May 8, 2019

Seam to the fore as ECB orders favoured batch of Dukes balls for the Ashes

A craftsman at work at the Dukes factory © Scott Oliver

England will attempt to exploit home advantage in the 2019 Ashes with confirmation they will use the same specification of Dukes balls used to good effect in the 2017 and 2018 home Test series.

While the ECB has introduced a slightly amended type of ball into Championship cricket this season - a move intended to reduce the advantage bowlers have enjoyed in recent seasons - the Test team will continue to use the same Dukes balls that saw them beat South Africa, West Indies and India at home over the last couple of years. England claim the decision is more about producing entertaining cricket than playing to their own advantage, though the two are not necessarily exclusive.

The Test ball, with a more pronounced seam, generally helps seam and swing bowlers. James Anderson has taken his Test wickets in England at a cost of 16.06 in that period; 10 runs below his overall career average. The other Dukes ball, with a less pronounced seam, will continue to be used in the 2019 County Championship season, which is already producing higher scores than in recent years. It was introduced at the instruction of the ECB Cricket Committee, which was conscious of the balance between bat and ball on early- and late-season domestic pitches when much of the Championship season is contested.

The move could backfire, though. The Australia attack, at full strength, is impressive. And while there may be a presumption that England's skill and experience in such conditions will counteract the Australia side's pace, there is no reason pace and skill should exist independently. Australia's seamers will enjoy using these balls every bit as much as England's. The ball will also be used in the Test against Ireland.

All of which means we should be in for some exciting cricket. The first-class game is generally more entertaining when the ball slightly dominates the bat and this decision should ensure bowlers - well, seamers at least - are kept interested throughout. Whether the balance has moved too far towards such bowlers remains to be seen; this news is unlikey to create a splurge of fifth-day ticket sales.

"This is not about having two-day games," Ashley Giles, the director of England's men's teams, said.  "This is honestly about having a fair contest.  My concern was this [current] ball would make it too batting friendly on good Test wickets in the middle of the summer. That was the primary reason.

"We've seen some really good Test cricket in this country over a number of years.  It's not as if we are talking about playing against an attack that is not very good.  The Aussies are quite handy themselves. 

"There are elements of risk to it because we are choosing to go with this ball and they have a formidable bowling attack.  Clearly, Jimmy Anderson is one of our best weapons - one of the best bowlers ever - so we want to bring him into the game."

The total order of balls is understood to be for somewhere around 600, with each one costing around £60. They will also be used in Lions games, Australia's tour matches and in the training sessions of both teams. Giles confirmed there had been talk about using a Kookaburra ball, but said Dukes had responded "brilliantly" to the ECB's requests for an adapted version. The 2017-18 specification Dukes ball was used during the second half of the 2018-19 Sheffield Shield season.

Giles also said he anticipated having little dialogue with the groundstaff at each Test venue and that England had requested only "good wickets".

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

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