Batting for the right ball

Among the many accessories that together produce a rich tapestry of skilful encounters in cricket is its main component, the round leather ball

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What makes Indian skipper Virat Kohli publicly bat for the England-made Dukes ball, thumbing down the ‘Made in India’ SG ball? Or even the legendary Aussie spinner Shane Warne pitch for Dukes, rejecting the Australia-made Kookaburra?

The answer may well lie in the lack of standardisation of the balls globally and difficulty in adjusting to them in different conditions. The Indian experience with the SG balls at the international level is not bad if one goes by the results at home. However, there are complaints that its seam dies down after the initial few overs, the shine vanishes and the ball becomes soft, leaving the bowlers frustrated, though again it is not borne out by results and the success of the spinners.

 Batting for the right ball

Indian skipper Virat Kohli has publicly batted for the England-made Dukes ball in Tests. AP file

No other sport, perhaps, is so susceptible to manipulations from outside elements than cricket. This is a statement of fact and not to be misread as a qualitative attribute or to be seen in negative terms.
In most other sports, the weather, atmospheric conditions, the surface you play on and the equipment you use do play a role, but not as significant and a decisive one as in cricket.

It is this object, the ball, that is central to its activity along with the wooden bat. The bowler tries to use the ball to get a batsman out, whereas the batsman attempts to score runs off it. The cricket ball has been at the centre of many controversies, none more impactful than the ball tampering incident that led to the Australian Board banning its Test skipper Steve Smith and David Warner for a year from playing international cricket, while Cameron Bancroft was handed a nine-month long suspension.

BALL TAMPERING
Since the amount of swing and turn a bowler can extract from the ball depends on the quality, shape and condition of the ball, cricketers have for long sought ways and means to tamper with it in order to gain maximum advantage. From ball tampering — once being very common and almost non-punishable, to its present draconian laws to prevent this practice — the game has come a long way. Yet the controversies surrounding it never die, and the ball remains at the centre of any discussion.

The latest is which manufacturer’s ball should be used in international cricket to help improve the quality of the contest. At present, three types of cricket balls are used in international and domestic contests. India plays with home-made SG balls in longer formats and Australian-made white coloured Kookaburra balls in limited overs cricket. Most other countries play with Kookaburra balls, barring England and the West Indies, who play with Dukes balls manufactured in England.

The advent of one-day cricket deepened this complexity as a white coloured ball had to be used in day-night cricket to make it more visible to players as well as to television audiences. These white balls, unlike the SG and Dukes, are machine-made. That is not the only difference. The red leather balls are handmade and stitched in England and India. They have pronounced seams, which the machine made Kookaburra balls lack.

To make this technical jargon simpler, the hand-made and stitched red balls, especially Dukes, swing more, last longer and even the spinners relish bowling with them. The Kookaburra balls do not have a very pronounced seam and hence after the first ten-fifteen overs, they afford little purchase to the bowlers.

MADE IN INDIA?
It is very possible that the Indians had a very different experience with the Dukes balls in England, where the bowlers performed exceptionally well and feel that if they play with the same ball at home as well, they would be better prepared, to play well in England.

There is, no doubt, a need for uniformity, but it is easier said than done in a game as dependent on external conditions as cricket is. The Dukes balls may perform very differently in Indian conditions, where the wickets are more abrasive and the condition of the ball gets altered quicker than it does in England. Also, how humid weather affects the ball is unknown.

Another query is whether a foreign-made ball should be preferred over an Indian company with decades of manufacturing experience? Also to be taken into account is the price, as the SG ball costs just one fourth of what a Dukes ball costs. The shift will affect India’s domestic cricket as not all cricket played in India is sponsored by the cash-rich Indian Board.
These are questions to ponder in cricket’s near-impossible search for uniformity in as diverse and complex a sport as cricket.

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