Whole old ball game

Stephen Fay explains the science and psychology of swing and bounce
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The Independent Online
The New ball, gleaming red and unmercifully hard, was an instrument of destruction. Fast bowlers seized it eagerly, and captains organised bowling changes so their speed merchants would be fresh when the second new ball was due. But things aren't what they used to be.

Pakistan's destruction of England's batting at Lord's yesterday was accomplished by fast bowlers using the old ball, or, rather, a new old ball, which they had taken in the 78th over of the the England innings, or three overs before the second new ball was due. Wasim Akram did not bother; the old ball was quite destructive enough to finish England off after 103.4 overs.

One of the turning points in this game must have been when Wasim and Waqar Younis finally persuaded the umpires to change the ball. They had begun to complain about its shape and texture the previous evening, and kept up their litany until Steve Bucknor finally submitted, and went to the pavilion steps to select three balls from two boxes of battered specimens. England's fortunes had improved on Thursday, too, when Mike Atherton appealed successfully against the old ball after 60 overs.

Like the curiosity of reverse swing itself - refined five years ago by Wasim and Waqar when the ball was old, and aped now by every fast bowler worth his salt - the behaviour of cricket balls is not so much a mystery as a phenomenon.

Two makes of cricket balls are used in Tests in England and one of the most intimate moments in a series like this is the toss between the captains 24 hours before play begins to decide whether the balls they will be using are Dukes' or Readers'.

This a recondite business, but fast bowlers tell their captains that Dukes balls swing when new, while Readers balls are more likely to swing after some use. English bowlers traditionally prefer Dukes; Wasim and Waqar want Readers.

These differences are centuries old. Dukes, which first made cricket balls in 1780, were traditionally concerned about swing. Readers, who did not get going until the 19th century, have always been preoccupied by bounce.

The scientific evidence to back this up is sketchy at best, but science does not really count. What matters is that bowlers believe that different balls behave differently, even from the same make. Dominic Cork and Alan Mullally began to swing the ball only after the replacement of an old ball, and yesterday Waqar and Wasim's bowling looked fiercer after the ball change.

Cork complained to Bucknor about the ball he was given to open Pakistan's second innings after only two deliveries. But the truth was that the damage to England's hopes had been done less by the state of the ball and more by the condition of the batting. Cork, Salisbury, Mullally and Brown seemed more frightened by Waqar's reputation than anything else. Graham Thorpe looked unlucky, but the reason he is out too often between 50 and 100 cannot be explained by the state or make of the ball.

The best explanation for success or failure in a Test lies more in the head than the equipment.