Michael Atherton attends to the ball in Darrell Hair's presence

Two years on from the ball-tampering saga of 1992, one of England's own, Michael Atherton, was accused of the offence

© Mike Egerton/EMPICS

Feature

Reverse swing: an English tale

England went from suspicion of reverse swing to being masters of it in two decades

Vithushan Ehantharajah |

Like all good romances - and some bad ones too - England's love of reverse swing stemmed from hate. Or at least deep-rooted suspicion. For the longest time, reverse swing was something only Pakistan could do. Depending on who you spoke to, reverse swing was something only Pakistan would do.

Since Sarfraz Nawaz first, and then Imran Khan, cricket had been building up to its early '90s angst over reverse swing. At that time Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram were its greatest early practitioners, and even as they took the craft to new levels, the rest of the world was asking questions about its legality.

Serious alarms had begun to sound late in 1990, but it was in England in the summer of 1992 that the froths of rage would bubble over. Waqar and Wasim were doing what they did best, knocking stumps out of the ground and noses out of joint, months after Pakistan had beaten England in the World Cup final. Whether that added fuel to the fire is another question, but in England reverse swing was seen very much as a dark art.

An impromptu ball change during an ODI at Lord's was so clumsily bundled through by match officials and the Test and County Cricket Board (as the ECB used to be known) that Allan Lamb felt compelled to speak out to the Mirror, for a bombastic front-page exposé: "How Pakistan Cheat at Cricket". Lamb was fined £5000 by the TCCB for speaking out of turn, sued by Sarfraz (whom he had accused of tampering) and never played for England again.

For the longest time, reverse swing was something only Pakistan could do. Depending on who you spoke to, reverse swing was something only Pakistan would do

Wisden's take on the incident and its aftermath was scathing: "In the darkness, further seeds of mistrust and animosity were sown for the future."

****

The previous year, Wasim, Waqar and Aaqib Javed had introduced reverse swing to Lancashire, Surrey and Hampshire, respectively. Perhaps the most notable spell in the 1991 season came from Waqar against Gloucestershire. On a road of a pitch at Guildford, Gloucestershire won the toss and batted first. Surrey toiled as the openers put on a century stand. But after lunch, 105 for 0 suddenly became 160 for 6 - four to Waqar, who, in the words of some of the Gloucestershire batsmen, had it going around corners.

While many that year lodged complaints of ball-tampering, many more were intrigued. At the time it was believed that reverse swing - or "contrast swing" as it was also known - necessitated malfeasance, through a combination of bottle caps and fingernails. Behind the scenes, England bowlers were waking up.

During England's 1989-90 tour of the Caribbean, Angus Fraser noticed he was getting unorthodox shape with an older ball. Upon noting a delivery that ought to have been a conventional outswinger moving into the right-hander in the nets, he turned to Philip DeFreitas, who had also witnessed it. While unable to explain what had happened, the pair understood the state the ball had to be in to generate this movement. And so, net sessions were spent roughing up one side in order to practise controlling this delivery.

Sarfraz Nawaz, widely held to be one of the progenitors of reverse swing, played for Northamptonshire

Sarfraz Nawaz, widely held to be one of the progenitors of reverse swing, played for Northamptonshire © PA Photos

There was little by way of coaching progression in England at the time. The stigma shone brightly through the '90s and no coach wanted to be seen promoting a skill that required wilful degradation of the ball. Ironic, considering at the time picking the seam - notably the quarter seam that runs perpendicular to the prominent seam - to help the ball swing was rife (the quarter seam acts as a rudder, ensuring the ball moves sideways through the air). But it also had a lot to do with the fact that, actually, reverse swing just wasn't required in English conditions. Often the new ball did the trick and lush outfields meant effective wear was minimal.

But occasionally, near the end of the summer, when squares were worn, reverse swing appeared. These occasions were heavily player-led, and dressing-room banter was momentarily parked for some show and tell. Some knew how to get it, others knew how best to use it, but no one really knew how to keep it. Whenever the ball stopped moving, blame was laid at the feet of the last to have hands on it before the bowler. Still, county cricket was ahead of the game. The national side was either oblivious or unconcerned.

When Wasim was at Lancashire, he would be furious when offspinner Gary Yates licked his spinning finger and touched the rough side. Waqar imprinted on Surrey fielders the need to throw the ball around the field underarm, so that it could be caught on the shiny side.

Progress was being made at Edgbaston. Warwickshire's domination in the early '90s tied in with a knack for maintaining swing longer than other sides. It turned out that Asif Din, top-order batsman and ball shiner, would chew extra-strong mints in the field to keep his energy up, and use the saliva to shine the ball. Many, including the captain, Dermot Reeve, were apparently oblivious as to how the mints were affecting swing. The message dripped out, however, and by the turn of the century, the breath of county cricketers improved immeasurably. But further north was where the country's first reverse-swing-savvy bowlers were forged.

The stigma shone brightly through the '90s and no coach wanted to be seen promoting a skill that required wilful degradation of the ball

At Yorkshire, Darren Gough and Craig White were alerted to reverse by wicketkeeper Richard Blakey, who told them that at certain times their deliveries to right-handers would tail in late. Blakey noted that between overs 25 and 40 he would often have to think twice about which way to move when he saw where the shine was. From that moment on, Gough and White, who had been team-mates as youngsters, set up their own brains trust.

"It was a relatively unknown skill in that Headingley dressing room," remembers White. "Moreover, there was never a ball shiner, per se. Someone might rub it on their pants a bit, just to look like they were doing something. But there was nothing methodical about it."

So the pair took it upon themselves to look after the ball. The key with both was their slingy actions, allowing them to almost undercut the ball upon release. That imparted more backwards revolutions, putting greater "action" on the seam, giving the ball dip.

Control and execution did not come easily to White. A natural inswing bowler, reverse merely made the movement occur later and to a greater degree. A lot of that was down to a cantered seam that meant he could never really bowl away-swing. It was only later in his career that he was able to perfect the ball that held its line, giving the booming reverse swinger greater potency.

Allan Lamb gave voice to England's mistrust of reverse swing in the summer of '92, and paid a heavy price

Allan Lamb gave voice to England's mistrust of reverse swing in the summer of '92, and paid a heavy price © Tony Marshall/EMPICS

Gough, on the other hand, took to it like a duck to water. His leap, spring-like release and sturdy, near-perfect wrist meant he could reverse the ball both ways. But as easy as it came, Gough also put in the hours. His net sessions were split between practising with the new ball and then getting out one particular old, ravaged ball - already 50 overs old the first time he used it - and bowling for even longer. That ball lasted him eight years.

Everything, from the slight change in action and position on the crease to his release, was self-taught. Gough eventually passed down his wisdom to a precocious young allrounder, Tim Bresnan, whose reverse-swing spells would help England win an Ashes series on Australian soil in 2010-11 - the first time since 1986-87.

Like Wasim and Waqar, Gough and White targeted the stumps or pads with full lengths. They played together for England, where they were surprised at the lack of knowledge at the top. So they rallied other bowlers and informed them that they would have to look after the ball as a unit, while warning others not to interfere.

Two years after the 1992 episode, ball-tampering returned to Lord's, when Michael Atherton - England's captain at the time - was shown, on camera, taking dirt from his pocket and applying it to the ball during the first Test against South Africa. Atherton said in his diary that he used the dirt to dry the ball "three or four times". At the time, the theory going around was that reverse swing was best achieved by loading one side of the ball with sweat or saliva. While with conventional swing the shiny side moved faster through the air and therefore made the ball swing in the opposite direction, loading saw the added weight on the shiny side drag the ball in that direction.

Many were said to be oblivious of mints and their effect on swing. The message dripped out, however, and by the turn of the century, the breath of county cricketers improved immeasurably

It was the first time an England side had looked to emulate a skill that, two years earlier, they had turned their noses up at. Atherton might not have realised it that summer, as he took to Piccadilly rooftops to avoid a ravenous press, but he had fired the starter pistol.

****

In the winter of 1996-97, an England Under-19 side led by Andrew Flintoff toured Pakistan. Most of the side, unusually, already had first-team county experience, especially the pace trio of Paul Franks (Nottinghamshire), Alex Tudor and Ben Hollioake (both Surrey).

"If you looked at the three of us - we'd already played a bit of county cricket with some serious players," says Tudor. To his knowledge, reverse swing was beginning to be discussed in county cricket in thoughtful ways. Spurred on by Waqar, Surrey were ahead of the curve, with a captain, Adam Hollioake, who was always looking for marginal gains, and his brother Ben, who was a natural at reverse.

They knew flat pitches and scorched outfields would await them, and the new ball would not last long. Faced with a physically draining and potentially futile month ahead, they pooled knowledge, under the guidance of coach John Abrahams and tour manager Phil Neale.

"Well done, you": Alex Tudor congratulates Craig White after a wicket; Tudor and White were early English adopters of reverse swing © PA Photos

"Crucially, a few of the lads on tour - players and coaches - had been to the subcontinent before," says Franks, who had spent a winter at the MRF Pace Academy in Chennai under the tutelage of Dennis Lillee - perhaps the first high-profile non-Pakistani to really suss out reverse swing. Lillee challenged Franks to learn it himself after bombarding him with theory and technical drills. Franks was able to get it going, but he wondered when, if ever, he would use it at Trent Bridge, his home, where the outfield was the greenest of them all.

The trio discussed three methods to gain reverse:

- Standard: Taking care of the ball as they would in England - economical with saliva, constant polishing, trying to keep one side as pristine as possible and wait.

- Loading: Making the shiny side heavier.

- Dry shining: Ensuring no moisture gets onto the ball, thus essentially buffing one side into a shiny state, with minimal moisture, and leaving the other side unattended.

What they found was that, generally, all three would get the ball to reverse after 25 overs. The greater challenge was maintaining it. "That was evident almost straightaway," remembers Franks. "We had to fill everyone in on what was going on." As it happened, the grounds were lusher than expected, so any abrasiveness came from the pitch. The spinners on tour - Gareth Batty and Dean Cosker - often bowled in tandem before Franks or Holliaoke replaced one. The amount of time that the ball would reverse for was maddeningly inconsistent.

"We realised that when fielders didn't know what we were trying to do, it went very wrong, very quickly," says Franks. "And we noticed it could be as innocent as somebody catching it or switching off for a second, throwing it in on the bounce. The most important thing, though, is that it was so new to us but became something we all understood by the end of it."

Gough took to reverse swing like a duck to water. His leap, spring-like release and sturdy, near-perfect wrist meant he could reverse the ball both ways

County sides started to practise throwing on the bounce to the wicketkeeper, to scuff up the ball - which umpires were oblivious to at the time. Fingernails were used and fielders started wearing trousers with zip pockets, "shining" the ball on the teeth to tear up the rough side. Umpires were under no instructions to regularly check the ball, and so, on the off chance that they might fancy a gander, hands were rubbed in the debris of side wickets to pick up dirt and cover up any man-made blemishes on the ball.

At Test level, loading was still the go-to method. Gough had a theory that sweat from the lower back was "heavier" and was thus the best for adding weight to the ball. However, by the end of the '90s, England's quicks started to realise what they were doing was counterproductive. While copious amounts of moisture do make one side heavier, they also drastically soften the ball. As a result it does not travel through the air or off the pitch quick enough to trouble batsmen.

Another thing bowlers started to notice was that the balls that did the most tended to have a velvety texture on the rough side, against the grain of the leather. Often, the closer this "fuzz" was to the seam, the more prodigious the reverse, because when the ball is presented ideally, that is the part in contact with the air. Similarly, simply shining the "face" of the ball did little - it is the rim just to the side of the seam that needs polishing.

Slowly but surely, England were cracking the code.

****

"I was laughing my head off!" Simon Jones said. "Straussy just had a proper tantrum! Effing and blinding all over the shop."

Darren Gough: a reverse-swing natural, and never short of a theory on how to get it going

Darren Gough: a reverse-swing natural, and never short of a theory on how to get it going © Getty Images

Before he was one of England's most successful openers, long before he was England captain, and further still from becoming director of English cricket, Andrew Strauss was like every other 24-year-old: enthusiastic, ambitious, and unsure of his place in the world. At the beginning of 2002, he was part of an England Academy squad taken to Australia. With more naturally talented batsmen around him - Ian Bell, for example - he knuckled down, took blows and did what he could to demonstrate his will through endless net sessions in the baking heat. That will was broken, however, by three balls during one net in Adelaide.

The first two deliveries swung late into him and bowled him. The third started, Strauss claims, "yards wide", before just missing his off stump. Pissed off, he called time, storming out in an almighty huff. Having narrowly missed out on a Strauss hat-trick, Jones took his ball and returned to the top of his mark, trying not to laugh but failing to repress a smirk.

It was in Australia that England's greatest exponent of reverse swing discovered a love and lust for it. Jones might not have even made the tour had the England head coach with the final say on selections not been Duncan Fletcher, his former boss at Glamorgan. Jones' domestic numbers were modest, but Fletcher had seen enough.

County sides started to practise throwing on the bounce to the wicketkeeper, to scuff up the ball. Fingernails were used and fielders started wearing trousers with zip pockets

On this tour, Jones bonded with Troy Cooley, who would go on to be England bowling coach. A Lillee disciple, Cooley had absorbed all he could on reverse swing and began passing it on to worthy souls like Jones. Even now, Jones can't hide the disbelief: "I think back and realise I was very fortunate to go on that tour. It was almost like it was meant to happen. Fate, you know?"

Cooley was all over Jones' pace, but he adored his work ethic. And so, together, they broke it down. Given the options England had, especially in home conditions, Jones was never going to open the bowling. "We'd established that I'd probably be bowling in the middle," says Jones. "Throughout, say, the middle overs of an innings. Essentially, the time where things can start to get away from a fielding side."

Rather than rush to the bag of balls to pick the newest cherry, Jones sought out the one that looked like it had been chewed by a dog. "I knew that, more often than not, I'll be getting a softer ball that will probably be doing little. So I knew that reverse swing was my only chance to guarantee my selection."

He learned by doing: hour upon hour of bowling, working out how far he had to bowl outside off to bring it back in, and how far around middle and leg he would have to start to beat the outside edge. For a laugh, he and Cooley decided to see how slow you could bowl and still reverse it. They managed to get as low as 50mph, though the things that needed to be done to the ball "would probably get you arrested".

Will this one go?

Will this one go?

Bowling to the likes of Strauss and Bell gave Jones the confidence that he was developing, while also getting him used to a shorter run-up, with more explosiveness at the crease. The rewards were almost instantaneous. In March 2002, against Western Australia 2nd XI, Jones turned 106 for 1 into 147 for 6, taking four himself.

****

If Jones is synonymous with reverse swing then both are synonymous with the 2005 Ashes. Without him and it, who knows how that series might have panned out? England knew that in Jones and Flintoff, they had two bowlers capable of long spells of reverse.

By now, it was agreed that every member of the team had to be in on it. With sound management, Cooley and the bowlers reckoned they could get the ball reversing after 20 to 30 overs. Such a sustained attack, with little gap between conventional and reverse swing, would be invaluable. The bowlers - Jones, Flintoff, Steven Harmison and Matthew Hoggard - took turns choosing the balls they were to use for each innings. They followed county cricket wisdom in their selection: whether Dukes or Readers, a side always picked the darkest on offer, meaning it was harder for batsmen to pick the seam from the hand.

Meanwhile, Marcus Trescothick had fashioned himself as the premier spit-shiner. Taking inspiration from Warwickshire, he opted for mints, though he did not find Din's choice palatable and opted for Murray Mints. He found they worked wonders on the Dukes ball, with minimal effect on the Kookaburra. Only he was to shine the ball. Players with sweaty hands were excluded and throws on the bounce banned once the ball was in the right state. Keep the rough side dry and the shiny side pristine.

Rather than rush to the bag of balls to pick the newest cherry, Jones sought out the one that looked like it had been chewed by a dog

The ploy was aided by a beauty of a summer. Many English grounds had turned to sand-based outfields, improving drainage immeasurably. Instead of holding moisture as lush green paddocks, outfields were more golf-course style - perfectly grassed and very dry, allowing natural abrasion of the ball.

In-play communication was kept to a minimum. Trescothick would often hand over the ball with an opinion on whether he thought it would "go" or not. If the nod and wink were forthcoming, one of Jones or Flintoff would be brought into the attack. "I'd try a conventional awayswinger - that would be the ball I bowled to check if it was reversing," says Jones. "You basically had to risk that one ball to find out." Communication between Flintoff and Jones was non-stop, not least because Flintoff had a good view of the movement of the ball from the slip cordon. When it did go, he and a few others had to bite their lip. "Seriously, at the first sign of it, the boys used to get excited and had to calm themselves a bit."

Flintoff was responsible for perhaps the most memorable over of the series. In the 13th of the Australian second innings at Edgbaston, Flintoff spooked Justin Langer with a couple of late awayswingers from around the wicket - bowling him with the punchline that went on - before getting the ball to go the other way from over the wicket to nick off a bemused Ricky Ponting for a duck. "To get in there early and find the ball reverse-swinging in the 13th over was something you don't see every day," Ponting later remarked.

In the Hollioake brothers, Surrey had a captain (Adam) in search of marginal gains and a bowler (Ben) capable of providing them via reverse

In the Hollioake brothers, Surrey had a captain (Adam) in search of marginal gains and a bowler (Ben) capable of providing them via reverse © Jon Buckle/EMPICS Sport

As for the ball of the series, well, there's no uncertainty over that...

****

"That is very good."

That line will mean something to most of you. It will evoke an image of a bleach-blond, pup-faced Michael Clarke, lunging forward, egg-white front pad thrust forth, hands and bat in the air. You can probably hear that deep bass thud now. A thud more satisfying than anything a glockenspiel could produce.

After taking 6 for 53 in the first innings at Old Trafford, Jones was brought back into the attack, with 72 overs gone in the Australian second innings. Despite early inroads on the final day, Ponting and Clarke had taken Australia to 255 for 5, with 168 more to get and enough time left to get them. Ponting took a single off the first ball, bringing Clarke on strike.

"They will have known it was reversing. It was just obvious," Jones says. "What else was I there to do? Clarke was looking good, and I'd have to box clever." Clarke nicked the third ball of the over - an outswinger - just short of second slip and away for four. Conventional swing? "No. It was reversing, but I figured my best bet was to try and make it look like the ball was just moving normally. I didn't change my action for reverse, so at times I could hide it."

If Jones is synonymous with reverse swing then both are synonymous with the 2005 Ashes. Without him and it, who knows how that series might have panned out?

Another awayswinger, Clarke went for a big drive and missed completely. The next ball started on a line to swing away but carried on in its path. Clarke played it to cover. "There was some natural variation there too, with the odd one just going straight. I didn't mean to. Christ knows I can't explain it."

Hoggard bowled the next over, and when Jones came back, so Clarke was facing. The first delivery was outside off and left alone. "When I got back to my mark after that ball, I don't know, but the crowd had died down a bit and the lads had gone a bit quiet. I figured Clarke might have eased up a bit too. I thought I'd go with the inner. I'm not sure why, but I decided to give the crowd a bit of a gee-up. And it was just perfect timing really. The right line. The right length. Clarke misjudged it." Just a bit.

With that wicket, English cricket had truly popped their reverse-swing cherry.

****

The current England side are honours students when it comes to learning the trade. The cornerstone of England's Test series win in India in 2012 - a first in 27 years - was James Anderson's ability to out-reverse Zaheer Khan. It was a display that did not go unnoticed by Wasim, who praised England after the third Test of the series: "The way they bowled tells me England will only get better in this series because they have the knowledge of reverse swing and, crucially, an idea of how to use it. To me, it looked like the Pakistan team were playing out there. It really did."

Simon Jones gets Michael Clarke at Edgbaston in 2005:

Simon Jones gets Michael Clarke at Edgbaston in 2005: "They will have known it was reversing. It was just obvious. What else was I there to do?" © Getty Images

Anderson has, in part, Wasim to thank. Learning his trade on a drier, quicker Old Trafford surface, moving the ball at pace later in the innings became his thing in support of the experienced duo of Peter Martin and Glen Chapple, who squeezed all the juice out of the new ball. Both Martin and Chapple were guided by the wisdom of Wasim during his long stint with Lancashire, and in turn, those words were passed on to Anderson. In an interview with Derek Pringle for the Cricket Monthly, Anderson admitted that honing the craft was a chore: "As strange as it sounds, it's difficult to bowl reverse swing. I feel I have to use a completely different action and a different release to conventional swing." It was only in 2012, during a tour of Sri Lanka, that it all clicked.

He took cues from Zaheer, who tied England in knots during the 2007 series. But most of Anderson's own development - not just reverse - relied on his own intuition, ably supported by the English system, particularly at the ECB Performance Centre in Loughborough. This hub, slap-bang in the middle of a university complex, has become a cloud for vast amounts of information on reverse swing. Information such as a breakdown of how long on average it takes for different red balls around the world to start reversing (30 overs for Dukes, 40 to 50 for the Kookaburra, and 10 to 15 for the SG used in India).

During a warm-up before the Ahmedabad Test in the 2012 series, England decided to see how quickly they could manipulate reverse with the SG. With a combination of continuous cross-seam deliveries and bounce throws, it took just nine overs.

The hardest part of Anderson's progression was trimming the fat. "I realised that if you could swing the ball, you could reverse it," he writes in his autobiography, Jimmy: My Story. Previously it was thought that only the slingy actioned were able to get unconventional movement. But Anderson's ability to work the old ball relied on him treating it just as he did the new one. "You're always more dangerous if you can get the old ball to duck both ways. A lot of people can tail it in but not necessarily out, yet for it to be at its most effective you try to set people up in the same way as with conventional swing. You might bowl a succession of in-swingers and then try to outfox them with an away-swinger or vice versa."

Trescothick would often hand over the ball with an opinion on whether he thought it would "go" or not. If the nod and wink were forthcoming, one of Jones or Flintoff would be brought on

With Anderson also came the English slant on reverse swing - length. "One of the traps with the reverse-swinging ball is that people bowl it too full. Obviously, if you are using reverse swing on pitches on the subcontinent, you might look to bowl more balls that will go on to hit the stumps. But in England, you might bowl more balls outside off that swing away, in the hope of locating the edge. These differences are just part of the knowledge you acquire through bowling in different conditions."

It's a point backed up by Mark Wood, who has taken over the Jones role. "Jimmy and I are different when it comes to reverse," Wood says. "He'll be a lot more patient with reverse than I am. He'll beat the outside edge repetitively. If you watch Jimmy, he can bowl three overs of away swing when it's reversing and the batsman thinks it's not bad. Then one flies in and challenges the other edge. He kills with doubt.

"For me, though, it's more about throwing the batsman's front foot off. I'd bowl half a yard fuller than normal, but it won't be right up there. The odd yorker is good but you don't want to be too full. Ideally, you want the ball coming in at about knee-roll length. Because reverse swing happens so fast and late, you want that extra zip off the pitch to catch a batsman who doesn't know whether to go forward or back. I want them to plant that foot."

Jones operated on the same principle. It is no coincidence that the ball to Clarke hit the top of off: "The way the ball moves may change, but your principles and discipline remain the same."

Wasim and Waqar, two of the world's greatest exponents of the art, spread the gospel of reverse swing in county cricket

Wasim and Waqar, two of the world's greatest exponents of the art, spread the gospel of reverse swing in county cricket © PA Photos

The similarities between Wood and Jones are evident. Both have coiled-spring actions and an ability to consistently operate around 90mph. Wood, too, learned about reverse while away on a development programme. After going on a tour of India with Durham, he was part of an England Lions squad to Sri Lanka led by England women's coach Mark Robinson, who was head coach at Sussex at the time and shared a dressing room with Mushtaq Ahmed and Rana Naved-ul-Hasan.

In the lead up to the tour, the Lions bowlers prepared at Loughborough with scratched balls and loaded balls dipped in water to soak one side: Plan A and Plan B. "The preparation was perfect," Wood remembers. "As a fast bowling group, we used to practise three balls with the new ball, then we'd turn around with the reverse-swinging ball, set our own fields and were scored on how well we executed what we were trying to do." It was here Wood realised that, for him, using different parts of the crease and slightly lowering his arm helped exaggerate the reverse he was getting.

Time was spent in the classroom too. Players watched videos of former players in their pomp or providing insights into how they mastered it. Consultants were also brought in to provide presentations to the squad: for Wood's class, that was Anderson. Further presentations were provided on different conditions, dealing with sweat, and generally, how to look after the ball.

****

The fine-tuning at the top is now as efficient as it ever has been. The processes in place were especially evident during England's winter in Bangladesh and India. Wood's absence, and injury to Anderson (restricting him to three of the seven Tests), led to Ben Stokes taking on the mantle of the main reverse-swinger. While he would expect to be in play around the 20- to 30-over mark, he would also have to be ready at a moment's notice.

"As strange as it sounds, it's difficult to bowl reverse swing. I feel I have to use a completely different action and a different release to conventional swing" James Anderson

Often either Anderson or Stuart Broad will alert the rest of the team when they think the ball is on the cusp of reversing. That alert can come in the middle of their overs, at which point Wood or Stokes gets loose. Sometimes that warm up has to be done in the space of two balls.

The process of alerting the team is, naturally, a convoluted one. Generally word gets around via mid-off or mid-on. When away from home in countries where English isn't the first language, you'll hear the phrase "It's starting to go Irish." Most of the time, it was kept fairly quiet, between Alastair Cook (when he was captain) and the current ball shiner, Joe Root.

A regular sight during the winter was of Root at mid-on during Stokes' overs, constantly polishing the ball on his long sleeve. The advancement in shirt technology has moved ball-shining away from trouser legs. The breathe-easy material used for modern clothing not only stays drier for longer but also allows a better finish on the shiny side of the ball. Often a team's designated ball-shiner might wear white long-sleeve compression skins as an extra barrier to sweat, ensuring the shirt stays as dry as possible. Nothing highlighted the kind of care and attention than a moment in Bangladesh, during the second Test last winter. England were desperate for a breakthrough as the hosts went about compiling a second-innings lead and thoughts turned to getting the ball reversing for Stokes.

Moeen Ali and Zafar Ansari were bowling in tandem, looking for a wicket and keeping things tight while ageing the ball. One particular delivery from Ansari spun sharply beyond both the batsman and the wicketkeeper, Jonny Bairstow. Root, one of the close-in fielders, hurtled after the ball as it raced away towards the boundary - a futile chase. But his intention was never to stop the ball. As he got within earshot of the boundary, he began barking orders at the ball boys beyond it, imploring them not to pick up the ball, fearing their sweaty hands would undo the work that had gone into getting it into a state of reverse. The look of anger when one of them reached across and scooped it up spoke volumes. As much as England could control who handled the ball in their side, outside interference is always an issue.

Mind the fingernails, Nasser

Mind the fingernails, Nasser © Rebecca Naden/PA Images

Much of their hopes on those two tours rested on reverse swing. But while they were able to harness it over sustained periods in Bangladesh with the Kookaburra ball, the SG balls in India did not maintain their hardness long enough for effective reverse swing to come into play.

Nevertheless, diligence has been a regular feature for England since 2005, in all formats. England were particularly adept at getting reverse in ODIs - even if results might not show it - prior to the rule change in 2011 that brought in one ball at each end. Generally the "natural" degradation of the white ball lends itself towards reverse, but England's ball management, aided by similar line-ups playing Tests and ODIs during this period, was second to none. Whatever the conditions, whatever the make of ball - the gap between conventional and reverse swing was short. "Honestly, I think I owe them [team-mates] about 20 caps," said one fast bowler from that era.

During this period, those trusted to shine the ball gained notoriety. Trescothick was the pioneer, Cook the perspiration-free wonder. But with it came allegations.

In 2010, South Africa were concerned after Broad stopped the ball with the studs of his boot. Anderson was also supposedly spotted "running his fingers over the ball". They were convinced that England were bending the rules. Andy Flower, team director at the time, denied the claims. Abrasive pitches, he said, caused it.

The accusations were a lot more blunt in ODIs, especially during the 2013 Champions Trophy. AB de Villiers raised his eyebrows at how early England were getting reverse with two new balls (in English conditions, no less), as did George Bailey.

Those entrusted to shine the ball gained notoriety. Trescothick was the pioneer; Cook the perspiration-free wonder. But with it came allegations

Bob Willis went further than both, outright accusing England of ball-tampering during an interview in the Sun. His comments came after umpires Billy Bowden and Aleem Dar decided to change the ball during England's group-stage defeat to Sri Lanka.

"Let's not beat about the bush - Aleem Dar is on England's case," Willis said. "He knows that one individual is scratching the ball for England - who I am not going to name - and that's why the ball was changed."

The player he was "not going to name" was Ravi Bopara - England's limited-overs ball shiner at the time. Bopara was defiant, telling the Evening Standard soon after: "It was annoying, sad and depressing - especially in the middle of a global competition. We were doing well in that tournament, and I felt it was unacceptable to make that sort of noise. When England are doing well, why does something negative have to come from it? Why not just get on the wave with England and enjoy it?" Willis later apologised.

Meanwhile, county cricket was also progressing. Now each side has a process whenever the ball starts showing signs of reverse. Given the changes in personnel for each format, discussions and sharing of information take place on a much bigger scale. There is a level of transparency too: counties know who the best exponents are, but can also tell you who the designated ball shiners (including understudies) are for each side.

Trescothick and Pietersen in Pakistan in 2005:

Trescothick and Pietersen in Pakistan in 2005: "Psst... it's starting to go" © PA Photos

Experiments are rife. A few seasons ago, one county conducted tests and came to the conclusion that warming the leather of the ball would allow them to shine it better, thus enabling it to swing more. At the time, the side had a kit sponsor who provided them with sweaters that were fluffy on the inside, which they used to shine the ball. During this period, an opposition captain spotted them shining the ball in a game and, when batting, kicked up a fuss with the umpires, claiming the fielders could be doing anything under their jumpers. As a compromise, the fielders turned their jumpers inside out.

Throwing the ball into small rough patches now features among the side's fielding drills, while techniques such as getting the seam to "satellite" - a sidearm throw that keeps the seam parallel to the ground, thus getting the ball to land on the same side each time - have been perfected by a few. Such tricks have become a necessity as pitches in the country get flatter year upon year and limited-overs cricket continues to stack the odds against bowlers. One issue, however, consistent through county attacks, was the move to two new balls in 50-over cricket. Previously, the white ball's natural wear and tear meant reverse swing could be achieved around 25 to 30 overs in, before it was replaced after 35. Now there is no such window and scores have risen. That has seen a return in the domestic games to pushing the limits as they did more than 20 years ago.

"Have you ever noticed that the counties - about six or seven of them - with zips in their whites tend to be the 'best' at reverse swing?" says one senior county cricketer. Nails are back in vogue, complete with a sleight of hand that makes it look like fielders are simply applying saliva in an above-board manner when they are actually scuffing the other side. "You've got no way of knowing, even if you're watching on TV," says one fast bowler. "Maybe by sound. Our overseas taught us it about four or five years ago, and it sounds like a huge f****** caterpillar munching some lettuce when he does it."

Tales of a handful of county players fashioning their nails into a "smaller dagger" and applying nail hardener through the season are common. The story of one, who during an England Lions match a few years ago away from the cameras, managed to get the ball reversing in just ten overs, stands out. "He's an artist," said a former team-mate in admiration. At one county, during a lunch interval by which the fielding side had only taken one wicket, the overseas player - two weeks old - in broken English, promised reverse after five overs. "I can use my nails - it's fine!" His coach at the time, a former England Test cricketer, interjected: "No, no, no - we don't do that here!"

Nails are back in vogue, complete with a sleight of hand that makes it look like fielders are simply applying saliva when they are actually scuffing the other side. "It sounds like a huge f****** caterpillar munching some lettuce," one player said

Some methods, brought in from far and wide, haven't lasted the course. A trick commonly used in Australian grade cricket in which the on-field towel or rag is dabbed in glue, which hardens and creates an abrasive surface, was seen by some as too much hassle. A player from the subcontinent thought bottle caps were due for a return until he was corrected by team-mates.

The opposition in these battles is not the batsman but the umpires. Many are former pros with an inkling of when rules are being bent. The ECB has encouraged its umpires to be proactive in the matter.

"If they know we are wise to it, they give it a rest," says Jeremy Lloyds, an umpire of 21 years who played county cricket for Somerset and Gloucestershire. Lloyds, who was an ICC umpire between 2004 and 2006, is more proactive than most. Before each game, he, along with this partner, will speak to the two captains privately and inform them that ball-tampering will not be tolerated. "I always say - if the ball looks like it has been tampered with and we're not quite sure who's done it, the captain is liable."

Generally, umpires are on the lookout for unnatural markings: scuffs or blemishes too uniform to be a coincidence. They also police throws: generally allowing throws from the boundary to bounce but clamping down on anyone within the 30-yard-circle who doesn't get their throw in on the full.

Modern umpires - Jeremy Lloyds among them - are vigilant when it comes to tampering, but are they too vigilant?

Modern umpires - Jeremy Lloyds among them - are vigilant when it comes to tampering, but are they too vigilant? © Matthew Ashton/EMPICS

"If I start to notice something on the ball, for example, I'll bring the fielding captain over and tell him I don't want it getting any worse," says Lloyds. The language used is important here. "We don't say something 'definitely is', we say, 'someone might be doing it'. We're more inclined to have a quiet word and settle things down before they get too far. At the end of the day, we're all there to make sure the game isn't sullied."

This dynamic and the open secrets of what fielding sides are trying to achieve explains an incident in August 2013. Freddie Coleman, while playing a 2nd XI match for Warwickshire, was given a two-match suspended sentence (and his county fined £5000) after he was adjudged to have "knowingly and deliberately changed the condition of the ball". Martin Saggers, the umpire who reported the incident, noticed the ball was particularly shiny. After confronting Coleman on the field, Saggers asked him at the end of play how he got it so smooth and shiny. Without hesitation, Coleman replied: "Yeah, I was shining it with a mint." Saggers had no choice but to reprimand him.

It may also explain a peculiar incident that occurred last season, as told by a bowler who witnessed it: "We got this ball reversing. It was a dry outfield, the sun was out, perfect reverse conditions. We got a wicket with a big one that hooped in, and I chucked the ball straight to the umpire. He's then just literally rubbed the sweat from his forehead and put it straight on the ball to press down all the fuzz that had built up and shoved it straight in his pocket. I asked him what he was doing and he goes, 'This is for your benefit, lads.'

Tales of a handful of county players fashioning their nails into a "smaller dagger" and applying nail hardener through the season are common

"Now, I think that has come in because umpires don't want the controversy. They don't want other teams complaining, but hold on, we were doing it legitimately! They've almost gone the other way - they are suspecting instead of giving you the benefit of the doubt."

****

The about turn in the game's dynamics is summed up by Misbah-ul-Haq's comments after England's 141-run win at Edgbaston in the third Test last summer. While championing England's ability to utilise reverse swing much better than his own, inexperienced attack, Misbah admitted to "concern" over the fact that Anderson was able to get a ball reversing after 31 overs. "The way it just happened after lunch. It was not doing anything until the fourth day. Suddenly it started - it just hadn't happened throughout the Test match - but obviously the fifth day is different."

He stopped short of any accusations with a diplomatic "the umpires are there, the match referees are there… I am not there to check these things". Cook's retort - "It's a load of rubbish!" - evoked memories of 1992.

This time there were no accusations of racism, no lawsuit, nor seeds of animosity sown. Instead, grudging respect from the country that woke England up to the glories of reverse swing.

Vithushan Ehantharajah is a sportswriter for ESPNcricinfo, the Guardian, All Out Cricket and Yahoo Sport

 

RELATED ARTICLES

 

LOGIN TO POST YOUR COMMENTS