Wicket to Wicket

Treating the ball

Earlier posts: Intro , 1 , 2 .

Earlier posts: Intro, 1, 2.
I was interested in all of the feedback to my original article: thank you! On reflection I felt it necessary to qualify some of my statements, and indeed to respond to those who mentioned the type of ball involved! The ball story is close to my heart: amazingly the cricket ball over the years has virtually remained the same in manufacture and content, with only minor changes.
Historically it was for many years a cottage industry plied by excellent craftsmen maintaining a very high skill level; this is all but finished now. There were two main ball manufacturers in the UK in the 1970s: Tonbridge Sports Industries, based at Chiddingstone causeway near Penshurst, and Readers of Teston. Both factories operated in the heart of Kent cricket, and the balls were all hand-made. As the demand for cricket balls increased, coupled with spiraling labour costs, both companies started sourcing the subcontinent, where the labour was cheaper and more intensive, vastly reducing the price of the balls. Jalandhar in India and Sialkot in Pakistan today produce 98% of all balls used in club cricket, and even Kookaburra have a factory in the subcontinent. In addition sports shops and mail-order companies have their own balls, and prices to the consumers are much cheaper.
However the first-class ball remains the best ball and, apart from the Kookaburra ball, is still hand-made, at least stitched. The core of the ball is now very different from the cork square; while cork is still used it now forms a rounded shape and in some cases is mixed with a rubber compound. (I wonder if this change has led to the ball behaving differently.) Quite often, after the ball has pitched it swings violently as it passes the stumps towards the keeper. This happens a lot more than it used to!
The Australians were first to use the machine-made balls, moving away from the costly product of hand finishing. Most companies have the same facility now for their cheaper or artificial ball ranges.
The quality of leather used to make a good ball is a key factor. Most Southern Hemisphere leather is too dry because of the heat and cracks too quickly while Northern Hemisphere hide is much easier to work with. Top-quality cricket balls are made from the best-quality cow hide.
The centre of a cricket ball for years was a square piece of cork which the craftsman used to wind special cotton until it was round. The outside of the ball was made with four pieces of leather, and stitched by hand. The craftsman's fingers have to be deft and strong. The whole process is worth going to watch if you get the opportunity.
At international level there are three basic balls used. In the UK the Duke ball, in Australia, West Indies, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, South Africa, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe and New Zealand the Kookaburra, and in India the SG ball.
Naturally the manufacturers are all trying to get as much of the market as possible, and there are also numerous other manufacturers who are trying to get into the market. Most coaches and boards are approached regularly to consider using the balls supplied.
There is either a general ignorance about how to test a ball, or people are not bothered and they enjoy the ball that they are using. It is difficult for a new compnay to get into the market, with the prestige that goes with it. Most balls get tested and lost, so the top manufacturers continue to hold sway when it comes to the Test match and one-day market. In fact, the Kookaburra has the whole one-day international market.
This is only a brief history of the cricket ball and I reckon the battle for the Test cricket ball would make an interesting story. Some of the domestic battles too would make interesting reading. Take away the political side, though, as it is important to understand what affect a ball has on the game
• The Duke & SG balls are both handmade while the Kookaburra is machine-made.
• The subtle differences are the treatment of the leather surfaces and the height and quality of the seam.
• The Kookaburra is generally redder in colour and swings from the word go, and for the first 30 overs is quite difficult to play against on a helpful surface
• The Duke is a much darker red (enjoyed by the bowlers), does not swing from the start but as the lacquer used on the ball wears off, it swings conventionally.
• Please note that in the Duke ball in the subcontinent and Africa the external surfaces wear away very quickly and therefore it does not last long in the harder rougher conditions.
• The SG ball is redder in colour and almost identical to the Duke but hardly swings at all. Contrary to the words of many commentators, the SG ball is not easy to reverse swing and it offers no greater reverse than the Kookaburra balls.
• The Kookaburra keeps its shine longer but starts to soften after 35-40 overs and batting becomes a lot easier as it seems to get softer and loses the seam. Reverse swing is less than the Duke ball.
• This is only in the UK because, as I said earlier, the Duke ball cannot survive subcontinent conditions because of the way the leather is treated.
• SG retains its seam but can become fat in the hand. The spin bowler can get the grip and purchase he needs from the seam and therefore in India where the pitches turn predominantly they are preferred.
• The Duke ball is excellent for English conditions. Tt starts to shine up after the initial lacquer has worn off. In the swifter conditions it swings and the larger seams are needed for the slower conditions. It also reverses well as Simon Jones showed during the Ashes series in 2005.
Generally, and it is reflected by the countries using the balls, they reflect the bowlers requests. The bowlers prefer to use the Kookaburra which swings although every spinner will tell you he likes to grip the SG ball. In the UK the Duke ball is favourite.
In general the International and county players prefer a ball that feels small in the hand, not too heavy, and darker in colour. There are, of course, regulations already about size and weight.
Probably the major issue throughout cricket is the shape of the ball and how the shape is retained. Many inferior balls go out of shape very quickly: these can be found two-a-penny in club cricket throughout the world. These balls are usually cheap, have substandard centres and tend to feel very hard on the bat and have been known to break bats. They are generally made in the subcontinent and fulfill the budgetary needs of the cricket clubs.
The cost of an international-class cricket ball is far too expensive for the average club. You can pay 10 times more for a top quality ball than a cheap club ball, hence the battle for position.
I believe that there is a need to standardize the cricket ball and by using technology make sure that:
a) The ball will not go out of shape. The centre of the ball should be standardised so that the bounce is consistent (on a concrete surface – bounce cannot be consistent on an uneven pitch
b) The leather should be treated as the Kookaburra ball is and last longer in all conditions.
c) The seam should be made of a standardised thread and be as tough as possible to a given height, and all balls should conform to these parameters.
I also believe that, in order to prevent tampering with the ball, the bowlers should be allowed to rough the ball in the batsman’s footholds (as they used to be in the 60’s), under supervision, to allow reverse swing. At least then it would be legalised.
Manufacturers might baulk at the cost of providing the technology for this to happen but in the end the game would be far better for it.