Back to the Future

Date: January 1, 2012 / Posted by control

Lyricist Irving Mills once penned, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing”. I doubt the American jazz genius had even heard of cricket when he put pen to paper in 1931 to create one of the genre’s standards. But in some ways those words have become somewhat of a mantra for the sport.

Top-flight batsmen will tell you that facing out and out pace is not necessarily a problem, but if you add well-controlled swing to the mix it becomes an almighty handful.

Swing bowling can, in fact, be a handful at no matter what pace it is delivered.

What was once a commonplace phenomenon at Test grounds around the world, the swing bowler nowadays is often a rare commodity, sometimes akin to a woolly mammoth in the tropics.

Some blame the demise on the growing proliferation of the limited overs format where bowlers are more likely to bang the ball into the pitch or bowl a variety of scrambled seam slower deliveries as opposed to risking the prospect of a juicy half-volley should a fuller attempted swing delivery fail to land where the bowler desires.

Whatever the reasons, one thing is certain – swing bowling remains one of the truest art forms of the sport.

It requires a steady hand, an assiduously honed technique and the requisite need for patience and planning.

It is no surprise that the world’s number one ranked bowler possesses all these attributes. South African talisman Dale Steyn is the game’s most consistent swing bowler and his deadly out-swing is delivered at serious pace – 140km/h and above.

His mastery of in-flight movement has seen him wreak havoc upon opposing batting line-ups through his glittering 50-Test career. He has already raced to a career tally of 260 scalps at 23, but the most staggering of his myriad stats is his strike rate that sits at a wicket every 39 deliveries, a figure that surpasses all bar three bowlers in the game’s history who have bowled 2000 balls or more at Test level.

So if ever a coach, a captain or a bowler wanted inspiration for what makes the perfect strike weapon, Steyn is the prototype.

Whilst they are a considerable way away from matching the feats of Steyn, there is currently a group of international fast bowlers emerging that seems to be on the right track.

Steyn’s latest pace bowling teammates – Vernon Philander and Marchant de Lange – have both shown a propensity to move the ball through the air at a good pace in the limited opportunities they have had at Test level.

New Zealander Doug Bracewell embarrassed some of Australia’s most seasoned batsman with well executed out-swing in his team’s historic victory in Hobart last month.

And Australia itself has unearthed a couple of finds as well in recent weeks.

Sadly sidelined with an ankle injury after his stunning debut in Johannesburg in November, 18-year-old Pat Cummins will have to wait a while yet to add to his man-of the-match winning 6/79 in the Proteas second innings.

Young Victorian swing bowler, James Pattinson has also put some silverware on the mantle piece in his brief time at the top with two man-of-the-match awards from his first three Tests. His meteoric rise, built around quick away swing, has thus far netted him 20 wickets at 15.

Interestingly, the emergence of the Australian pace duo and the career-best form of fellow quick Peter Siddle has coincided with the arrival of Craig McDermott as the team’s bowling coach.

McDermott debuted for Australia as a raw, broad-shouldered teenager in 1984 enroute to a 71-Test career that produced 291 wickets.

McDermott possessed a classic side-on action and relied on late out swing to produce the bulk of his wickets. His mantra upon taking up the mentoring role with the Australian team was for the quicks to bowl a fuller length – the idea being that it would aid in the production of swing.

The proof of McDermott’s theory has been on display for all to see as Australia’s pace bowlers in recent times have reaped enormous benefits by landing in a zone significantly closer to the batsman.

All in all, what seemed like a withering art at Test level is suddenly having life breathed back into it.

There are few more absorbing sights in the game than a high quality battle between good swing bowling and adept top-order batting.

Let’s all hope that the recent trend will become a feature at Test arenas in 2012 and beyond.

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