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It isn't just the level of competition being several notches up that separates Duleep Trophy games from regular domestic cricket. Of course, the pleasure of watching the pick of the bunch is enormous, but what truly sets this competition apart is the use of the magical Kookaburra ball.
Brought up manoeuvring the SG Test ball, Indian bowlers have struggled for long playing overseas with the Kookaburra. Even our seam bowlers have, to a certain extent, found it tough to hit the deck, which is essential to succeed with the ball of this particular brand, when all that they've learnt has been with the SG Test. It is precisely for this reason that the BCCI introduced this much debated ball in the coveted Duleep Trophy for the cream of Indian domestic cricket to get the hang of it, without the pressure of playing international cricket. The idea has been to not only get the bowlers to understand the character of the ball, experiment with it, but also alter their game in accordance.
While the thought has been both wise and far-sighted, its implementation has left a lot to be desired. Firstly, there is an obvious scarcity of these rather expensive balls and hence all one gets are only a couple of balls in the practice session, that too just a day before the match. And that's certainly not enough to get used to the ball. It goes without saying that only a couple of bowlers bowl with these balls and the rest continue with the SG Test balls.
But what is the big deal with these Kookaburra balls? Aren't they all of the same size, same weight and same shape? Yes, but once you use the Kookaburra; you'd know the difference immediately. The new Kookaburra ball has a more pronounced seam than its SG counterpart and for some reason swings a lot more in the air too. It goes without saying that the pronounced seam ensures more seam movement off the surface too. But the flip side is that the moment it gets old, the seam gets embedded in the surface and ceases to both swing and seam. Now, you must hit the deck hard to get purchase, for releasing the ball would only mean getting punished.
On the contrary, SG Test balls assist swing bowlers for the entire duration if the shine on one side is maintained. The seam doesn't fade away either, which helps the spinners to get purchase. Quite obviously, and unfortunately though, if you've always bowled with the SG Test ball, you'd automatically become a release bowler relying on swing, which most of our bowlers do.
Also, the Kookaburra plays to its full potential on surfaces best suited for it. Hence, the track should be prepared extremely hard with a lot of bounce. No wonder, Kookaburra flourishes on the hard surfaces of Australia and South Africa, while on home tracks of Karnail Singh and Kotla, both lacking the hardness, it spells doom. Also, not leaving too much grass on the track is vital, for it makes the new ball almost unplayable.
The question being - is playing with the Kookaburra, only once in a year, enough to fine-tune the muscle memory? Of course, one needs to play with this ball more often to really mould the game to suit its demands. It's unrealistic to expect a player to remember its nuances when you don't use it regularly. If you follow the scorecards of Duleep Trophy since this ball got introduced, you'd see the middle-order batsmen blooming while the openers scratching around, for handling the new Kookaburra is the toughest bit. Batting gets remarkably easier as the ball gets older. That may not particularly be the best assessment of a player's calibre.
Isn't it grossly unfair to expect a bowler to bowl with a different ball, handing it to him just before the match, sparing him no time to acclimatize. Isn't it same as telling the batsman to use a different bat, minutes before he goes in to bat? It's a general consensus among the players that if we need to use this ball, we must use it more often. Hosting every alternate round of Ranji Trophy with the Kookaburra ball won't be a bad option.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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Aakash Chopra is the 245th Indian to represent India in Test cricket. A batsman in the traditional mould, he played 10 Tests for India in 2003-04, and has played over 120 first-class matches. He currently plays for Delhi in the Ranji Trophy; his book Beyond the Blues was an account of the 2007-08 season. Chopra made a formidable opening combination with Virender Sehwag, which was believed to be one of the reasons for India's success in Australia and Pakistan in 2003-04. He is considered one of the best close-in fielders India has produced after Eknath Solkar.