How To Bowl Reverse Swing In Cricket

For newcomers to cricket, reverse swing can often seem like a very mysterious and confusing concept. Some people may even call it one of the ‘dark arts’ of cricket! But…I’m here to tell you that it really isn’t that difficult to understand when explained properly. Reverse swing is one of the most dangerous weapons that a bowler can have in his arsenal, capable of making the most competent of batsmen second guess their own technique.

In this post I hope to explain what reverse swing is and explain how you can bowl it! We will also look at how it has been used by professional bowlers in the past.

What Is Reverse Swing?

In order to answer this question we need to establish two things; what is swing? And what is the difference between conventional and reverse swing?

‘Swing’ is the word we use to describe the way the ball will sometimes move laterally in the air as it has been propelled towards the batsman by the bowler. Instead of the ball following a linear path, with swing the ball will almost ‘curve’ in the air. The fielding side will aim to keep one side of the cricket ball shiny, while allowing the other side to deteriorate and become rough. This difference between the two sides of the ball is the foundation of swing bowling!

The difference between conventional swing and reverse swing is as follows:

  • Conventional swing happens with a newer cricket ball. When the ball is swinging conventionally, it will move towards the direction of the rough side of the ball. It also helps if the bowler points the seam in the direction that he wants the ball to swing. The seam acts like a rudder on a boat whilst it travels through the air.
  • Reverse swing only really occurs when the ball gets older, and with this the ball will swing in the direction of the shiny side. So essentially conventional and reverse swing are the opposites of each other.

Reverse swing is much harder for batsmen to deal with because the ball is usually moving at higher speeds, and the swing happens much later in the flight of the ball. Conventional swing is much more likely to swing as soon as it leaves the bowlers hand which gives the batsman more time to see it and react to the ball. Reverse swing is also much less common. Batsmen don’t practice against reverse swing as much as they do against conventional swing, making it harder for them to cope with during a game.

If you’d like to read my in depth guide to bowling conventional swing, then click here!

How To Bowl Reverse Swing

To increase your chances of being able to bowl reverse swing, follow these tips:

  1. Look After The Condition Of The Ball
  2. Keep The Ball As Dry As Possible
  3. Make Sure You’re Bowling At A High Enough Speed
  4. Aim To Bowl A Full Length.

Now let me take you through each of these tips in a little more detail…

Look After The Condition Of The Ball

You may remember that earlier in this post I said that keeping one side of the ball shiny, and letting one side deteriorate and become rough is the foundation of swing bowling. Well this is also the foundation of reverse swing bowling!

When the ball is pretty new (let’s say it has been in use for less than 30-40 overs), it will swing conventionally. When the ball gets older than that, the amount of conventional swing that can be achieved will gradually get less and less. However, if we keep the ball in the right condition, we can make it more likely to reverse swing.

I’ve illustrated some pictures below which will hopefully help it make it easier for you to understand how the condition of the ball affects what sort of swing you can achieve!

photos showing the change in aerodynamics between conventional swing and reverse swing
These Pictures Illustrate The Difference Between The Aerodynamics Of Conventional & Reverse Swing Bowling

Photo 1 on the left shows the ball when it is relatively new. Maybe 15-20 overs old. This is in perfect condition for conventional swing with one clear smooth/shiny side and one rough side. Photo 2 on the right shows the ball as it has gotten older. Maybe 30-40 overs old. You can see that the smooth side has now suffered a bit of wear and tear, although it is still in much better condition than the other side of the ball.

Both of these photos show the seam pointing the same way, with the rough side in the same position, yet the balls will swing in different directions.

Let’s start with photo 1 on the left. The ball is bowled in the direction of the red arrow and the air (which is represented by the white lines of smoke in the photos) surrounds it on both sides. You can see that the air passes cleanly along the left side of the ball and then separates quickly, as this is the smooth side of the ball which is a path of little resistance. However, on the right hand side, due to the rough surface and the seam of the ball, the air flow is obstructed and therefore remains attached to the ball for a longer period. The additional pressure on the rough side of the ball caused by this attached airflow means that the ball will travel in the direction of the blue arrow, or towards the rough side of the ball.

Now, photo 2 is a little more complicated. The ball is bowled in the direction of the red arrow again, but this time the left side of the ball is now slightly rougher than before, so the air doesn’t pass along it as smoothly. There is some resistance here and therefore the air takes longer to separate than it did in photo 1. As for the right side of the ball, the air makes first contact with the ball at around the point of the yellow arrow. Therefore for the air to get around to the right side of the ball, it must first pass over a tiny bit of the now slightly rougher left side of the ball, then over the seam, and then onwards around the right side. This means that the airflow is already obstructed as soon as it makes contact with the left face of the ball, which is then made a lot worse when the air travels over the seam! The extra resistance caused by the seam causes the air to separate more quickly on this much rougher right side than it did on the left. This leads to more pressure on the left side of the ball, which means the ball will travel in the direction of the blue arrow, or in other words towards the left (shiny) side as opposed to the rougher right side.

Another thing to consider is that older balls have usually had a lot more saliva rubbed into them by the fielders, which leads to the shiny side being heavier than the rough side. Therefore these older balls will be more likely to reverse swing towards that shiny side.

I know that was a detailed explanation but in summary just remember this; Conventional swing causes the ball to move towards the rough side, and reverse swing causes it to move towards the shiny side.

Keep The Ball As Dry As Possible

Many of the best bowlers of reverse swing have said that one of the keys to using it effectively was making sure that the ball remained as dry as possible. If you read the previous section then you will know that in order to reverse swing a ball you must have a smooth/shiny side and a rough side. It is much harder to get one side to be roughed up and degraded if it keeps getting wet. Therefore it follows that a ball that gathers unnecessary moisture is one that is less likely to reverse swing!

Unnecessary moisture can come from places such as a wet outfield and fielders’ sweaty palms, and although the fielding side cannot really do anything about a wet outfield, they can avoid letting their sweat get on to the ball. I remember Wasim Akram saying during one of his masterclasses that the Pakistan fielding side would only hold the ball along the seam with their fingertips, ensuring that both sides of the ball remained free of sweat. I’ve demonstrated how the fielding side should hold the ball in the photo below!

picture showing the ideal way to hold a cricket ball to stop sweat getting on the ball
The Fielding Side Should Hold The Ball Like This To Stop Sweat From Their Palms Being Transferred To The Ball

Ideally, the fielding side should nominate one fielder to shine the ball. This means that the only moisture that is applied to the ball will be saliva of the person who is on shining duty and this moisture will only be applied to the shiny side.

Drier pitches in Pakistan and Australia have always led to more reverse swing than places like England and New Zealand as the surfaces cause the ball to get roughed up and degrade a lot quicker without taking on additional moisture. Some teams have tried to use these dry abrasive surfaces to their advantage by telling fielders to purposefully bounce the ball when returning it into the keeper rather than throwing it to them in the air. This means that the ball will make more contact with the hard surface and be more susceptible to getting scuffed up. The aim of this practice is to get the ball to reverse swing earlier!

Make Sure You’re Bowling At A High Enough Speed

One thing that is not really in doubt when it comes to reverse swing bowling is the fact that in order to be able to do it, you have to be able to bowl at decent pace. Ideally above 80/85mph. In all my years watching the sport I honestly can’t ever remember seeing a medium pacer or a more conventional swing bowler get the ball to reverse swing consistently!

Some of the players who are famous for reversing the ball in cricket have been guys like Waqar Younis, Wasim Akram, Dennis Lillee, Darren Gough & Shoaib Akhtar. If you haven’t seen any of these guys bowl, then I’ll tell you what they all had in common…

The answer is that in their prime they were all capable of bowling accurately and at very high speed. What made them even greater was that they were almost as dangerous with the old ball as they were with the new one. Only reverse swing can allow you to truly achieve that!

So why does the speed of the bowler matter? It centres on the fact that the quicker the ball moves the more it will disturb the air that surrounds it. As we saw with the two photos of air flow around the ball that we looked at earlier, the key to reverse swing is disturbed air flow on both sides of the ball which leads to quick separation. A ball that travels at lower speed is less likely to cause a large disturbance in the air, which is why you’ll usually see slower bowlers only be able to achieve conventional swing.

Taking into account how important it is to bowl fast to achieve reverse swing…some of you may be wondering how you can learn to bowl faster! If this is you, check out my post that will give you 8 different tips on how you can increase your bowling speed by clicking here!

Aim To Bowl a Full Length

This point is very simple to explain, and it applies to conventional swing as well as reverse. In order for the ball to swing you have to give it a chance to do so!

Bowling a full pitched ball allows the seam to remain in the same position for the duration of the flight, and also allows the maximum amount of time for the airflow to have an effect on the ball. If you choose to bowl a much shorter pitched delivery, then the ball will hit the pitch much quicker. This means that the perfect seam position will be disrupted quicker and therefore give the air a lot less time to have an effect on it.

Combine this with the fact that reverse swing tends to happen quite late in the flight of the ball and you can see why it’s necessary to push that length a bit closer to the batsman!

Controversy Surrounding Reverse Swing

Because reverse swing is such an effective weapon for a bowling side to have, there have of course been many teams and players that have tried to bend the rules in order to make it achievable earlier in the innings. Only recently, the Australian Cricket team (more notably Steve Smith, Cameron Bancroft and David Warner) were caught cheating by using hidden bits of sandpaper to rough up one side of the ball more quickly than it would have occurred naturally. This of course is a form of ball tampering and each player rightly received lengthy bans from the sport.

Going back further there have been multiple instances of players trying to get the ball to reverse swing quicker and for longer. In 1990 the New Zealand cricket team used bottle tops to scratch and deface the ball and just a few years later in 1994 Mike Atherton was caught using dirt he had concealed in his pocket to attempt to scuff up the ball. 2010 was the year that Shahid Afridi was caught biting the ball while playing for Pakistan in an ODI, and in 2013 Faf Du Plessis of South Africa was caught scratching the ball with the zipper on his trousers.

Those are some of the more obvious examples of ball tampering; however there are much more subtle versions too. Marcus Trescothick of England admitted in his autobiography that he had purposely eaten Murray mints during the game because when mixed with his saliva, it allowed him to get a much better and long lasting shine on the ball. Trescothick admitted this after he had retired, so he faced no punishment, however Faf Du Plessis was punished for applying saliva from a sweet on to the ball in 2016.

I think by looking at all of these examples and knowing that reverse swing relies on the degradation of one side of the ball in order to occur, it is not hard to see how the art has become associated with ball tampering over the years. It’s my belief that if a player tries to use an outside object or substance to try to accelerate the process of reverse swing then the umpires and match officials are well within their rights to punish them substantially.

What To Do Next?

Hopefully this post has been useful to you and has helped understand what reverse swing is and how it works. Going forwards, if you’re interested in seeing how effective it can be in game situations then I’d strongly advise you to watch any spells of bowling from Andrew Flintoff or Simon Jones during England’s 2005 Ashes win. Both players used reverse swing expertly during that series and it was perhaps the biggest contributing factor to them winning back the urn. I particularly remember the wickets of Michael Clarke and Simon Katich, both batsmen totally bamboozled, it was truly a great watch!

I’d also recommend watching any of the great reverse swing bowling displays by Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram. These two were probably the greatest exponents of this type of bowling. With one of them being a left arm bowler and one right arm they caused all sorts of problems to batsmen back in their heyday.

Until next time, enjoy these tips and good luck!

Recent Posts