When the reverse became relentless

In a piercing book entitled The Mansion on the Hill, the former Rolling Stone editor Fred Goodman told the story of how rock and roll went from the core of a revolutionary counterculture in the 1960s to being co-opted by big business by the 1980s. ''Accepting rock as a business was an admission," Goodman wrote, "that its goals were no longer to question the assumptions of the mainstream entertainment industry but to reap its rewards." So the industry evolved from the wilfulness of Bob Dylan to the everyman appeal of Bruce Springsteen, able to be at once working class in image and big business in scope.

As a bowling art-form, reverse swing has always been considered more punk rock than corporate. It was seen as a major disruptor of cricket's norms when first brought to major prominence by Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, and to this day it remains associated with dramatic shifts in a game rather than slow evolutions - just take Mitchell Starc's twin demolition jobs in Durban as an example, or Kagiso Rabada's first day of destruction in Port Elizabeth. There is a wildness to it, an untameable element, that has always put players at the edge of their wits and fans on the edge of their seats.

But on the second day at St George's Park, Australia's use of reverse swing left the realm of the fleeting and elusive to be something like a constant. It was as organised, unrelenting and highly professional as the music industry around rock and roll was to become some 20 years after musicians were commonly targeted by the San Francisco police. Where once the purveyors of reverse swing were queried by umpires, hunted by British tabloids and participants in libel law suits, they are now the dominant bowling force on pitches where the ball declines to fly through or seam. Reverse swing has become as industrialised as stadium rock.

As recently as this corresponding Test match in 2014, reverse swing was subject to enormous controversy, claim and counterclaim. None other than David Warner was handed an ICC fine for going on Australian radio and accusing AB de Villiers of roughing up the ball with his gloves, the better to help Dale Steyn bend it around corners in an explosive and match-winning display. In a typical vignette of cricket's imperfect and political environment, de Villiers was spoken to about the practice in the next Test, even though Warner had been fined for the accusation. The ball swerved more for James Pattinson than an injured Steyn in the series decider at Newlands. Warner was again subjected to scrutiny on this day, given his job as the team's chosen ball-shiner, but the tape on his left hand has more to do with a history of broken fingers than a nefarious means by which to scuff the ball.

Changing attitudes, however, were summed up by Australia's coach Darren Lehmann after Durban. As a member of the ICC's cricket committee, he has on numerous occasions discussed the merits of old-ball movement and how it should or should not be policed. "Obviously, there are techniques used by both sides to get the ball reverse and that's just the way the game goes. I have no problems with it, simple," he had said. "You'd have to ask the umpires and ICC about that one [whether it is legal]. I don't mind the ball moving, I have no problems with it at all.

"It makes great viewing as a fan of the game. It's challenging for batters, and challenging for bowlers to get it in the right position. If you don't get it in the right position... you saw [on day four] we didn't bowl very well for about two or three hours; it reversed and we couldn't get it right and they scored very heavily. So you've still got to bowl well."

From a time a decade ago when they had mislaid the lessons of Glenn McGrath, a consistent and underrated exponent of reverse swing, the Australians have grown gradually in their understanding, to a point that they are seldom going to be outdone by opponents in terms of swerving the ageing ball. This process has been greatly aided by the emergence of what Steven Smith has termed "the big three" of Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins, while Mitchell Marsh, too, has shown an ability to bend it like Beckham. In 2016, the team gained another source of knowhow with the appointment of David Saker as assistant to Lehmann, following his success in attaining plenty of old-ball movement for James Anderson and Stuart Broad with England.

In Port Elizabeth, the Australians took some time to get the ball moving, far longer than had been the case at Kingsmead. In the meantime Dean Elgar and Hashim Amla prospered, after the early loss of the nightwatchman Rabada, and by the time the ball did start to swerve in the hands of Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc, when they came on for the 48th and 49th overs of the innings, both batsmen were well set. This, then, made for a compelling episode of attack and defence, as the two New South Welshmen moved the ball both ways at a tick or two below top pace, seeking control of the scoreboard as well as the magic ball to break the stand.

Elgar struggled mightily to get bat to ball at times, often getting only the merest edge to it. Amla, meanwhile, continued his long-running personal battle with Hazlewood, who up to this match had dismissed him six times in seven innings across two series. Varying subtle outswing with sharper in-duckers, Hazlewood momentarily thought he had dismissed Amla once again midway through the spell, when he struck the No. 3 in the region of the off stump. But what the naked eye had supposed, replays confirmed: an inside edge and an overturning of Kumar Dharmasena's initial verdict. Amla would survive Hazlewood, and the dual spells ended without a wicket having fallen.

"Ideally you want to play as straight as possible but when the ball's reversing like that, you've got to accept it's slightly in favour of the bowlers, so you've got to be as tight as you can," Amla said. "During that session Dean and I tried to dig in and wait for the bad ball, but the Aussies bowled really well, there weren't too many bad balls on offer, and you've just got to try and grind it through. The most difficult part of today's batting was the reverse swing. It wasn't the wicket; there was a little bit of nip, but when the ball starts reverse-swinging, it starts to nip as well.

"One thing is to have a reversing ball but the most important thing is to land it in the right area, and the Australians did that pretty well today. A lot depends on the wickets. If the wicket is abrasive and allows the ball to get scuffed up, and guys throwing the ball on the boundary and landing on the scuff, the usual stuff... I think it's been around for a long time and the skill is [bowling] it in the right spot. I promise you, guys can have a reverse-swinging ball but if you bowl half volley after half volley, it's not going to be effective."

Persistence, then, was vital for Australia, always knowing that one wicket would more than likely lead to others. It was to be Starc who found the ball to do it, a screeching near-yorker curling away from Amla wide on the crease immediately after tea to uproot the off stump. When Elgar finally edged one of the numerous deliveries Hazlewood had veered away from him from around the wicket, the game had changed, and Australia had their long-delayed reward.

After tea, it was possible to think that Faf du Plessis and AB de Villiers could accelerate away. It had been du Plessis after Durban who identified Starc and Rabada as the two most destructive reverse swingers on either side. But part of the Australian attack's value lies in its depth, and a fit-again Marsh, having recovered from a bout of gastro on day one, provided a reinforcing spell sharper than du Plessis expected. Pinned in front by inswing, he reviewed a ball that was going to take middle and leg stumps, and watched as Theunis de Bruyn fell in similar fashion a few overs later.

Marsh's efforts underlined the multiple options available to Smith, as did Cummins, who despite not taking a wicket with reverse was still able to deliver old-ball outswing that on another day could have shattered the stumps of many. The unrelenting nature of the attack meant that South Africa could not get away and by the time de Villiers bloomed in the final session, he was once again beginning to run out of partners. "That middle session I thought was great Test-match cricket," Marsh said afterwards. "They batted extremely well, but on the flip side of that we didn't let them get away. They must've gone for one or two an over for the whole session, and then we got our reward, so that's Test-match cricket."

With the normalisation of reverse swing around the world, each team has brought their own characteristics to the art, as distinct from the combustible and enigmatic ways of the Pakistani pioneers. For Australia's fast men, it is a case of unrelenting pressure and support for one another, wearing down the opposition top six and then feasting on the tail. The degree of system to it all recalls how Goodman wrote that rock and roll going mainstream ''would be built on the co-opting of the underground hip culture", taking the best of something new and different then normalising it for the masses.

Reverse swing then, like rock and roll, is no longer an edgy pursuit, but it remains consistently effective and uniquely compelling. For proof just go to a Springsteen concert, or an Australian bowling day.