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Reaping the rewards of swing

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HEAD HUNTERS: Zaheer Khan and R.P. Singh, with their ability to swing the ball both ways, have picked up 25 wickets between them in the two Tests.
HEAD HUNTERS: Zaheer Khan and R.P. Singh, with their ability to swing the ball both ways, have picked up 25 wickets between them in the two Tests.

S. Ram Mahesh

CRICKET / The ball has curled wickedly late for Zaheer and R.P. Singh

Nottingham: In The Times, London, appeared a cartoon, sketched with economy of line: on the threshold of the Indian dressing room stands a cricketer with a severed head in each hand; an incredulous teammate accosts him with: “Er most people collect stumps as mementoes.”

No doubt, the joke is on Sreesanth after his beamer to Kevin Pietersen, but, so far on tour, it’s his left-handed colleagues who have resembled bounty hunters most closely.

Between them, Zaheer Khan and R.P. Singh have 25 scalps in two Tests. Every one of England’s top seven batsmen has been scouted, softened, probed, and picked up.

That this is a formidable batting line-up puts the performance in perspective. The most obviously visible cause of the left-armers’ success is swing. Both at Lord’s and here at Trent Bridge, the ball has curled wickedly late for Zaheer and R.P. Singh.

Pleasing act

So pleasing has been the act — so smoothly snug the arc of the swinging ball, so apparently certain its repetition — that the work behind it has gone unnoticed.

Swing bowling is a difficult art requiring high skill. It demands a confluence of conditions, precise wrist positions, and great nerve: each unforgiving, and each apt to unravel very quickly indeed.

To illustrate: Rahul Dravid’s decision to bowl here in the second Test looked fairly straightforward; yet countless captains have discovered to their horror that in similarly damp conditions, wet balls haven’t swung at all.

Certain balls swing; others don’t.

“The Duke ball does swing,” said bowling coach Venkatesh Prasad, who himself found success in England. Zaheer pleaded, in jest, for the Duke to be used in all Test-playing nations. Yet, as Ian Botham said, even in a box of balls, there are some that do and some that don’t — even in this era of machine-stitched seams.

The two most outstanding aspects of Zaheer and R.P. Singh have been their ability to swing it both ways from both over and around the wicket, and their scarcely believable control.

Disguise

Disguise is everything. Neither changes his action or slants his wrist noticeably: for the batsmen looking for cues, few, if any, appear. Zaheer, at times, drags his fingers down the inside of the ball for the outswinger to the right-hander, but it’s done so fast, it’s barely detectable.

The least discussed aspect has been their pace. Swing bowlers tend to hold the ball further back in their fingers — Damien Fleming said he rested it in the hollow between the thumb and his first two fingers — to release the ball with back-spin. This controls the seam, keeping it upright, but robs the delivery of pace.

R.P. Singh has hit the high 80s (mph), while Zaheer has been timed in the mid 80s. It’s an exceptional effort to produce swing at this pace. And at this pace — as quick as their English counterparts, incidentally — the batsman has little time to adjust; his already difficult task of playing as forward as possible as late as possible made incalculably harder.

Length is crucial, and it is here that many falter. Swing presupposes a full length; but, a full length permits driving. It’s the classic contest — the drive against the swinger. It makes for enriching viewing, having as it does levels of strategy, skill, bluff, and execution.

Only bowlers of confidence and daring can play at this table; pertinent then that no English bowler, not even Ryan Sidebottom, landed it as full and swung it as much as Zaheer and R.P. Singh.

There are two further elements to their success in the two Tests. Both have used the bouncer well. R.P. Singh surprised Paul Collingwood at Lord’s; Zaheer heckled Michael Vaughan at Trent Bridge, hitting him on the helmet, nudging his ribs. This has kept the batsmen thinking. Even Kevin Pietersen in the second innings here wasn’t stomping as far forward as he normally does.

Using the angle

Both have also used the angle from around the wicket, evoking memories of the mercurial Wasim Akram.

Sometimes the ball has cut in the direction of the swing, augmenting the movement, as in Matt Prior’s dismissal, bowled middle stump from a ball starting well outside off. Other times, it has swung one way and moved the other. Both have been devilishly tough to combat.

Except for the first session at Lord’s and a brief period on the third day, Zaheer has been excellent. R.P. Singh was India’s most consistent bowler in the first Test; in the second, he contented himself with wicket-taking deliveries at critical moments.

“Whatever I’ve seen of R.P., he is a fantastic bowler,” said Prasad. “He is coming up really well along with Zaheer. They do make a terrific bowling combination. They needed someone to show them the direction. That is all I’ve been doing with them.”

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