Reverse swing has been one of cricket’s biggest taboo subjects, due largely to the nefarious methods that cricketers have occasionally employed to achieve it. It is also a devastating tactic when used by a sufficiently talented bowler, which invariably adds to the calls of unsportsmanlike behaviour. Regardless of how the ball is shined (legally or illegally), it does come down to the bowler. Not every fast or medium pacer can extract reverse swing.
Reverse swing is a discussion that could easily lead to an entire article as to the science, or black magic according to a few, of aerodynamics. This would indeed baffle many, including myself. Thus, I will look to simplify the definition of reverse swing without resorting to using terms like “turbulent air flow” or “laminar air flow”, otherwise this will read like a spell out of an old musty book. In order for the ball to reverse it needs to be old – 40 overs seems to be when the most reverse swing can be extracted – and one side needs to scuffed while the other is shined, protected, and kept dry. This will allow the right bowler to get the ball swinging in the opposite direction to conventional swing. This means that the ball will swing in the direction which side the shiny or protected side faces. So, to bowl a reverse in-swinging ball, the shiny side would face inwards towards the batsmen (and vice-versa for outswing).
Reverse swing came to devastate batting orders on the slower subcontinent wickets, where bowlers needed to develop a variety of balls to out fox batsmen. It was used exceptionally well by the Pakistani strike bowlers of the 1990s, who, not surprisingly, dominate the list below. In the modern game, late swinging deliveries bowled at 140km/h can be almost unplayable. They have become a staple for elite bowlers like Dale Steyn and Umar Gul to run through batting orders. What follows below is a list (unordered) of who I think have historically been the best exponents of the black magic called reverse swing. I have stuck to bowlers retired from the international game.
The Pakistani great Imran Khan inherited his knowledge of how to reverse the ball miles from another Pakistani legend of the game, Sarfraz Nawaz. Armed with this arcane skill-set, Khan added to it his devastating pace (at a fast bowling competition in 1979, Khan bowled slower only than revered quicks Michael Holding and Jeff Thompson). This combination meant batsmen had very little time to adjust to his late-swinging deliveries and, as a result, Khan routinely decimated batting lineups.. Khan ended with test career stats of 362 wickets in 88 tests, with an average of 22.81. His best bowling figures stand at 8/58 and he achieved a 5 wicket haul on 23 occasions.
The next Pakistani on this list, Waqar Younis, in conjunction with Wasim Akram, had the ability to decimate any order from any test playing nation. Younis had a slightly bent arm, which seem to aid him in extracting a remarkable amount of swing. The greatest weapon in his frightening arsenal, a superb late in-swinging yorker, broke as many toes as it got wickets and was truly a sight to behold. While YouTube compilation videos entitled “Yorkers from Hell” and “…compilation of doom” may seem like exaggerations of the highest order, it has been recorded that a few of these deliveries topped 150km/h. Imagine stubbing your baby toe at half that speed! Younis ended his 87-test career with 83 wickets taken at an average of 23.56.
The last Pakistani on this list but arguably the greatest reverse swing wizard of all time. On other similar lists, the revered Wasim Akram is always number one. These lists been written by braver writers than myself, willing to argue why he is number one in the entire history of the game. Metaphors abound comparing his ability to being a puppeteer or having the ball on a string. Watching Akram take wickets against the South African teams of my youth, I’d have to concede that the metaphors are entirely apt. Akram’s greatest ability was to be able to swing the ball both ways on demand, whether conventionally or when the ball was reversing. He also seemed to be able to control the swing to perfection (as you generally do not want the ball to swing too much when looking for the batsmen’s edge and, conversely, you want the ball to swing prodigiously when looking for the in-swinging yorker). Sadly, the in-swinging yorker seems to be a dying art with many bowlers favouring short pitched deliveries, particularly to tail end batsmen. At the end of his illustrious career, Akram had captured 414 wickets at an average of just 23.62.
Zaheer Khan is the first non-Pakistani on the list and the most recent player, retiring from international cricket in 2015. He is India’s second highest wicket taking pace bowler behind the great Kapil Dev. Khan was never an outright speed-at-all-costs pace bowler and fell more into the medium-fast pace bowling category. What made him exceptional was his ability to get the ball to move both ways and on the slow sub-continent pitches he always seemed to keep the batsman guessing. This made him nearly unplayable at times. In 2008 he was nominated as Wisden’s top cricketers of the year due to his monumental contribution to India’s historic tour win over England. With career figures of 360 wickets in 92 tests at an average of 32.95, he is undoubtedly one of the greatest Indian pace bowlers of all time. It was a tough call to include him over Andrew Flintoff but his series winning contribution in the aforementioned series led me to tip the scales in his favour.
This may seem an odd choice for the purveyors of fine reverse swing bowling as Glenn McGrath is remembered for his unnerving accuracy and ability to continually bowl a nagging length. What places McGrath on this list is his continual ability to reinvent his bowling. Later in his career, when his pace was naturally slowing, he became far more wise to the ways of getting batsmen out and incorporated reverse swing into a list that reads like the encyclopaedia of all great types of fast bowling. How many bowlers could call Brian Lara their bunny? It was his accuracy and ability to move the ball late fractionally that was the undoing of many batsmen, often finding the edge or trapping the player leg before wickets. With figures of 563 wickets in 124 matches with the amazing average 21.64, McGrath would make it on to my list of best all time bowlers every time.
Image Credit: Zohaib Ali Master