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Abhishek Mukherjee, cricketsoccer’s prolific writer, brings to you the words, verbal or written, almost never intended to be pathbreaking quotes in the history of cricket in this fascinating series…….

Quote: “How the devil can you play a ball that comes at you like a hard throw-in from cover-point?”

 By: Sammy Woods, probably at some time between 1900 and 1910. Woods played Test cricket for Australia and England and led Somerset at cricket. He also led England at rugby and played football for Sussex and hockey for Somerset.

George Hirst’s days of a legendary Yorkshire all-rounder were yet in the making in 1900. At that point, he was a right-hand batsman who bowled left-arm pace but was clearly a better batsman than bowler.

He scored 1,960 runs at 40.83 and got 62 wickets at 26.90 that season and was named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year. While these are outstanding numbers by any standard, Hirst’s legendary status was still in the making.

By then, however, he had realised that the ball – especially the new ball – moved in the air under certain conditions. However, he could not control it, and it was too occasional anyway.

Roughly around this time, probably in 1901, he figured out exactly how the movement worked. He found a way to control the movement. He also realised that it worked better under certain weather conditions.

This curling delivery came to be known as the “swerve”. In 1901 it fetched Hirst 183 wickets (almost thrice what he had got the previous season) at a measly 16.38. AA Thomson commented that the swerve was no less important an innovation than the googly, which came into vogue roughly at the same time.

Also read: Cricket history in quotes, part 11: “… it was so successful that I practised the same thing with a soft ball at Stump-cricket”

It is not exactly clear when Woods made the comment about Hirst’s bowling. Woods himself had got out twice to Hirst in recorded matches, both before 1900. It could have been when he watched Hirst bowl against Somerset.

As for Hirst, his worst bowling average dropped on an English season till 1914 was 21.09. On four other occasions, it reached the wrong side of 20.

The swerve had a devastating effect. “The most technically gifted batsmen were reduced to impotence and could make no more of this queer business than their own tail-enders,” wrote Thomson. “The ball, delivered in combination with a cross-wind, or better still with a diagonal head-wind, would swing in the air and completely bamboozle the batsman.”

For Yorkshire, Hirst scored 36,356 runs at 34.13 and took 2,742 wickets at 18.73, but he could never replicate his success in his 24 Tests. And yet, the swerve kept causing discomfort to the best in the business. Even in his last series, in 1909, he moved the ball around prodigiously.

George Hirst
George Hirst. Image Courtesy: Cricket Country

“Hirst was making the ball swerve in his most puzzling fashion being masterly,” wrote Wisden in their review of the first Test at Edgbaston. Hirst took 4/28 and 5/58.

And yet, Hirst did not divulge his secrets. Or perhaps he never figured it out entirely himself. “Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t,” he maintained, as Thomson chronicled in Hirst and Rhodes.

The swerve was later rechristened “swing”. They soon figured out that it works better with the new ball, which hastened the end to the practice of opening the bowling with at least one spinner.

And over time the spinners (none better than Shane Warne) perfected the art of making the ball “drift” before making it spin the other way.

The King connection

But Hirst was not the first to bowl the swerve. Bart King, the greatest cricketer in the history of USA, toured England with the Gentlemen of Philadelphia in 1897, 1903, and 1908. Before that, the Australians had toured the USA in 1893.

King, roughly a contemporary of Hirst’s, had learnt the art of swing bowling independently, on another continent. He swung the ball into the batsman (but could also move it the other way), bowled quicker than Hirst, and even got the old ball to swing.

His unusual action made King a lethal bowler. The ball, which often moved at an awkward angle in the air into the right-handed batsman, came to be known as the “angler”, something he had developed from his days as a baseball pitcher.

Bart King
Bart King. Image Courtesy: Wikipedia

Writing about King’s performances on the 1897 tour, Wisden mentioned how he made “the ball swerve in the air in the manner of the baseball pitchers”. It was on this tour that he bowled KS Ranjitsinhji for a duck against Sussex. Robert Clayton, who was umpiring in the match, later told that the ball “would have taken out the stumps of any batsman in the world.”

In other words, King swung the ball at least three seasons before Hirst, and was an expert at that. However, King was not an Englishman (or even an Australian), which reduced his impact on the sport significantly Worse, baseball was already on the verge of displacing cricket in stature in the USA.

Hirst did not invent swing bowling. However, he made it mainstream in the County Championship, thus troubling more batsmen and attracting serious media.

Thomson also mentioned Albert Trott attempting swerve bowling at roughly the same time. However, he added that “Hirst’s swerve was more deadly and more frequent than that of either.”

An older Mann

The trio might have been the first over-arm swerve bowlers, but certainly not the first overall. That credit lies with Noah Mann of Hambledon, who bowled left-arm under-arm in the 1770s and 1780s. I will reproduce a few quotes to establish my point:

“He was left-handed, both as bowler and batter. In the former quality, his merit consisted in giving a curve to the ball the whole way. In itself it was not the first-rate style of bowling, but so very deceptive that the chief end was frequently attained. They who remember the dexterous manner with which the Indian jugglers communicated the curve to the balls they spun round their heads, by a twist of the wrist or hand, mil at once comprehend Noah’s curious feat in bowling.” – The Hambledon Men, John Nyren.

“The earliest ‘swerver’ on record was Noah Mann of Hambledon, ‘who gave his ball (left hand underhand) a curl the whole way, and was deceptive’.” –Cricket, Plum Warner.

 “From 1777 Noah Mann introduced swerve to his bowling, but met an unpleasant end, falling into the fire after a ‘free course’.” – Sport: Almost Everything You Ever Wanted to Know, Tim Harris.

“The first bowler to get the ball to effect a curve through the air rather than off the pitch was Noah Mann Sr, who employed the technique for the Hambledon club during the 1780s.” – A Philosophy of Sport, Steven Connor.

There is one curious postscript. In 1821, thirty-two years after Mann passed away, his son Noah Jr became the first umpire to call anyone for an illegitimate bowling action. The bowler, John Willes, was bowling over-arm: he left the Lord’s premises on horseback and never returned to competitive cricket.

It is interesting, the way how innovation was both nurtured and curbed by the same family.

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