Cricket equipment in 2006

Cow corner

Norman Harris

Shine on: Javed Iqbal, a production assistant at the Dukes factory in London, applies the finish. © Wisden / Sunil Jajodia
"New balls" may be a call more familiar in tennis, but there were times last season when county cricket seemed to be echoing Wimbledon. There were games in which the ball was changed three times in an innings - the first sometimes within the first few overs - and there were grounds at which a box of replacement balls was left just beyond the boundary rope to speed things up.

Naturally, the suspicions of conspiracy theorists were triggered when a replacement ball immediately claimed a wicket. And who could blame bowling sides for querying the ball when, over time, nothing was happening for them?

The Dukes balls, made by the Essex firm Morrant, are used in all English Test and Championship matches. Like other ball-makers, Dukes are not slow to explain how difficult it is to guarantee a uniform ball: they're not manufacturing a product in metal or glass, infinitely reproducible. Their product uses natural materials and is hand-made. Further, planned obsolescence is built into their product: the ball has to last only 80 overs in Tests and 90 in the county game. That's inherent in the specification written by the British Standards Institution.

Do the makers protest too much? Dilip Jajodia of Dukes says that to some extent he is in the hands of the tanneries. "One cow hide will make about 35 balls. And that's only using the best parts of the hide - not the belly, legs and so on. So an animal with an undetected disease could be responsible for a whole batch of balls. The fact is, you don't know that a ball is going to fail until you play with it." Thus a sick cow in Devon could stop play at Derby.

Now an inspection of a failed ball is likely to reveal a great deal - whether, for example, one or two stitches gave way, or whether it suffered a more general failure to retain its shape. But, incredibly, Jajodia says he never sees a failed ball. They're presumably thrown into a box for net use. This, despite the fact that a system is in place to assist follow-up, each ball coming in a small plastic bag with a unique reference number.

The assumption is that players - especially bowlers - get hold of a new box of balls and dip into it looking for one of promising colour and (imagined) weight. It would seem that the balls are never reunited with the bags, and certainly they never come back to the maker if they fail. In this respect, cricket seems to be a bowler's game - it is they who choose the ball, they who have special ideas about the colour. Thus, for 2005 there was an edict that balls should be a more consistent colour to avoid the charge that some were desirably dark. So a standard medium cherry-red was provided. Then complaints came that balls weren't dark enough.

There was talk in 2006 that just a few balls were significantly harder, and kept swinging throughout an innings. Darren Gough also declared that balls were "definitely different this year". "He knows, does he?" said Jajodia. "It's quite breathtaking. Well, it's nonsense. There are so many factors involved, not only in the ball but between different grounds and weather conditions, including whether balls crossing the boundary hit concrete or whatever... No one ever talks to ball-makers about these things."

No one ever talks to ball-makers about these things. It is a compelling statement. The ECB says that umpires do report in detail on the balls used in every game, that there have always been balls going out of shape, and that "there weren't an absolute truckload of them in 2006". Officials insist that they do talk to a number of ball-makers, and are interested in a more scientific approach. The staging of ball trials is also an objective, but they are hard to organise with due scientific rectitude.

And yet, it is surely an oddity that failed balls never come back to the manufacturer. Indeed, one might think that this highly regulated professional sport - in such turmoil about the possibility of tampering - would wish to have its officials in charge of the balls from the moment they are released by the manufacturers to the moment they are handed over to the fielding captain.

© Wisden Cricketer's Almanack