Bowlers like Pathan enjoy the pronounced seam on the SG balls
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Sunlight flits in through large windows onto several men who are motionless but productive. Their fingers are busy performing intricate tasks of weaving, stitching and threading as they concentrate on creating the finest cricket ball possible. Balance is needed here. Many of them, not too old at all, go about their tasks with the assurance of those who have been there, done that many times before. In a sense, everything has been done before, for the art of ball-making has been handed down to them from people who had learned the skill from their fathers. So though parts of this production line at the Sanspareils Greenlands factory have changed, the process has remained unaltered.
The story of Meerut's ball-makers began with Partition, when a group of skilled ball-makers travelled from Sialkot across the new border to Punjab, then Agra, and finally here, after the local government promised to make the displacement less traumatic for sports goods manufacturers. Greenlands was created then by Kedar Nath Anand. A while later, like a prophetic afterthought, Sanspareils - without parallel - was added to the name.
I had known SG well, growing up in a different country. It was the Sunil Gavaskar bat, and the Sanspareils Greenlands tag seemed an unnecessary addition. Now, in the factory from where it came, I felt decidedly teenage again. I was here to write about SG balls. Where did they come from? Why did they do what they did? How did they look so pretty? Paras Anand, the founder's grandson, an energetic young man with a half-smile playing on his lips, was at hand to explain the hows, wheres, whys and whats of the art of making a shiny red cricket ball.
"A cricket ball, our cricket balls, must last at least 90 overs," Anand explained as we set off from his conference room, where a large model of SG's new premises hung on one wall. "They must retain their shape throughout the innings." We stepped into an alley that bustled with men stacking raw wood and sheets of a floppy white semi-solid substance that emitted a peculiar smell. Anand stopped over one such pile and announced: "This is top-grade leather." Balls, like hot dogs, have origins best left unspecified.
The material comes from farms around Meerut and is inspected by a leather technologist who separates sheets with scratches and blemishes from others that are clean of visual defects. The ones that make the grade are cut into two-and-a-half square foot pieces and then treated with chemicals for the tanning process. This helps strengthen the leather and make it flexible.
The sheets are then dried in the sun, after which they return to a row of basins further down, where men wearing shorts and galoshes stomp down on them in vats of bright red dye. This is where Indian Test cricket balls get their colour: squashed under wellingtons in a narrow courtyard at the edge of a mofussil place.
Once again they are dried and further inspections take place. Does the leather appear blotchy? Is it anything but uniform in colour and texture? Any blemishes or inconsistencies means the strip is rejected.
But why should it be inconsistent, I asked, since this was top leather? Anand thought for a moment, searching for the appropriate metaphor. "Do you know," he said finally, "how when people are not well, it shows on their skin? It's like that with animals. If animals are not taken care of, it shows on their leather." This could result in a disfigured ball in the fourth over of a Test. In a nutshell, well-fed animals make for better balls.
At any given time during the day, there are 130 people working on various parts of an SG ball. The processes, utterly natural, rely on hand and sun. "The sun is very important to the process," Anand said on a rooftop where freshly dyed red leather strips were placed on wooden rods spread across the terrace. "In winters it takes more time, and the rainy season is very bad for leather. But summer could be bad too. If it touches 45 degrees, say, the leather cracks."
If the weather is a willing partner, the leather survives, only to be mauled at the hands of dhoti-clad men with gnarled fingers in the next room. They squeeze and stretch and bend these vibrant red pieces, straining like masseurs, and with much the same purpose: to prevent stiffness and release tension, thereby making it more flexible. Then a dollop of animal fat melts into the leather under a benevolent sun to bind and strengthen. Each process that takes a ball away from weakness is vital, because someday it might meet Chris Gayle's or Virender Sehwag's bat, and what would happen then?
What lasts for roughly a day of cricket takes over 75 days to create. It is what goes inside a ball that consumes time. The very core of a cricket ball is a grey-brown ball of cork-rubber. Workers, with narrow sheets of cork and string lying about them, create these cores. They wrap small, flat strips of cork around the grey-brown cork-rubber ball, and then a wet wool string around the composition tightly until it is mummified. This is laid in a wooden bowl and pummelled into a sphere with a wooden hammer.
This process is repeated, with further layers of cork and string - five in all. The primary reason a ball takes so long to make is that the wrappings of wet wool, particularly the innermost one, need to dry completely; any attempt to expedite the process could result in a misbehaving ball. The bundle, which can vary between 95 and 100 grams, is then hung, with others, on walls in the factory. Two and a half months later, this will be a ball's engine, the reason it will bounce.
The balls have to last a full day, no matter how extreme the conditions
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The leather, meanwhile, has been transported from the moulders to the carvers. These men, sitting with one leg tucked under an outstretched one, pick up the dyed sheets and cut them into small, oval, pointy-ended bits on wooden boards, with a simple tool built for the task. Each piece is one quarter of a ball's shell. There are no marks on the leather, and no indication of where and how much to cut. The only marker is an experienced hand. From here on, until the ball is ready, every time leather touches skin, it will have been handled by capable and skilled hands.
After the cutting comes the joining, in a large room filled with light. Here rows of stitchers sit silently, unified in their pose, hunching over two quarters turned inside-out, and dig a needle through the borders that kiss to join them, creating a quarter-stitch. The act is interesting in its relentless precision. Without wavering, hand slides over hand again and again, moving further up until the two are joined. A half-ball is created. It is magic. Turned the right way up, a trace of inner stitch is barely perceptible. Then more leather is joined. This goes on from 9am to 6pm.
The leather again faces further punishment, when the rough half-ball is placed in a round hollow and given a more definite shape by a savage machine called the thappai - a miniature version of the head-clamp instrument used for torture. Then two halves are placed over a now-dry core, but not before slices of leather are slipped between the core and the cover to fill the gap.
The ball's lips are then sealed in a process called lip-stitching. Steel cups press on the ball from both sides, forcing the unjoined leather at the ball's mouth to jut outwards. The pieces are bound by steady hands: one holds a strong needle while the other clasps a tool effective at puncturing leather.
It goes like this: puncture all the way through the lip (make sure it is not too close to the previous set of holes, or the leather will tear), push the needle in (watch the needle carefully, for if it grazes the string before it, the entire stitch could unravel), pull it out the other side (and don't forget to keep track of the number of stitches, because the rules stipulate that only between 78 and 82 are permitted.).
Finally the seam is stitched in a process similar to lip-stiching but fraught with more peril. There is a wider distance to cover, and the lip stitch to avoid as punctures are made on either side of it to guide the needle through. What dangers! The seam needs to be stitched just right, for it is what assists the bowlers and helps them grip the ball (bowlers, a notoriously finicky lot, may not see the difference but will feel it). Here a thicker thread - twisted and coated with animal fat for strength - is used.
Bowlers have realised, to their delight, that lately the seams on SG balls are more pronounced. The main ball inspector at SG, Mr Khan, confirmed that they were indeed using a slightly thicker string, and said that if the seam was any more prominent, "it would be a bowler's wicket every time. So we try to keep a balance. A quality bowler will be able to do things with it."
Not just balls are made at SG, larger decisions about them are as well. How much a Test ball bounces - as long as it is within international standards - could, for instance, be determined by a casual chat, followed by some rigorous testing at first-class level. But once standards are set, they are adhered to strictly.
That is why balls are checked exhaustively at every stage within the factory by a mistry, the man in charge. A minor element out of place could change the way a ball behaves. The ones that are perfect pass inspection and reach Test level. The rest, like players who are good but not good enough, are relegated to first-class and below. Though balls are categorised at every stage, they go through the harshest test of all right at the end, after the name is stamped on and lacquer applied, when Mr Khan has one final look at them.
What does he look for? "Look at the quarter-stitch on this one, where two quarters are joined," Mr Khan said as he held a ball over three boxes. I saw nothing. "There are tiny indents. You see?" he asked. He dropped it into the middle box, saying it was for first-class cricket. A scratch here? Same box. Nothing? It went in the box marked 'Tests'. A level of scrutiny this intense means the number of Test-quality balls is bound to be low. Only between 49 and 56 of the 500 to 600-odd leather balls in each batch are of Test level. Once again, it all comes down to the animals on the farm. At the same time, the demand for leather has increased. This is why ball prices have rocketed. In 1992, a Test ball cost Rs 300. Today, if you're lucky enough to find one in a short-supplied market, it'll cost Rs 650.
There is only one way to bring down prices: through mechanisation. But as the owner of any business will tell you, effecting change by reducing labour isn't easy in India - 'My business is anything but my own,' they'll say. The government will intervene. Here, at SG, change is coming slowly. They are aware of the urgency needed. India and China have been mending fences of late, and the ICC recently acknowledged that penetrating the Chinese market was vital for cricket's expansion.
China would make cheaper cricket balls more efficiently, Paras sighed, but added that plans for further expansion were afoot. The company, a beacon for people all over Meerut - itself now a ray of light in Uttar Pradesh, where migrants run an electrical store one day and a hair saloon the next - was doing what its balls made batsmen do: survive, adapt, grow and overcome.
Rahul Bhatia is staff writer of Wisden Asia Cricket