Standardisation could be a boost favouring economies of scale in manufacturing, but when applied thoughtlessly to sport it could deprive connoisseurs the excitement and experience of flair, improvisation and class, all of which are appreciated and applauded for the sheer skill required.
Cricket is in danger of losing its true faithful if the MCC (Marylebone Cricket Club) continues with its madness of trying to standardise the game at the expense of all else.
The MCC Cricket Committee headed by former England skipper Mike Gatting met in Bengaluru a few days ago and recommended that the World Test Championship which is to come into play this July, after the World Cup in England, should be played with a standardised ball worldwide.
Currently, Dukes ball is used in England and West Indies, SG ball in India while all other countries use the Australian Kookaburra ball. The MCC committee left it to ICC to decide which ball it wanted to zero in on, but said that standardisation had to be imposed in the Test Championship.
The call though has not been universally appreciated. Master batsman Sunil Gavaskar blasted the recommendation and said that MCC was just another cricket club like Cricket Club of India or National Cricket Club, Kolkata or Chennai’s Madras Cricket Club. “Who are they to impose standardisation,” he thundered in an interview.
The champion batsman of yesteryears said that the beauty of Test cricket was that it posed a challenge in many forms, with different ball, types of pitch, atmosphere, weather conditions, etc and a cricketer’s greatness was gauged on how well he coped with these when playing away from familiar home conditions. He was baffled that anybody would rob it of this differentiator by trying to standardise one aspect of the challenge.
The SG ball is ideal for the rough outfields in India as it is made of hardier buffalo hide. Dukes, made of softer calf hide, is best suited for the soft underfoot conditions obtaining in England while Kookaburra balls are made from steer hide and served some countries well.
SG and Dukes Test balls have more pronounced, hand-stitched seams while Kookaburra balls with their depressed seam are a combination of machine and hand-stitching.
Duke manufacturers use extra coatings of lacquer right from treatment of the hide. Additionally, lamping (grease) helps to keep the ball dry in damp English conditions.
These variations in seam and manufacturing process pose challenges to batsmen and bowlers. Their ability to come to terms with is one of the key challenges to visiting Test teams.
Australia, in an effort to get their cricketers used to Dukes ball ahead of the Ashes series in England this year, introduced the brand in the second half of their first class season; i.e. after the Big Bash. The experience has rudely jolted Aussie cricket.
A few matches were unusually low-scoring affairs and finished inside three days. Surprisingly some of the cricketers who vented their ire against the ball were bowlers Nathan Lyon and Peter Siddle.
Even otherwise ICC cannot thrust a ball on international teams and expect them to perform at peak levels. That brand of ball has to be extensively used at all levels of domestic cricket first. For instance, if a Duke is to be the chosen ball, the ball must be put to test extensively in Indian conditions.
Indian players, right from club, school and junior levels would get an insight of its vagaries and nature before becoming comfortable with using it. The ball manufacturer too could do with a lot of feedback on how it performs in different conditions.
Certainly standardisation of ball was the contentious recommendation but two other suggestions deserve a look-in.
The first is an attempt to speed up the process around Test cricket and for this the game’s custodians want to borrow the ‘Shot Clock’ idea from basketball.
The grouse against Test cricket was poor over-rate. This has further deteriorated because of the introduction of DRS (Decision Review System).
The cricket committee, in an effort to boost over-rates, suggested introduction of the ‘Shot Clock’ system. In basketball the team with ball possession has to have a crack at the basket within 24 seconds or they lose ball possession.
Tennis too has introduced a 20-second rule in a few tournaments. The server has to start the process of serving within that time, with a grace of five seconds permitted by chair umpire.
Of course some have bitterly opposed it. Tennis great Rafael Nadal said that serving within 20 seconds in climatic temperatures of below 20 degrees was fine. But the same rule cannot be applied when the temperature shoots up above 30 degrees centigrade.
In cricket the proposal is to have a countdown clock in plain view. The countdown from 45 seconds would be activated at completion of an over. The next over would have to start before the clock came down to zero. The countdown would alter if a wicket fell off the last ball of an over (60 seconds) or a new bowler was introduced (80 seconds to provide for change of field placements).
Another proposal was to impose free-hit in Test cricket to make bowlers more conscious of no-balls. The cricket committee felt that incidents of no-ball had come down drastically in white-ball cricket and believed that free-hit was the deterrent. It was believed that overrates would improve with fewer no-balls.
Meanwhile, the last word has not been said on these recommendations. The belief is the ICC could accept a couple of these in the near future. If nothing it would retain the relevance of MCC as custodians of the game’s laws, Gavaskar’s rant notwithstanding.