitaker and the away-swinger he bowled to Gordon Parsons were perhaps the two stand out deliveries. By hiding the ball in his hands and bowling from round the wicket, he castled Whitaker, while the left-handed Parsons had no clue against the away-swinger that moved extremely late to remove the stumps.

If Akram was running riot, he soon had another vicious partner in Waqar Younis.

Waqar had made his FC debut in 1987-88. But it took him little time to force his way into the national team. On his Test debut versus India in Karachi in 1989, Waqar shot to fame when he castled the promising Sachin Tendulkar. He finished with a four-wicket haul in the first innings.

But he was still a tearaway, climbing his way through the staircase of success. In 1991, he joined Surrey to play County cricket and that was the time when Waqar refined his art of reversing the old ball. He picked up a staggering 113 scalps at 14.65 in the 1991 County Championship. On the other side, Akram was playing for Lancashire. It resulted in a rivalry between the two great fast bowlers. There was also Aaqib Javed reversing the old ball for Hampshire.

During that season, Surrey was hosting Gloucestershire in a County game in Guildford. On a flat pitch, Gloucestershire elected to bat and Dean Hodgson and Richard Scott helped their team to 105 for 0. But there was a storm brewing, with Waqar waiting to unleash a spell from hell. Hodgson and Scott were castled by Waqar.

He continued to bowl searing yorkers or very full deliveries as he ended up with astonishing figures of 7 for 87. Countering deliveries over 90 mph and late swing were too much to handle for the opposition ranks. Six out of the seven batsmen were out bowled. Waqar’s main weapon – the yorker at high pace with the old ball – can be capsulised by the fact that out of the first 170 wickets he took for Surrey in the Championship, 60% of the dismissals were either bowled or LBW.

To nobody’s surprise, the pair formed a vicious attack bowling alongside each other. The Oval Test between England and Pakistan in 1992, when Younis and Akram decimated England, underlines this. It was a tour when Younis and Akram ran through England’s middle order time and again to finish with 22 and 21 wickets respectively. Pakistan won the series 2-1. They also emerged victorious in nine out of 12 County games and won the Tetley Bitter Challenge – GBP 50,000 jackpot prize – based on a touring side winning at least eight out of the 12 County matches.


By then, however, there were widespread allegations of ball tampering – the quarter seam (at 90 degrees to the large, raised seam) was allegedly being lifted on one side with the help of nails/fingers to generate reverse swing. In the fourth ODI at Lord’s, the ball was changed by umpires at Lunch break (due to wet weather, the match had to be played on the second day) based on Law 42, which relates to the condition of the ball. Waqar and Akram then combined to blow away England with the replacement ball as the hosts lost their last four wickets for just 10 runs to lose by three runs.

Don Oslear, the third umpire, had later said: “[The umpires] entered the umpires’ dressing room at Lord’s and showed me the ball, with its badly-gouged surface. They asked me to fetch the international referee, Deryck Murray. To begin with, Murray agreed that the cover of the ball appeared to have been slit, possibly with a thumb-nail, possibly with some other instrument. Intikhab Alam, the Pakistan team manager, was summoned and he made no objection when the umpires told him they were going to change the ball. I next showed it to Alan Smith, the TCCB’s chief executive, who expressed horror at its state.

“Gradually the ramifications of the incident began to dawn on the officials. And the first step in the attempt to disguise the truth came when it was suggested that the media should be informed the ball had been changed because it had gone out of shape. I made it quite clear on behalf of my colleagues, who by this time had returned to the middle, that I could not accept that and said it would be better in the long run if the truth were told.

“By now, I was aware that a lot of pressure was being exerted on top officials. I believe some of it was at the highest diplomatic level, since to say Pakistan had broken the rules would undoubtedly lead to them being called cheats in the press and nobody wanted to contemplate what the consequences might be.”

It wasn’t just Oslear, who later gave evidence in favour of Lamb in the Sarfraz/Lamb libel case in November 1993, who believed that the visitors had tampered the ball at Lord’s. Lamb also spoke about the controversy to a newspaper. He was fined by the TCCB (5000 pounds) and Nawaz also sued him as Lamb had accused the pacer of displaying “the ball-tampering technique when they both played for Northamptonshire in 1970s”.

Meanwhile, Younis defended himself and Pakistan by saying, “I don’t care what anyone thinks… the new ball swung more anyway. Every time we win people start saying these things. We won fair and square.” Incidentally, the report over the aforementioned ball has never been made public and no one was formally charged.

Unfortunately, for Younis and company, ball tampering incidents continued to haunt them, as Surrey (the County team that Younis used to play for) were fined 1000 pounds by the TCCB for ‘repeated breaches’ of rules and regulations with regards to ball tampering in September 1992.

A couple of years earlier, Pakistan were surrounded by another bizarre ball tampering controversy. The Martin Crowe-led New Zealand side had slipped to convincing defeats in the first two Tests in Pakistan. But they were suspicious of Pakistan’s ability to dart the ball both ways and very late. Crowe once recounted about six deliveries that should have veered away (as per conventional swing) but swung viciously into the batsman in the Lahore Test.

After he saw one side of the ball being ‘gouged’, he was believed to have complained to the umpire but to no avail. Crowe handled Waqar, Akram and Javed’s reverse swing with aplomb in the Lahore Test to compose a splendid (unbeaten) 108 but New Zealand crashed to an innings defeat.

During the course of the Test, when the ball had lost its shape and was changed, Mark Priest and Willie Watson, two New Zealand cricketers, reportedly picked it up and saw gouges on it. In the backdrop of suspicion over ball tampering, the New Zealand team led by medium pacer Chris Pringle decided to experiment with roughing up one side via bottle tops in the nets before the third Test in Faisalabad. They witnessed astonishing results as part-timers like Crowe were getting the ball to move appreciably.

“With that technique, even guys like Mark Greatbatch and Martin Crowe were swinging the ball miles in the air,” Pringle wrote in his autobiography Save The Last Ball For Me. “We practised long and hard in the nets and were quite excited about the results we were getting with it.” Crowe observed that he was trying to bowl inswingers “only to see the ball curve the other way … I’d never bowled outswingers in my life!”

On Day One of the final Test, Pringle used an old bottle top that was cut and began to scratch one side of the ball. It worked wonders as Pakistan, remarkably, slid from 35 for no loss to 102 all out. Pringle himself bagged a seven-wicket haul. The home side, though, won the Test by 65 runs, with Pringle taking 11 wickets in the match.

“Neither umpire showed any concern or took any notice in what we were doing even though, at the end of the innings, the ball was very scratched. One side was shiny but there were lots of grooves and lines and deep gouges on the other side. It was so obvious.

In the memorable 2005 Ashes, Marcus Trescothick, England’s opener and ball shiner, was believed to have used Murray Mints before shining the ball

“It was ripped to shreds … one side of the ball had been demolished. The umpires were walking across to each other and talking quite a lot. I sensed that they could tell what was going on … but they didn’t want to get involved in anything controversial,” Pringle pointed out.


By mid 1990s, other countries too had started to develop their own ways to find reverse swing. In County cricket, Warwickshire, under the leadership of Dermot Reeve and Bob Woolmer as the coach, seemed to be generating swing with the old ball for longer periods but no one really knew the reason behind it.

Reeve put forward the theory that Asif Din, the bespectacled Warwickshire opener, and the ball shiner of the side, was the secret to their success. Asif was said to be chewing strong mints and then working on the ball with his saliva. The theory goes that by applying sugary ingredients, it helps to smoothen the shiny surface.

The word about using mints soon spread like wildfire around the County circuit. There are stories of how some sides would have a player with a “bag of wine gums” in the pocket or, the dressing room would have many boxes full of mints. Employing mints continued to grow in the county circuit.

England's Andrew Flintoff was a fine practitioner of the reverse swing, and it showed during 2005 Ashes series

England’s Andrew Flintoff was a fine practitioner of the reverse swing, and it showed during 2005 Ashes series © Getty
Eventually, in the memorable 2005 Ashes, Marcus Trescothick, England’s opener and ball shiner, was believed to have used Murray Mints before shining the ball. Simon Jones and Andrew Flintoff, the two protagonists, swung the old ball appreciably and both ways to power the home side to a 2-1 series win, as they regained the Ashes after 19 long years.

“Warwickshire’s Reeve noticed that his bowlers somehow had the ability to keep the ball swinging far longer than any team they faced, but no one knew why,” Trescothick wrote in his autobiography Coming Back to Me.

“He realised the player in charge of polishing and keeping the ball clean was his top-order batsman Asif Din and what he did to keep his concentration levels up was chewing extra strong mints. It took a while for word to get around the circuit but once it did the sales of sweets near the county grounds of England went through the roof. I tried Asif’s confection of choice but couldn’t get on with them. Too dry. So I had a go at Murray Mints and found they worked a treat.”

Trescothick, also recollected how a slew of Murray Mints had fallen from his pocket while fielding at Leeds in the 2001 Ashes. “For the first time, as I dived to gather the ball at square-leg, I landed on my side and a shower of Murray Mints spewed out of my trouser pocket all over the grass right in front of the umpire. Fortunately neither he nor the two batsmen seemed to take much notice as I scrambled around on all fours trying desperately to gather in the sweets before they started asking awkward questions.”

To make the old ball talk, it requires more than just using a batch of sweets. It also requires immense skill and smartness. In Flintoff and Jones, England found a couple of fine practitioners of reverse swing. Jones’s delivery to Michael Clarke that swung back in viciously (with the batsman offering judgement) in the Old Trafford Test highlighted his skill. Flintoff also produced a gem in the second innings when he dislodged Simon Katich. The series also witnessed deliveries that were examples of contrast swing. Flintoff removed Matthew Hayden and Adam Gilchrist in the Old Trafford Test through contrast swing. The very next year, a young James Anderson also employed contrast swing to dismiss Virender Sehwag in the Mumbai Test.

Flintoff and Jones’s exploits made fans and experts wonder as to how the pair was able to outbowl the formidable Australian pace attack comprising Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie, Brett Lee and Michael Kasprowicz.

During England under 19’s tour of Pakistan in 1996-97, Flintoff under the tutelage of John Abrahams, the coach, began to study the art of reverse swing. They also worked on the concept of weighting up one side – where the top surface was made heavier with sweat and saliva. Paul Franks from Nottinghamshire, and Alex Tudor, the Surrey pacer, were also in the squad. Flintoff, who was troubled by a back problem when he was young, didn’t bowl much during that tour, but he took his initial steps towards learning the art of swinging the old ball.

Jones, on the other hand, fine-tuned the art when he toured Australia with an England Academy Squad in 2002 – the first such programme sanctioned by the ECB. Troy Cooley, who later served as England’s bowling coach, was then working under Rod Marsh, the director of the academy. And with time, they shared knowledge of swinging the old ball. In the 2005 Ashes, the pupil blossomed as he flummoxed the Australian batsmen with late swing.

“It’s taken me a long time to develop it. I did a lot of work in Australia with Troy Cooley and that’s where I first learned it. It was great because it gave me an extra string to my bow. I was able to swing it conventionally but then I struggled with the older ball,” Jones said to Western Mail in 2006.

Pakistan’s arch-rivals, India, were slow to understand the nuances of swinging the old ball. Manoj Prabhakar, the gritty all-rounder, showed the way for other Indian pacers in the late 1980s. Javagal Srinath, consistently perhaps India’s quickest bowler, used it to good effect in the 1990s, exemplified by his match-turning spell of 6 for 21 versus South Africa in Ahmedabad.

There were other English pacers, too, who produced impressive spells of swing bowling with the old ball. One of them was the Barnsley-born and spearhead of England in the 1990s, Darren Gough. With more of a round-arm action, Gough and his Yorkshire teammate, Craig White, also worked hard on fine-tuning the art in the nets, and played pivotal roles in helping England to win Test series in Pakistan and Sri Lanka in 2000-01.

Steyn's mastery over reverse swing was encapsulated by his spells in the Nagpur Test versus India in 2010

Steyn’s mastery over reverse swing was encapsulated by his spells in the Nagpur Test versus India in 2010 © Getty

In modern times, Dale Steyn, the South African lynchpin, has been the leader of the pack in terms of reverse swing. At his peak, with the new ball, he mainly used the razor sharp outswinger and when the ball got older, it tended to tail into the right-hander.

He also upped his pace to get maximum effect via the old ball. Steyn’s mastery over reverse swing could be encapsulated by his spells in the Nagpur Test versus India in 2010. He displayed skill and expertise of conventional and reverse swing without telegraphing the codes of it to his opponent. He was agile and with a quick arm, bowled at sustained hostility to sow seeds of fear in the batsman.

It was on Day 3 of India’s first innings of the Nagpur Test when the ball was changed just two overs before the Tea break. Steyn, who had already made an impact with the new ball, by removing Murali Vijay and Tendulkar, dislodged Wriddhiman Saha, Subramaniam Badrinath, Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan within the space of a few overs to bag a seven-wicket haul.

He also gave a glimpse of his quality with a four-wicket haul in the Port Elizabeth Test versus Australia in 2014 as the hosts won by 231 runs. The best delivery of the spell perhaps was the one he bowled to Brad Haddin as it swung in late to uproot the middle-stump.

An animated Steyn ran towards Haddin to point the fallen timber. The South African also produced wonderful match-turning spells versus Pakistan in Karachi in 2007 and against Sri Lanka in Colombo in 2014.

James Anderson, the England mainstay, has also produced fine spells with the old ball. One of his better spells came at the Eden Gardens versus India in 2012, when he mainly bowled outswingers and employed the occasional delivery that curls into right-handed batsman as a decoy to trouble both Virat Kohli and Tendulkar before eventually dismissing the duo.

His methods are slightly different compared to other pacers as he tempts the batsman in that channel outside off and uses the inswinger more as a surprise weapon. Anderson, better known for conventional swing and seam bowling skills, also once noted that he found it tougher to learn the art of reverse swing as he had to tweak his action and employ a separate release for it.

Pakistan’s arch-rivals, India, were slow to understand the nuances of swinging the old ball. Manoj Prabhakar, the gritty all-rounder, showed the way for other Indian pacers in the late 1980s. Javagal Srinath, consistently perhaps India’s quickest bowler, used it to good effect in the 1990s, exemplified by his match-turning spell of 6 for 21 versus South Africa in Ahmedabad.

In the last decade, Zaheer was a very good manipulator of the old ball. He was a canny operator as he used the crease and the left-armer’s angle from over and round the wicket to tease the batsman. He also would hide the ball in his hands, not disclosing the shine. Zaheer’s ability with the old ball can be evidenced by his spell to Kevin Pietersen in the Chennai Test in 2008 when he swung it both ways at good pace and also bowled yorkers to keep the aggressive batsman on tenterhooks. After teasing the batsman, he snuffed out Pietersen with the short ball. In the 2011 World Cup, Zaheer again bowled incisive spells with the old ball to pick up crucial scalps.

Rana Naveed, the Pakistan speedster, was another impressive practitioner. Brett Geeves, the former Tasmania pacer, has an interesting story to tell about Naveed in his column for Fox Sports. “Remember Rana Naveed from Pakistan and cult hero of the Hobart Hurricanes and Tasmanian Tigers T20 teams? The man had a freak thumbnail that was not only useful at barbecues for opening local brew, but he could very secretly beaver away at the new white ball and have it reversing in two overs. You don’t come to Australia and blow that many pads open at 130kph without a little something in your arsenal.”


Even in the recent South Africa-Australia Test series, high quality fast bowlers from both sides made the old ball dart around. Mitchell Starc caused all sorts of problems with round the wicket angle and reverse swing in the first Test in Durban, while Kagiso Rabada and Pat Cummins moved the old ball both ways in the second and third Tests with considerable success. Unfortunately for Australia, they had to paddle through the ball tampering affair in the Cape Town Test after Cameron Bancroft, the opener, was captured employing a yellow sandpaper in order to artificially alter the condition of the ball.

It had far-reaching repercussions. Steve Smith, the Australian captain, admitted in the press conference that the “leadership group” knew about the tampering. Later, ICC banned Smith for one Test and fined 100% of his match fees, while Bancroft was fined 75% of his match fees and handed three demerit points. To make matters worse, Cricket Australia followed it up with their own investigation, and handed out 12 month bans for Smith and David Warner, the vice captain, for their roles as a part of the “leadership group”. Bancroft was banned for nine months.

From bottle tops, the Oval Test fiasco of 2006, Shahid Afridi biting the ball, Michael Atherton and the “dirt pocket affair” at Lord’s in 1994, Younis being suspended for one game during an ODI tri-series in Sri Lanka in 2000, Faf du Plessis and “mint-gate” to Dravid receiving a fine of 50% of his match fee for “applying lozenge to the ball” in a 50-over game versus Zimbabwe in 2004, we have seen a lot of controversies. Even the batting maestro, Tendulkar, was found guilty of “acting on the match ball” by the referee Mike Denness during the Port Elizabeth Test versus South Africa in 2001. He was given a suspended one-match ban. Eventually, ICC cleared him of all tampering charges and noted that Tendulkar’s offence was “cleaning the ball without the umpire’s permission rather than ball tampering”.

In this competitive world, where athletes explore every nook and cranny to gain the edge, the temptation of getting it to reverse perhaps forces cricketers to look beyond the boundaries of what is permissible under laws. Geeves, in a column for Fox Sports, succinctly wrote: “I’ve gotta say, rightly or wrongly, the lure of getting caught is so worth it. Because when the ball goes reverse – think England in 2005 – it is damn near impossible to survive, let alone score.”