astrology and the pitch inspection ……….


The ritual is always the same.
Arrive at ground;  head out to the middle; with TV cameramen hovering around and then spend a good 20 minutes peering at the pitch first and then the sky.
After a bit of cursory prodding and poking below and sniffing of the elements above, there will be nods all round.
Yes, it is a good day to bat.
Or, it feels like a bowling day.

Cricketers are an unscientific lot, relying more on feel and cricketing folklore to try to evaluate what are, after all, crucial elements of the game.
For, more so than any other sport, cricket is dictated to by conditions, the balance between bat and ball tipped this way or that by a pitch that will be friendlier to batsmen or bowlers and conditions that will or will not favour the latter.
And within the course of the game, even the greats will be dictated to by conditions.

Swing is just one factor in this equation, albeit a crucial one.
If the ball swings, batting becomes more difficult, for the obvious reason that a ball coming down at 80mph or more is harder to hit when it is moving laterally in the air.
Swing, though, is a mercurial thing, no matter what the scientists say.
Some days it does, some days it doesn’t and it pays to try to be bowling when it does.

It stands to reason, although scientists may tell you otherwise, that moist conditions are helpful in this context.
The heavier the air, the more drag there is likely to be on the ball.
Swing bowlers, therefore, enjoy humidity;
batsmen prefer breezy, fresh conditions.

Bowlers insist that the ball is important and, invariably, choose the one that feels smallest in their hands and looks darkest.
Dark leather, they say, shines better.
Older bowlers insist that modern cricket trousers shine the ball less well than old flannels, so some bowlers have been known to cut a piece of old flannel into their modern trousers.
And then there is the difference between machine-made balls, such as the Kookaburra in Australia, and handmade British balls, such as those made by Duke.
The English balls swing more, they say.

The scientists will tell you that all this is rubbish.
That on any given day, on any given ground and in any conditions, a competent swing bowler who presents the seam correctly should be able to swing the ball.
cricketers like RK know that not to be the case.
Some grounds swing more than others;
some balls do,
some balls don’t
(which is why bowlers will not let batsmen anywhere near the picking process).
Sometimes it just feels like a swinging day, sometimes not.
Besides, if we were to listen to the scientists, what would there be to talk about during that morning ritual when the pitch is prodded, the air is sniffed and the portents for the day dissected.
Will it swing or not?

If the rules of cricket are confusing to non-cricketers, the science of swing bowling can be equally as testing to non-scientists.
Bowlers may be able to deliver the perfect outswinger one day, but when the ball fails to move the next, they sniff the wind, raise their eyes to the sky and complain that the cumulus weren’t sufficiently nimbus.
Is that a reason or an excuse?
Does humidity really affect the performance of a ball flying at 80mph?
And what makes it swing in the first place?

The science of swing is comprehensive and convincing, leaving little room for the gospel according to Athers, that “the heavier the air, the more drag there is likely to be on the ball”.
According to Professor Sharan Majumdar of the University of Miami, “any claim that humidity is important is equivalent to a claim that the Earth is flat”.

Majumdar learnt his swing science at Cambridge, when he watched Test matches with Ray Lyttleton. ( The late Raymond Lyttleton, an Emeritus Professor of Theoretical Astronomy at Cambridge and a fine cricketer, was the first modern scientist to calculate the forces at work. “The atmosphere presses on everything with a force of around one kilogram per square centimetre of surface,” he wrote in Don Bradman’s The Art of Cricket.)

Mazumdar has maintained a website on The Swing of a Cricket Ball for 15 years.
A meteorological expert, he has a keen interest in the affect of atmospheric conditions on seam bowling.
He is convinced that there is another force at work.
“Small-scale turbulence around the ball is the key,” he says. “Microturbulence is created when the sun warms the soil and grass, producing small spikes of warm air rising from the ground. If there is a higher degree of microturbulence, the differences in the air layer separation around the ball become diminished.
So if it is dry and sunny, microturbulence may be greater and the ball will swing less; if it is overcast, the ground is damp and there is less microturbulence, the ball will swing more.

Which makes the cricketers right about the cumulus — for the wrong reasons.
Clouds are good for bowlers not because they bring humidity but because they can diminish microturbulence.
All that pre-match prodding and sniffing, it seems, may have some point, though possibly not as much as a quick physics primer and a detailed weather report.

(many thanks samantha weinberg among others …..)

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