At Nottingham, playing the third Test, the Indian bowlers got a taste of conducive conditions with Hardik Pandya and Jasprit Bumrah wreaking havoc with the ball.
First, Pandya broke the back of England’s batting with his maiden five-wicket haul before Bumrah helped seal a much-needed win with a fifer in the second.
While Pandya hit the good length with the ball seaming away, Bumrah made the most of the new ball in favourable conditions, varying lengths and dishing out the yorker when needed.
At Lord’s, too, in the second Test, as the Indian batsmen huffed and puffed, the pacers and the conditions took centre-stage, as they so often do in England.
Leg-spinner Adil Rashid didn’t bowl an over in the London Test, with James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Chris Woakes and Sam Curran sharing the bowling responsibility between them.
The pace quartet pitched the ball up to the batsmen and relied on swing. They were duly rewarded. Following the end of the second Test, in his column for Sportstar , Kartikeya Date wrote, “When batsmen miss the ball as often as they did on Day 2 (Lord’s), it is no longer a matter of technique. It is an indication that a physical human limit has been crossed. The average delivery on Day 2, moved 1.17 degrees off the pitch, after pitching.”
The Dukes cricket ball, used in England, tends to do more in the air and off the pitch due to its pronounced hand-stitched seam. They remain hard throughout the innings, thus bringing the slip catchers into play throughout the day.
The great Pakistan seamer, Wasim Akram, had once said, “Dukes, overall, for its hardness, good seam which makes it moves nicely. It’s my preference.”
Dukes owner Dilip Jajodia says, “the hand-stitched as opposed to the machine-stitched Kookaburra is an absolutely crucial factor.
“In the case of a Kookaburra, two outer rows of stitching on each side are just separations. They’re not actually holding the ball together; it’s the middle one.
“That portion of the ball has to be much flatter in order to accommodate the machine stitches. Therefore, that ball can never be the same shape as a Dukes ball which is hand-stitched,” he explains.
A constant complaint about the Kookaburra has been that it loses shape and does not feel good in the hand once it gets old. Consistency, says Jajodia, is an important facet.
“The trouble with a cricket ball is that it’s a difficult product and regardless of whether it’s hand-stitched or not, there are so many variables that one needs to contend with — the leather; no two cows are the same, so the thickness of the leather and the tanning process vary accordingly.
“We put grease into it to polish it up.. better the polish more the amount of grease it has taken.. the darker balls certainly do swing more.”
It takes nearly three-and-a-half “man-hours” to make every single ball with “a seven gram tolerance. It’s between 156-163 grams and it takes only one gram here or there for them to get rejected.. The ones that don’t meet the criterion are sent out to counties for net practice, at most.
“Every ball used in first-class cricket is marked by the umpire and the captain and that report goes back to England and Wales Cricket Board... so if there’s a trend of balls failing then they get in touch and tell us about the problem.”
Technology over artisanship?
L. Balaji, former India pacer
Dukes is ideal for seam and swing bowlers operating in English conditions. The wickets in England are slower compared to Australia or South Africa, so medium-pacers tend to be more effective with it as opposed to the express pacers who enjoy bowling with the Kookaburra.
With the Kookaburra, as the ball gets older, the seam submerges into the leather thus reducing the size of the ball which then aids the fast bowlers.
Line and length bowlers do well with the Dukes because the ball will do a lot in the air but with the Kookaburra, the seam gets embedded in the surface, it ceases to move quite as much.
Kookaburra is machine made whereas Dukes is hand made... the latter is as good as a custom made ball. So if they (Dukes) start producing one standard ball like Kookaburra does, supplying the product to so many cricket playing nations would be nigh impossible.
Kookaburra, on the other hand, rely on machines, technology and mass production.
Fairest ball for each occasion
Australia pace spearhead, Pat Cummins, says while there’s a particular way of bowling with different balls, the conditions ultimately hold sway.
“The main reason is that the different balls come with very different wickets. In dry conditions such as in India, the ball rarely swings conventionally, so a lot of the time you just try to hit the wicket hard with the seam straight upright hoping for some movement off the wicket.
“In England, if the conditions are right the Dukes ball will swing a lot more than a Kooka. Sometimes it is about adjusting the seam and your wrist to try and control the swing from swinging too far,” Cummins points out.
Cricket Australia used the Dukes balls for the second half of the Sheffield Shield competition in 2016 with an eye on the 2019 Ashes tour of England. Australia hasn’t had overseas Ashes success since 2001.
“I’ve only played one game with this (Dukes) ball but enjoyed it,” Cummins says, adding, “It is a different Dukes to the red one in England, I believe, but keeps the swinging properties, which as a bowler, I think, is really important.
“Again, a lot of the Test wickets in previous years in Australia have been quite hard and dry which has more of a factor in not swinging the ball than the actual ball.”
Cummins also feels that there might come a time when standardising the cricket ball might become a necessity.
“We have seen that in white ball cricket. I think it’s important that we are always looking for a ball that provides the fairest contest between the batsman and bowler and having a red ball that swings is vital. I do enjoy that playing overseas in Tests provide different challenges, including a different ball and I think that’s another thing that makes Test cricket special.
“In cricket, the conditions can be so different between countries, so it’s about finding the fairest ball for each occasion.”
The Kookaburra monopoly
The white Kookaburra balls are used in all ODIs and T20 Internationals. It is also used in many domestic T20 competitions around the world, such as the IPL and BBL.
“It’s a position we don’t take lightly and strive to innovate and improve our balls. For example, we have started work in trying to develop a ball specifically for T20 cricket, this is years away, but is a sign of us not resting on our laurels. We have also invested in Indian operations, opening a manufacturing facility to service the Indian community cricket market, employing locals,” Kookaburra spokesperson, Shannon Gill, says.
Asked how long it takes to make one ball, Gill explains, “There are many components to a ball, so there’s not a machine that just produces a ball on a conveyor belt.
“It goes through many stages and includes lots of handcrafting — for example, our internationals balls are finished with a hand-stitched closing seam and then lacquered and stamped. The life of a ball travelling from a sheet of leather to a ball may take two weeks or more. For balls made in Australia, we use Australian bovine leather, sourced in Australia.”
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