How bowlers will have to evolve in a spit-free world | Cricket News

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Jun 1, 2020

It’s all doom and gloom in the world of cricket, but instead of the incessant hand-wringing we have seen from administrators eager to get the moolah mills rolling, the sport would be better off preparing for sweeping changes.
Living with the novel coronavirus in the long term may necessitate interesting post-lockdown scenarios which may fundamentally alter the way the game is played, administered and coached. It is time to embrace change, and fast.
In the first of a two-part series, we will look at the most affected, the bowlers. Cricket has been struggling to restore bat-ball parity for years but has the virus sounded the death knell for bowlers by making the use of saliva on the ball impossible?
The good news is swing bowling may not be theoretically impossible without saliva, since astute polishing of the ball by team members and the use of sweat – which is allowed – may ensure similar, if not identical, results. It will, however, require a massive change in team practice and individual muscle memory, considering the way players have been brought up to shine and ‘work’ on the ball since childhood.
The unintended effect could be that T20-style bowling variations will infiltrate the longer formats.
TOI talked to renowned biomechanist Marc Portus, one of cricket’s leading biomechanical-analysis and human-movement experts and the former head of Cricket Australia‘s Sport Science Unit, to get a grip on how bowling might undergo evolution in fast-forward mode.
Portus, whose work at the Australian Institute of Sport led to the ICC’s 15-degree elbow extension tolerance ruling, is not very impressed with the negative reaction from swing bowlers to the no-saliva diktat.
“It is going to pose tough challenges, but the impact might not be totally detrimental. It may lead to newer, more creative methods. In many cases, use of moisture is not mandatory to achieve conventional or reverse swing. The seam’s orientation out of the hand and the way it travels through the air is critical.”
Sweat may be critical too, to keep one side of the ball shiny for conventional swing, unless some players object or feel unsafe. Vigorous dry polishing too is an alternative method.
Reverse swing in sub-continental conditions, however, is definitely speeded up by moisture on one side of the ball. And what about the spinners, who too regularly apply saliva before delivering the ball?
Facing uncertainty, faster bowlers may need to review their craft and make sure they understand what they are doing and why. A re-look at their techniques may be in order. To cope, the cleverer ones may turn up with newer variations. We might even see a rise in the number of pacers with slinging actions like those of Lasith Malinga.
Unique biomechanics like those employed by Jasprit Bumrah may be emulated by others desperate to make an impact.
“Variations will thrive,” said Portus. “Slower balls and similar tricks and tactics used in T20 cricket will seep into the longer versions. Smarter bowlers, including spinners, are working on their variations right now in lockdown. Craftier fast bowlers will look to explore actions to see how they can effect different swing mechanisms on the ball.
“Slinging actions like those by Lasith Malinga might come into vogue. Malinga’s action ensures different aerodynamics on the ball, more like the top spinner on a tennis ball. We call it the Magnus Effect, just tilted at an angle. He gets inswing from the unusually round-arm action. The low release action ensures the ball almost comes out like a frisbee! Imagine one of Mitchell Starc‘s variations being able to rip out an inswinging yorker with a Malinga-style release.”
There could be another, unintended fallout of such post-corona regulations: greener pitches to ensure some aid and bounce for the hapless bowler. And don’t be surprised if you see outfielders ‘accidentally’ throwing the ball into rough areas on the square!
SWING WITHOUT SALIVA? WHY NOT!
Using spit on the ball is a centuries-old tradition and the pace community is naturally up in arms against the decision to disallow its use. Biomechanist Marc Portus explains how swing may still be possible without saliva…
Moisture (saliva, sweat, other substances) is not mandatory for conventional/reverse swing. The seam’s orientation out of the hand and the way it travels through the air is more important – vertical orientation and tilted to the side of intended swing for conventional, and opposite for reverse (so release it as an outswinger and the ball ‘reverses’ in as an inswinger).
Sweat helps keep the ball shiny on one side for conventional swing, but it can be done with vigorous dry polishing regime too, depending on the abrasiveness of the pitch.
For reverse swing, conditions on both ‘hemispheres’ of the ball become important, but seam still plays a role. One side needs to be rougher – usually teams try and keep the ball dry in this case anyway. Using moisture helps make ball surfaces on each side more disparate in roughness, but it’s not mandatory.
There are conditions where using moisture on one side helps speed up the swing process, particularly in batter-friendly conditions (e.g. dry atmosphere, flat pitch). For contrast swing, the seam becomes less relevant, the main swing forces are generated solely by the ‘contrasting’ surfaces of the ball. Usually balls are older in this scenario and seam is worn down.
So long as seam is relatively straight out of the hand, the ball will swing based solely on the way air travels over the different hemispheres and rushes towards the ‘smoother’ side. Bowlers will still be able to execute their craft without the help of saliva.
EVOLVE OR PERISH
Fast bowlers are afraid swing may be difficult to achieve without the use of saliva. Spinners too use saliva all the time on the ball. Both agree it’s too normal a habit to get rid of easily. Here’s how they might cope…
1. Adopt more unorthodox, ‘weird’, round arm or slingy bowling actions to flummox batsmen.
2. More use of T20-style variations, slower balls, knuckle balls, etc even in Tests and first-class cricket.
3. Find ways to swing ball within available means. Take help of experts, backroom staff, senior bowlers, biomechanists.
4. Relook at bowling technique, at what point spit or saliva is used, and improvise accordingly.
5. Ring in fundamental changes in how team members handle and ‘work’ on the ball, since disinfecting the ball at regular intervals may become mandatory now.
(In the next part, we will look at how artificial intelligence and the use of machines may change cricket forever.)

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