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Thursday, April 19, 2018

ICC Champions Trophy 2017: Different ‘ball’ game

Despite typical English conditions, there’s hardly any swing on offer for pacers; the ball holds the answers. Genuine swing bowlers Mohammad Amir, Mitchell Starc, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Tim Southee, Trent Boult have had to alter their length.

Written by Bharat Sundaresan | London | Updated: June 7, 2017 8:17:15 am
mohammd amir, icc champions trophy, cricket news, indian express Even though it was overcast at Edgbaston during the India-Pakistan match, Mohammad Amir, who usually makes the new ball dance in the air and off the pitch, struggled to get any swing. (Reuters)

Some four overs into India’s innings on Sunday, commentator Ian Bishop sounded surprised. The Birmingham skies were overcast and this had resulted in Pakistan opting to field. But Mohammad Amir, a bowler known to pitch the ball up and make it move around, was bowling short. Amir had his reasons. The ball was simply not swinging.

Bishop, who had seen Amir trouble the Windies batsmen during the Test series in the Caribbean only a month earlier after having worked with Pakistan bowling coach Azhar Mahmood, sounded befuddled. Amir isn’t the only genuine swing bowler who’s had to alter his length during the Champions Trophy this time around. Even Mitchell Starc, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and the Kiwi duo of Tim Southee and Trent Boult have had to do the same.

The lack of swing has been glaring over the past week. While some experts, including New Zealand skipper Kane Williamson, have hinted at the wet weather and the subsequent cooler climes as being the primary reasons for no swing, Durham coach Jon Lewis insists that the climate has little to do with it. A former opening batsman who had his career tackling the moving ball for nearly two decades, Lewis, laments to The Indian Express that swing bowlers have had to deal with the issue for quite a few years now in England.

“I can’t remember when the white ball swung around much in England,” he says. “The couple of Kiwis, Boult and Southee seem brave enough to pitch the ball up and try to swing it. And if they can’t swing it then nobody can. It’s also the reason why England haven’t picked David Willey, whose stats for picking wickets in his early spell are next to no-one. Instead they have stuck with Chris Woakes and Jake Ball who prefer banging the ball on a shorter length,” adds Lewis.

He then talks about the one dramatic change that the ECB instituted at the turn of the century as being the main cause for it — the shift from Dukes to Kookaburra balls. And he’s not the first one to do so either. Michael Holding has often spoken about it on commentary.

The 1999 World Cup was the last time Dukes were used for limited-overs cricket in England. Incidentally, it was also the last time an ICC event saw bowlers and batsmen both enjoying an equal footing in terms of impact. It was also a tournament where swing bowlers, right from Wasim Akram and Damien Fleming to Debasis Mohanty and Scotland’s John Blain, held sway, at least during the first month of action. Then came the move to Dukes.

The seam on the Dukes ball is manually sewed together with cross-stitches, which means the seam remains prouder and firmer for longer. The seam on the Kookaburra in comparison is machine-stitched, which means linear stitches, and it takes only some 8-10 overs of power-hitting for it to flatten out. And Lewis reveals that the power-equation between bat and ball has shifted dramatically even in domestic cricket.

“In our domestic competition which we played in May, we found very little swing. Three or four overs or sometimes less than that. It occasionally was a case of get the ball into the outfield once or twice, roll it on the grass, and the ball stopped swinging. It didn’t swing much to start with,” he says.

The use of two new-balls was introduced in 2011 as an attempt to bring more balance in ODI cricket. But they were Kookaburra balls, and the seam would go flat very early. Pre-2011, fast bowlers could at least wait for the ball to get scuffed up and then bank on reverse-swing. Compared to the 1999 World Cup, more wickets were snared by fast bowlers with the old-ball during the 2011 edition. The two-ball strategy has meant things have gotten doubly worse for the bowlers, because both balls don’t get banged-up enough for there to be reverse swing. Many fast bowlers as a result have insisted that the move has back-fired as far as they are concerned.

It’s perhaps the reason that the ICC cricket committee recently have recommended a slight alteration, wherein two balls are used only for the first 30 overs and the fielding team is then given an option to pick one of the balls for the remaining 20 overs. With traditional swing nearly lost now to ODI cricket, it seems like an attempt by those making decisive calls on the running of the sport to at least bring back reverse-swing in vogue, or keep it alive anyway. But would that make much of a difference?

Jade Dernbach, who played the role of the specialist death bowler for England a few years ago, has been on record talking about how even when the ball does reverse-swing, the inside edges on bats these days are thick enough to still create enough damage even if the bowler has gotten the better of a batsman. And for now,it seems certain that the only swing that we’ll see will be from the batsman’s end.

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