November 25, 2015

In quest of a durable cricket ball

As the Dukes cherry gains popularity for its hardiness, its makers are looking to spread to markets outside of England

Dilip Jajodia: "a self-appointed feeler of cricket balls" © Scott Oliver

They say the best form of advertising is word of mouth. If those mouths happen to be in front of a TV camera or microphone, then so much the better.

For cricket ball manufacturer Dukes, the fallout from the summer's Ashes was pretty good. First Ricky Ponting - lifelong user of Kookaburra kit, whose balls are used in Australia's domestic first-class cricket - proposed that the Dukes should be used in all Sheffield Shield games. Then Shane Warne weighed in: "The Kookaburra ball goes soft, it's no good, it doesn't do enough. We need to use the Dukes ball, it does more. It swings more and it seams more, so why aren't we using it?"

Of course, it was all music to the ears of Dukes owner, Dilip Jajodia, although he is keen to proffer an important caveat: "It's nice of Shane to suggest that, but I would add [that the balls need to be] produced to cope with the general playing conditions in a given country. It can't be the same surface finish for all countries. We do have the ability to adjust the surface protection according to what's required."

These comments appear especially pertinent now, with cricket on the cusp of its brave new world of day-night Tests and with concerns over the durability of the pink Kookaburra ball on abrasive Australian pitches.

Jajodia believes that for day-night cricket, the white ball is best for visibility, as opposed to the pink variant © Scott Oliver

Two years ago, Jajodia attended a set of tests conducted by Cricket Australia under lights in Melbourne, the upshot of which was that an orange ball with a black seam that he provided was deemed the best by the players involved in the experiment, although it was ultimately rejected due to "a myth that the orange ball leaves a 'comet trail' on the monitors of cameramen". Even so, he believes neither pink nor orange is optimal for day-night Test cricket. "You cannot dye the cricket ball any other colour than red for it to be effective for cricket," he points out. "When you dye the ball orange, you lose the fluorescence when it goes into the pores. It becomes a 'dirty', burnt-orange colour.

"If you want a ball that's really visible in day-night conditions, obviously white is proven to be the best. The traditionalists say you can't wear coloured clothing for Test cricket. I think that's over-exaggerated."

Jajodia is trying to get his products into more umpires' rooms, to increase his market share (currently, his Dukes County Grade A red ball is used for all Tests and first-class cricket in England and the West Indies; boxes have been sent to the boards of Sri Lanka and India for testing; he supplies balls for grass-roots cricket in Auckland, Gauteng, Queensland and elsewhere).

Jadojia moved to England from Bangalore as a qualified insurer in his twenties, and started his own sports mail-order firm, Morrant, in 1973. His success selling balls to league cricket led to an invitation to do the same at Dukes, and Jajodia bought the brand outright in 1987 when "it was at a low ebb". By then, with the skilled workforce retiring or dying off and no one willing or able to replace them, the factory was relocated from Tonbridge in Kent, where it had been established in 1760, to Walthamstow in east London. Experienced stitchers from the subcontinent were brought in on six-month contracts, until visa restrictions were tightened in the wake of 9/11: "The Home Office said they needed a university degree. I said: 'No, these blokes are craftsmen. They haven't been to college!'"

James Anderson: a fan of the Dukes ball, but only if it swings straightaway © Getty Images

Although the "skilled part of the manufacturing process", the hand-stitching, is now all done abroad, there is still a great deal of native know-how and discernment brought to bear on the UK side, beginning with the selection of the hides in the tannery: "You use the middle four strips of leather from the back [of the animal] - the middle two for the Test balls - and when you cut the four quarters, you ensure they're consistent for density and strength. If you didn't have a factory that went into so much detail - if you were just cutting out strips and knocking out quarters - then you could have three quarters from the back and one from the belly, which is weak and stretchy. They look pretty similar but the composition is different. All the natural pressure will be pushing that quarter out, separating it. After a while, the ball will be out of shape.

"We're dealing with natural materials: the leather, the cork and latex used in the centres. They could all vary slightly - What did the animal eat? Was it sick? - and they could all react slightly differently to different conditions. We have to try and be as consistent as possible, but no two balls are exactly the same."

Of course, given all the interacting variables in the selection, cutting, dyeing, stitching and moulding (or "milling") of the leather, and in the subsequent stamping, lamping, greasing and lacquering, standardisation can never be absolute. In fact, a ball's individuality extends to "tolerances" in its dimensions: a circumference of between nine and eight-and-thirteen-sixteenth inches, with the weight between 156 and 163 grams. Jajodia's personal feeling is "that a cricket ball isn't a product where you can just mass-produce it at the top level. That personal magic can't be put into it." Not only does the hand-stitched seam keep its proudness for longer, helping maintain the rudder effect, the quarter-seam is always closed tight, giving the ball a smooth surface, both of which assist swing.

While Jajodia claims he can spot who has stitched a ball from the thread on the seam - "It's like a person's handwriting: each guy has his own technique" - he cannot say exactly how he comes to pick out the sets of 12 balls - each of which takes four hours of craftsmanship - that are set aside for a Test match. "I'm a self-appointed feeler of cricket balls, but don't ask me how I choose. There's no precise formula. It just has to feel right, as Jimmy Anderson would tell you. He's just got to feel happy about it. He can be a little moody about it if it doesn't behave exactly how it wants it to. If he gets a wicket in the first over, he's the best ambassador I've got, but if it doesn't swing straightaway, well…"

A craftsman at work in the Dukes factory in Walthamstow, east London © Scott Oliver

Jajodia is grateful for the feedback from the likes of Anderson, much as he seeks the feedback of batsmen, to be sure the ball has the right feel on the bat. Yet the individuality of each ball, and the variability within each model, means the testing process is imprecise. And there's the rub with handmade balls: you never know how good an instrument they are until a virtuoso such as Anderson starts to play them.

"The problem with a cricket ball is, it fails in use," Jajodia says. "You can't test it. You can't bounce it like a tennis ball, then put it on the market. If you bounce it a couple of times, it's second-hand. Despite that, you've got to try and produce perfection - and that includes deterioration."

Ultimately it's the widespread sense of a skewing of the balance between bat and ball - cricket administration's eternal problem - that motivates Dukes to get their white ball introduced to international limited-overs tournaments, to be ready to provide a ball for day-night Tests, and to drop their red leather cherry into more and more Test-playing territories.

That said, Jajodia remains mindful that there is no perfect balance. "The ICC and the MCC are expressing concern with the balance between bat and ball, but I couldn't get out of them what the concern was. Was it that the ball was too effective? Or is it that the bats are too good and the ball's being whacked out of the park? If you had a Test match that goes on for five days, they'd say, 'Oh, this is boring. Nobody wants to watch them anymore.' If you had a game that was over in three days, they'd say there's something wrong with the ball: the game's over early, and they're losing money. You can't tinker all the time. You've just got to accept that the odd game will be finished in two days, and the odd game will be a boring draw. It's not always about the ball."

Scott Oliver tweets here

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