Is seam better than swing? Is that even a question? Of course, swing is better. I’m sure this title sounded outrageous to you and I totally understand why. We all love swing. Nothing beats the sight of a ball dramatically swerving through the air before smoothly uprooting off stump. It’s just so beautiful, so endearingly perfect. And of course, swing has a villainous side as well. When the ball swings, wickets are summoned from nowhere. Teams suddenly collapse from a position of domination. It’s a batsman’s worst nightmare, a fast bowler’s ultimate weapon. Or at least we think it is.
And then there’s good old seam: making the ball move minimally in or out of the pitch before gently taking the edge. Nothing special. Even this paragraph I’ve written about it pales in comparison to the one about swing. There really isn’t much to say. Sure, seam can be useful but it’s nowhere near the batsman devouring predator that swing is. Well I’m telling you, it is.
But before I do, let’s get one thing straight: this article is about comparing seam and swing. Not seam bowling and swing bowling. My initial draft tried to do that but soon I realised that it was a pointless task. All swing bowlers seam the ball and most seam bowlers swing the ball because both demand a strong wrist position. There just was too much of an overlap between the two crafts to make a logical conclusion. So I abandoned the idea of “seam bowling” or “swing bowling” and decided to compare swing and seam on their own. No meddling external factors that complicate matters further. In essence, I am comparing lateral movement of the pitch and lateral movement in the air. Nothing else. Keep this in mind as you read the article.
Cricket is obsessed with swinging the ball both ways and rightly so. Batting becomes a 50/50-coin toss when you can’t tell which way the ball is going to go. But it’s not impossible: every swing bowler has a subtle change in the angle of their wrist depending on which way the ball is going. The best batsmen are able to look at this and predict the ball’s behaviour and life suddenly becomes a lot easier.
But seam gives you no such respite: it goes both ways and is impossible to read. This is because of the imperfect surface that the raised seam gives to the cricket ball. I thought surely there should be some way of picking it but there isn’t. Unless you have ultra-magnified vision, which no-one has, but even if you do, playing it is still a harrowing task.
Picture this: a bowler sends down a good length delivery at around off stump and the batsman positions his defence precisely in line with the ball. However, the ball nips away a touch and takes the edge. In an alternate universe, the same delivery is bowled at the same batsman but this time the ball nips in and uproots middle stump. In another alternate universe, the same ball skids straight onto the deviation-expecting batsman’s pad. Ok maybe I’m being a bit too optimistic with the last one but the point still stands: seam is inescapable in all 3 dimensions. Literally. You always have a chance against swing, no matter how late, but never against the perfect seaming delivery.
Still I was sceptical as I’m sure you are now. It all just sounds so simple. All you have to do is land the ball on it’s seam and voila, you have successfully conquered the batsman. And if seam is really any good, why aren’t we singing it’s praises in the way we do to swing. It doesn’t make any sense. To make it make sense, we must first understand that seam isn’t just some nonsensical joke.
As we all know, swing only makes an appearance when conditions suit. Namely cloudy skies and a bit of moisture in the air. Of course, reverse swing thrives in dry, subcontinental pitches but even that needs many factors to fall in to place. However, seam is omnipresent. The only thing it relies upon is the irregularity of the cricket ball and that is eternal. But, again, that sounds too simple. If it’s always there surely it’s easy for anyone to use. But that’s not the case: seam is only there for those who seek it. On a dry, subcontinental pitch, seam there for those bowl wicked cutters. On days where regular seam is limited, it’s there for those who bowl wobble-seam deliveries. In the lifeless middle overs of an ODI game, it’s there for those who bowl cross seam (specifically Liam Plunkett). You must have a symbiotic relationship with the cricket ball and it’s irregularities to conjure seam. Seam movement is no nonsensical joke, it’s an art.
On the topic of seam’s self sufficiency, we need those meddling external factors now. I promised not to use them in this piece but we need them to prove an unique point: is seam effective without the other skills of the bowler? Enter Vernon Philander and Mohammad Abbas. They have none of the components required in a fast bowler: no pace, no bounce and no swing. They’re basically pair of unathletic men who weren’t meant to be a fast bowler. But what Abbas and Philander do/did have is a handy ability to seam the ball and unerring line and length. Nothing else. With that one ultra-specialised skill, Philander sculpted a decorated 60 test long career and Abbas is currently sitting on a test bowling average of 22.8. They were never going to be all-timers in the ilk of Ambrose and Walsh but what they achieved with only seam is extraordinary. Tell me one swing bowler that has achieved these things with only swing. I’ll wait… There isn’t because swing needs other factors to even become a factor.
But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe swing is just so much better than seam. Maybe I’m missing something so glaringly obvious that everyone else is seeing. And besides, who even cares if seam is better than swing? Just learn both and everyone’s happy. Maybe this article is a pile of pointless garbage. But all this doesn’t matter. The one thing that does matter is that it’s time we give good old seam the respect that it’s due.