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You are on page 1of 10

**Rod Cross, Physics Department, University of Sydney
**

The ﬂight of a ball through the air is aﬀected by aerodynamic forces in ways that are

not immediately obvious to anyone other than those who have studied the subject for

many years. In this report I have attempted to simplify the physics for those who would

like a crash course in the subject. I am not an expert in the subject myself, but I have

summarised the basic physics using sketches published by the experts themselves.

At the simplest level, the eﬀect of the air on a spherical ball is to slow it down and, in

many cases, to exert a sideways force on the ball. The slowing down eﬀect is described by

a drag force, F

D

, that acts backwards on the ball. The drag force is given by

F

D

=

1

2

C

D

ρAv

2

(1)

where C

D

is called the drag coeﬃcient, ρ = 1.2 kg.m

−3

is the density of air, A = πR

2

is the cross–sectional area of the ball, R is the ball radius and v is the speed of the ball

relative to the air. If the air is at rest, then v is the speed of the ball.

0.0

0.1

0.2

0.3

0.4

0.5

0.6

0.7

10

4

10

5

10

6

D

r

a

g

C

o

e

f

f

i

c

i

e

n

t

C

D

Reynolds Number

Golf ball

Tennis ball

Soccer

ball

Smooth

sphere

10 m/s

20 m/s

20 m/s

Figure 1: Measured drag coeﬃcients for diﬀerent non–spinning balls vs Reynolds number.

At high ball speeds, the drag force is commonly equal to or larger than the gravitational

force, mg, where m is the mass of the ball. At low ball speeds, C

D

is about 0.5 for most

balls. At high ball speeds, C

D

decreases to about 0.1 if the ball is smooth. If the ball has

1

a rough surface or is physically large then C

D

decreases at relatively low speeds, but if

the ball is very rough, like a tennis ball, then C

D

remains relatively constant at about 0.6

even at high ball speeds.

Graphs of C

D

vs the Reynolds number are shown for several diﬀerent non–spinning balls

in Fig. 1. C

D

usually increases slightly if the ball is spinning. Reynolds number is dimen-

sionless and is given by Re = ρDv/η where ρ is the air density, D is the ball diameter, v

is the ball speed and η = 1.8 ×10

−5

Poise is the viscosity of air. Re is often expressed in

terms of the kinematic viscosity ν = η/ρ = 1.5 ×10

−5

m

2

/s for air. Fig. 1 is essentially a

graph of C

D

vs ball speed but the scale depends on the ball diameter. The sudden drop in

C

D

at ball speeds above 10 or 20 m/s is called the “drag crisis” and represents a change

from smooth or laminar ﬂow of air around the ball surface at low speeds, to turbulent ﬂow

at high speeds. For a tennis ball, the ﬂow is always turbulent since the surface is quite

rough. For smooth surfaces, boundary layer ﬂow becomes turbulent when Re > 3 × 10

5

.

For rough or dimpled surfaces, the layer can become turbulent when Re > 4 × 10

4

(as

indicated by the drop in C

D

in Fig. 1).

The slowing down eﬀect of the drag force depends on the mass of the ball and it also

depends on the distance travelled by the ball. A heavy ball slows down by a relatively

small amount over a short distance, but it will continue to slow down the further it travels.

A relatively light ball of the same size, launched at the same speed, will slow down more

quickly. The drag force doesn’t depend on the mass of the ball, but it does depend on its

diameter, its surface roughness and its speed.

A “sideways” force can act to the left or the right or even up or down. In that respect,

the sideways force is better classiﬁed as a transverse force, meaning that it acts at right

angles to the direction of motion of the ball. A transverse force is most commonly due to

the Magnus eﬀect which acts when the ball is spinning, but it can also arise if the ball has

a raised seam or if the ball is rough on one side and smooth on the other. A transverse

force could arise as a result of all three eﬀects acting simultaneously. The transverse force

is commonly known as a lift force, F

L

, even if it acts to the left or right or downwards,

and is usually expressed in the form

F

L

=

1

2

C

L

ρAv

2

(2)

where C

L

is called the lift coeﬃcient.

2

Trajectory calculations

If C

L

and C

D

are known, then the trajectory of a ball can be calculated in terms of the

force diagram shown in Fig. 2.

!

!

v

F

D

F

L

mg

Spin

direction

x

y

Figure 2: The main forces acting on a ball in ﬂight are the gravitational force, mg, the drag force,

F

D

and the lift force, F

L

. If the ball has backspin then the lift force due to the Magnus eﬀect acts

up and to the left, at right angles to the path of the ball.

The equations of motion describing the trajectory of a ball with topspin or backspin are

ma

x

= −F

D

cos θ −F

L

sinθ (3)

and

ma

y

= F

L

cos θ −F

D

sinθ −mg (4)

where a

x

is the horizontal acceleration and a

y

is the vertical acceleration. Equations (3)

and (4) can be solved numerically for any given launch speed and launch angle to determine

the trajectory in the x-y plane. If the ball has sidespin then the lift force will act in the

z direction, in which case motion in the z direction can be determined separately in an

analogous manner. A ball launched with backspin will fall more slowly to the ground

than a ball launched without spin, and will therefore travel further if it is launched at the

same speed and angle. For that reason, golf balls are usually struck with backspin. If the

ball spins fast enough, and is launched fast enough, the lift force can be greater than the

gravitational force in which case the ball will curve upwards rather than downwards at the

start of its ﬂight. Tennis players like to hit the ball with topspin so that the ball curves

down rapidly onto the court after it crosses the net.

3

Origin of the drag force

The drag force arises because the ball has to push its way through the air, and the air

exerts an equal and opposite force on the ball. The details are more complicated than

one might expect, as indicated in Fig. 3. At very low speeds, air ﬂows smoothly around

the ball from the front to the back. Smooth ﬂow is classiﬁed as laminar ﬂow. In an ideal

situation there is no friction between the air and the ball, the pressure at the front of

the ball is the same as the pressure at the rear of the ball, so there is no drag force. In

reality, air ﬂowing over the surface of the ball is slowed down by friction with the surface

of the ball until it comes to rest at a point known as the separation point. As a result,

the ﬂow of air separates from the ball at the separation point rather than following the

surface around to the rear of the ball. The air pressure drops in a region at the back of

the ball known as the wake, causing air outside the wake to ﬂow back into the rear side

of the ball in a turbulent manner. The details are too complicated to describe here, but

the net result is that the force on the front of the ball is larger than the force at the back

of the ball, so the ball experiences a backwards drag force that increases as the ball speed

increases or, for a stationary ball, as the incoming air speed increases.

If the surface of the ball is rough, or if it is dimpled, then the ﬂow of air around the surface

can be become turbulent well before the air speed drops to zero. In that case, air near the

surface mixes with air further away from the surface that is moving faster than air right

at the surface. The speed of the air at the surface is therefore increased by the turbulence,

so the surface air takes longer to slow to a stop, and the separation point moves closer to

the rear side of the ball. The low pressure wake is therefore narrower, so the force of that

low pressure region on the ball is decreased and the force of the higher pressure region

outside the wake is increased. As a result, the drag force is reduced compared with that

on a smooth ball.

4

(a) Ideal frictionless ﬂow around a smooth sphere : zero drag force

High pressure

Low pressure

High pressure

Low pressure

Laminar ﬂow

High pressure

Low pressure

Turbulent, low

pressure wake

Low pressure

Laminar ﬂow

Separation

points

where v = 0

(b) Viscous ﬂow around a smooth sphere : ﬁnite drag force

High pressure

Low pressure

Narrow, low

pressure wake

Low pressure

Laminar ﬂow

Separation point

moves further back

(c) Viscous ﬂow around a golf ball : low drag force

Turbulent boundary layer

Path of ball

Figure 3: Air ﬂow around a ball travelling to the left. The ball is not spinning. For convenience,

it is assumed that the ball is at rest and the air ﬂows from left to right around the ball. That is

how balls are tested in wind tunnels.

5

Swing of a cricket ball

The ﬂight of a cricket ball is complicated by the facts that the ball has a seam and that

one side of the ball is rougher than the other side. Both sides are smooth when the ball

is new, but players polish one side during the game and allow the other side to roughen

up during play. The ball is bowled with backspin in order to keep the seam aligned at an

angle of about 20 degrees to the ﬂight path, since that angle gives the maximum left to

right side force on the ball. When the ball is new, the ball curves to the right if the seam

points to the right, as indicated in Fig. 4(a). However, if the ball is bowled at a speed

greater than about 85 mph, then the ball curves to the left, as shown in Fig. 4(b). The

latter curvature is known as reverse swing.

The ball can be made to swing to the left at low speed simply by pointing the seam to the

left and by changing the bowling action. Most bowlers prefer one way or the other since it

is easier not to change the bowling action. In that case, the swing direction is determined

by the ball speed. However, reverse swing can occur at lower ball speeds if one side of the

ball is rougher than the other side, as shown in Fig. 5. Furthermore, reverse swing can

then occur even if the seam points straight to the batter, as shown in Fig. 6.

The physics behind the various swing types lies in the way that the air travels around the

surface of the ball. At low ball speeds, the ﬂow is laminar, unless the air encounters a

seam or a rough patch on the ball, in which case the ﬂow becomes turbulent. As a result,

the separation point can move either closer to the front of the ball or further back to the

rear side. If the ball deﬂects air to the left, then the air exerts an equal and opposite force

on the ball to the right. The air is deﬂected in a direction more or less tangential to the

ball at the separation point, as shown in Figs. 3 to 6, and then ﬂows back toward the

middle of the ball around the wake behind the ball. Inspection of those diagrams reveals

a general rule of thumb, that the ball deﬂects to the side where the separation point is

further back toward the rear of the ball.

6

Smooth

Smooth

Laminar boundary layer

(high pressure)

Turbulent boundary layer

(low pressure)

Ball trajectory

Air deﬂected

upward

Turbulent

wake

Laminar

Laminar

(a) Swing bowling with new ball (both sides smooth): bird's eye view.

Ball has backspin to keep the seam aligned at about 20 degrees to the air ﬂow.

Black dots show separation points. Separation is delayed by turbulence.

Smooth

Smooth

Turbulent boundary layer

created by high ball speed

Turbulent boundary layer .

Ball trajectory

Air deﬂected

downward

Turbulent

wake

Laminar

Laminar

(b) Reverse swing at high ball speeds (both sides smooth): bird's eye view.

Ball has backspin to keep the seam aligned at about 20 degrees to the air ﬂow.

Bottom separation point moves toward front of ball at high ball speeds. Top

separation point moves toward rear of ball due to onset of turbulence.

Figure 4: Air ﬂow around a new cricket ball travelling to the right.

7

Smooth

Rough

Laminar boundary layer

(high pressure)

Turbulent boundary layer

(low pressure)

Ball trajectory

Air deﬂected

upward

Turbulent

wake

Laminar

Laminar

(a) Swing bowling with old ball (one side smooth): bird's eye view.

Ball has backspin to keep the seam aligned at about 20 degrees to the air ﬂow.

Black dots show separation points. Separation is delayed by turbulence.

Rough

Smooth

Turbulent boundary layer

created by high ball speed

Turbulent boundary layer .

Ball trajectory

Air deﬂected

downward

Turbulent

wake

Laminar

Laminar

(b) Reverse swing (one side smooth): bird's eye view.

Ball has backspin to keep the seam aligned at about 20 degrees to the air ﬂow.

The ball is turned over compared with conventional swing but the seam

alignment is the same. There is no change needed in the bowling action.

Figure 5: Air ﬂow around an old cricket ball travelling to the right.

8

Smooth

Rough

Laminar boundary layer

(high pressure)

Turbulent boundary layer

(low pressure)

Ball trajectory

Air deﬂected

upward

Turbulent

wake

Laminar

Laminar

(a) Contrast swing- straight seam: bird's eye view.

Ball has backspin to keep the seam aligned parallel to the air ﬂow.

Black dots show separation points. Separation is delayed by turbulence.

Rough

Smooth

Turbulent boundary layer

created by high ball speed

Turbulent boundary layer .

Ball trajectory

Air deﬂected

downward

Turbulent

wake

Laminar

Laminar

(b) Reverse contrast swing at high ball speed: bird's eye view.

Ball has backspin to keep the seam aligned parallel to the air ﬂow. Separation

occurs sooner on the rough side. A similar result can be achieved at low ball

speeds simply by reversing the smooth and rough sides of the ball.

Figure 6: Air ﬂow around an old cricket ball when the seam is straight.

9

Boundary layer and separation point

The following diagram illustrates the nature of viscous air ﬂow in a boundary layer over

a ﬂat surface. The layer is typically about 1 mm thick. The velocity v = 0 right at the

surface. v increases away from the surface (in the y direction) and decreases along the

surface (in the x direction). After a suﬃcient distance, the ﬂow separates from the surface

if dv/dy = 0 at the surface and then recirculates with negative velocity back toward the

surface.

Solid surface

v of air in boundary layer

1 mm

v = 0

Separation point

Air ﬂow

x

y

References

1

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lift

−

force and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drag

−

force

2

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drag

−

coeﬃcient

3

A. Sayers and A. Hill, Aerodynamics of a cricket ball, Journal of Wind Engineering and

Industrial Aerodynamics, 79, 169–182 (1999).

4

A. Sayers, On the reverse swing of a cricket ball, Proc Instn Mech Engrs Part C: Journal

of Mechanical Engineering Science, 215, 45-55 (2001).

5

C. Baker, A calculation of cricket ball trajectories, Journal of Mechanical Engineering

Science, 224, 1947-1958 (2010).

6

R. Mehta, An overview of cricket ball swing, Sports Engineering 8, 181–192 (2005).

7

R. Mehta, The science of swing bowling, http://www.espncricinfo.com/magazine/content/story/258645.html

(2006).

10

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