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Australians dazed by the reverse

Paul Weaver

LONDON: It happened in Nagpur at the end of October and I didn't think much about it at the time.

In the middle of the Test series between India and Australia a few of us were having a chat with Glenn McGrath, and he said: "We've had a good discussion about reverse swing on this tour for the very first time. We've talked about what we should do to make it reverse. Until now it's been a case of the ball just doing it on some occasions and not on others. We haven't really thought about it very much."

Now, we were a little distracted in the old business town of Nagpur, in Maharashtra, bang in the middle of India but hardly one of that extraordinary country's central attractions. Adam Gilchrist had found a cockroach in his soy sauce, which was cheerfully crunched to death by the head waiter, who had popped it in his mouth while trying to convince us that it was nothing of the sort, merely a vital ingredient of the dish. "He took one for the team," Gilly said.

Then there were the showers, which involved standing in an empty bucket and pouring another bucket of water over yourself before repeating the process to rinse off. There was not much fun in Nagpur.

But now, and taking into account the fact that even hindsight is not always 20/20, those words from McGrath, on behalf of himself and the team, return with a haunting resonance.

John Buchanan, the Australia coach, is a tall, grave, bespectacled man who is often described as schoolmasterly. Less generous judges view him as a laptop-toting geek, a purveyor of largely unintelligible psycho-babble.

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle but as this riveting Ashes series unfolds there is the growing suspicion that what Mr. Buchanan understands about reverse swing could be written on the back of a postage stamp with a marker pen.

An experienced Aussie cricket writer covering the tour told me: "He was talking about reverse swing with a ball in his hand the other day and it was clear that he didn't have a full grasp of the subject. The bowlers understand it better. John is a good manager and he's good at keeping things on track when they're going well, but he's a bit short in some technical areas."

Buchanan has been asking journalists about other teams' records which would also suggest that he is a man who sometimes falls behind with his homework.

Important development

The most important development in fast bowling since over-arm bowling was legalised in 1864 was brought to our attention by Pakistan's Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis in England in 1992, although it was in use on the subcontinent long before then. Yet, it appears to have been largely overlooked by the world's most successful national coach.

Judging by the way Australia's batsmen have played Andrew Flintoff and Simon Jones, who are also able to reverse it away from the right-handers, it is a terrible problem for them.

Nor have their bowlers been able to employ the weapon to the same deadly effect, although the greater pace of the Englishmen, Brett Lee apart, has made the late movement more lethal.

Michael Kasprowicz is certainly familiar with the skill, but it is more likely that he learnt it at Glamorgan than from Buchanan. In the past, McGrath and Jason Gillespie might have argued that they were so good they didn't need anything newfangled.

Reverse swing, in which the ball goes in the opposite direction to conventional swing, seems something of a mystery to most Australians. Even Ian Chappell, one of the game's most respected commentators, said: "I really get annoyed with this reverse swing term. It's either an out-swinger or an in-swinger, isn't it?" Well, no Chappelli, it isn't.

As they prepare for Thursday's Test match at Trent Bridge there are expressions of shock and bewilderment beneath the baggy green caps.

Romans, towards the end of the first decade of the 5th century, probably wore similar countenances when they awoke to find Alaric, king of the Visigoths, and all his forces at their gates.

To suggest that this cricket empire has imploded is a little unfair to England, which has played some exhilarating, vibrant stuff. Also, of course, the series is far from over. But if England does go on to win the Ashes, the studious-looking Buchanan, who looks as though he approaches every subject with forensic care, might reflect that his failure to come to terms fully with one of the game's most important recent developments had much to do with it.

Crumbling dynasties

There are more crumbling dynasties out there than you could shake a stump at. In Formula One, the kingdom of Maranello has fallen; Ferrari's black horse no longer prances.

The team have technical problems with tyres and aerodynamics. There are concerns about Michael Schumacher's future and unease about the viability of the team as it considers floating on the Italian stock exchange. And overconfidence has spilled over into arrogance.

The Chicago Bulls experienced a dramatic decline after players and owners were involved in a five-month lockout and it turned its back on Michael Jordan. Manchester United could be on the edge of a spectacular fall.

But in the week of the Nottingham Test it is the Australians, particularly Buchanan, who come to mind. That and a quiet little conversation in Nagpur!

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004

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