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April 21, 2008
The first trial of a pink cricket ball took place at Lord's today with MCC taking on Scotland in a 50-over friendly, as the lawmakers of the game investigate ways to find a more durable ball than the existing white one used in limited-overs cricket.
Last year MCC, who have spent £10,000 on cricket balls for the 500 games they will play this year, approached Dr Anthony Bull, a bioengineer from Imperial College, to work with the ball manufacturers Kookaburra and produce a more durable alternative.
The white ball has long caused contention with players and officials. Although much more visible than the traditional red-dyed ball against the backdrop of players' coloured clothing, it is liable to discolour and deteriorate. Outfielders and batsmen are the obvious victims, but the other principle concern is with the delays involved in replacing the ball mid-game. No two balls are the same, either. The pink ball, as Bull explained, is a work in progress. Unlike traditional red balls, whose leather is dyed in a paraffin wax, other colours such as pink are painted on the surface which makes them liable to chip and fray. "For me, it's about how the colour can stay in the leather, but clearly the technology is not there," Bull said. "The manufacturers are just doing a paint job, a surface treatment."
Cricket is no stranger to pink in these metrosexually modern days. Matthew Hayden uses a bat with a pink grip to promote awareness of breast cancer, and last year Middlesex's Twenty20 side strode out to Lord's sporting salmon-pink kit. The colour of the new ball, however, is incidental. "It could be any colour, that's the point," Bull said. "If you can get something into the leather, it could be any colour." Any colour but orange, it would seem, which was trialled without success in the early 1990s.
The lush carpeted outfield and a spongy, green Lord's wicket in April were not the most testing of conditions for the bright pink ball - abrasiveness is the white ball's greatest enemy it seems - though it was impressively luminous on a very dull London day. Scotland didn't appear to have much trouble picking it up, reaching 253 for 7 from their 50 overs, though MCC's bowlers didn't appear to gain the same prodigious swing which has characterised one-day cricket with a white ball.
The experiments are being driven by MCC, but also by the manufacturers who, as Bull points out, are understandably keen to find a solution.
"Manufacturers are very careful about their processes," Bull said. "They're putting all their technology into creating the pink ball, but they could apply all the same processes into producing another coloured ball. The red ball is dyed and it goes into the leather. For the pink ball, it is painted on in a very smart way, but therefore it's very similar to the white ball in the way it is achieved."
Bull and his students have also begun exploratory investigation into the future of bats. The ICC banned Kookaburra's graphite-reinforced bat on October 1 2006, but Bull is convinced that improvements can be made within the law. "The question for cricket is: do you want bats that allow a nick to go for six," he says. "That's the question. We've started looking at this very seriously. You could 'hole out' bats, or the surface covering of a bat could be of a certain stiffness to influence the characteristics of the bat. Does the sport want to allow that, though?"
Most intriguingly of all, Bull believes it would be possible to enhance bats to make a ball travel "20% further" in the current definition of the law. The ramifications of this are obvious and undoubtedly exciting, but the question remains: does cricket want to allow batsmen yet another advantage, and whose responsibility is it to regulate such drastic technological advances in the sport?
A pink ball, however, is rather less revolutionary and results from this first trial were encouraging. Bull's dream goal - indeed, cricket's too - is to exactly replicate the traditional red ball, which opens up the possibility of having one ball for all cricket.
"We're being led by the cricket world," Bull said, "where the red ball is the optimum. The whole art or science of bowling, and swinging the ball, [happens with] the red ball, so what we need to do is simulate that with whatever colours we can get. The optimum would be to have one ball, of course, which behaved in the right way [for all cricket]."