342, 481, 314. These numbers, racked up by England in the last three One-Day Internationals (ODIs) against Australia, have triggered a discussion about two other numbers: 500, and 2. 500 is being spoken of as the new final frontier; after all, there have already been 19 400+ scores in ODIs, eight of which have come in the last three years. But what is worrying pundits and players more is the number that may be allowing us to dream of 500: the number 2. Specifically, two new balls.
They say that if you win the toss in England, you look up, then look down, and then decide what to do. Neither direction has brought any joy for the bowlers. A refulgent start to the summer, both in terms of weather and cricket, and bare pitches that seem to have more cement than soil, have led to a glut of runs in limited-overs cricket, starting with Scotland’s historic win over the hosts. It is the kind of cricket that is entertaining if you are browsing through channels on the TV: there is always something happening. But if you observe the game a bit more closely, you may worry.
What exactly you should be worrying about is less clear. Two new balls have been used every innings in men’s ODIs since 2011, so the uproar against them may have to pay a fine for turning up late. At the centre of the debate, is the white Kookaburra. Sachin Tendulkar set the proverbial ball rolling with a tweet bemoaning the absence of reverse swing.
Having 2 new balls in one day cricket is a perfect recipe for disaster as each ball is not given the time to get old enough to reverse. We haven’t seen reverse swing, an integral part of the death overs, for a long time. #ENGvsAUS
— Sachin Tendulkar (@sachin_rt) June 21, 2018
Let’s take a closer look at the white Kookaburra ball. If you need a refresher on reverse swing and the two new balls rule, read the next section. But if you know your dark arts, skip ahead to read more about why the Kookaburra is under fire.
Jog my memory please
Reverse swing: In short, reverse swing appears when there is a considerable difference between the two sides of the ball. This is usually achieved by shining one side, and allowing the other to naturally deteriorate. The difference in texture creates a difference in air pressure on both sides when the ball is bowled seam up, and the ball moves in the direction of the shiny side.
A brief history of the white ball: A single white ball was used in ODIs from the mid-nineties to 2010. If manipulated well, this ball would reverse in the later stages of the game, keeping the bowlers in the game. But it also got soft and discoloured, becoming hard to see and hit — especially under lights — and often needed to be replaced. From 2010, the ICC made the replacement of the ball at the 35th over compulsory. This meant that teams had to work on the ball from scratch to get any reverse swing in the last few overs. Since 2011, the ICC introduced two new balls from each end, making reverse swing practically impossible.
Why won’t the white ball reverse?
You might ask this if you have seen a red ball reverse fairly early. If the conditions are right and the entire team works on the ball, we see reverse swing in Test matches as early as overs 20 to 30. So why doesn’t the white Kookaburra start moving around the 40th over of an ODI, when both balls are about 20 overs old?
One of the reasons is that white balls like the white Kookaburra Turf (used in all limited-overs internationals) have an extra layer of lacquer on them, unlike the red SG Test. Think of this as the options you get while choosing car upholstery: a matte finish or a glossy finish. The lacquer is put on to help the ball retain its colour for longer, as is done with the pink ball. This extra layer of lacquer takes a bit longer to wear off, and is one of the reasons why the white ball does not deteriorate fast enough for reverse swing to be seen.
Why do some cricketers (me included) dislike the white Kookaburra?
You may have heard calls for the Kookaburra ball to be replaced by the Dukes or the SG. But what is it about the white Kookaburra that causes blood vessels to pop in heads?
For starters, its seam seems to disappear around the 10 overs mark, which is around the same time it stops swinging. A typical white Kookaburra Turf has four lines (two on each side) of about 80 stitches in its seam, similar to the red SG Test. But while the Test’s seams are stitched very close to each other, the Kookaburra’s seams are a fraction more spread out on each side. So the Kookaburra Turf’s seam feels flatter, and because the stitching has a bit more wriggling space, it readily gets beaten into the leather upon impact. The closer-stitched seam gives the red SG Test a taller, prouder feel in the hand; it is also known to seam off the wicket more and take more time to wear down.
The Kookaburra Turf also has a slightly broader lip. The lip is the central line along which the ball is stitched together, holding the four leather pieces in place around the cork. Once the seam flattens out, the lip becomes the tallest part of the white Kookaburra Turf, which does not make for a good grip, especially for fast bowlers. The red and white SG Test have a thinner and flatter lip.
There are differences between these two SG balls as well though. The white SG Test is seen as less bowler-friendly than its red cousin, so a simple switch of the Turf for the Test in international cricket may not solve the problem.
Do two new balls actually help bowlers?
In theory, two new balls mean that conventional swing will be available for longer. However, swing depends on factors such as moisture in the air and the pace and type of the bowler, and to some extent, the condition of the pitch. In the absence of these conditions, two new balls actually make life easier for the batsmen, especially at the end of the innings. The ball is only 25 overs old and its hardness gives the willow-weilders full value for shots. End result: for this series in England, the ball has been threatening the window panes of buildings outside the grounds more than the stumps.
Are two new balls the singular reason why we are seeing scores inching towards 500 in England? Certainly not. Perhaps the biggest change is the mindset of the English batting unit since 2015. And in order to give that mindset the best stage for expression, pitches with little for the bowlers are becoming more common there, especially when the weather permits. As this report pointed out, ODI teams have scored heavily in England in the past three years. And England themselves own three of the eight recent 400+ scores.
It also helps that Australia’s bowling attack is without their top three fast bowlers, and that their spin attack is about as menacing as a Labrador puppy in a soft toy shop. England, like India, have figured out that spin, especially wrist spin, plays a big role in countering such batting-friendly conditions. Adil Rashid (11 wickets) and Moeen Ali (eight) top the wicket-taking charts in the series.
So there is no one problem, and there is no quick solution. Every other piece of cricket equipment, especially the bat, has evolved considerably in the last decade. But the white ball has been left behind. Can the ICC commission research into possible solutions, like raising the height of the seam? Will we see balls from different companies used, like Dukes, whose ball also has a prouder seam than the Kookaburra?
In 1920, baseball in America changed forever when new rules were introduced, including changing the ball at the slightest sign of wear. This meant no more soft, unhittable balls, and no more swerving spitballs. Scoring rates soared thereafter, marking the end of what was called the ‘Dead Ball Era’. Cricket faces a similar, if inverse, fork in the road, and it will be interesting to see if the next World Cup cycle brings more experimentation. But don’t hold your breath; cricket is a batsman’s game, and turkeys don’t usually vote for Christmas.