The MCC cricket committee’s recommendation that a standardised ball be used in the world Test championship, which begins after the ICC World Cup in England, has created quite a flutter.
Indian legend Sunil Gavaskar instantly made his displeasure known, wondering why Marylebone Cricket Club was making the rules. The beauty of Test cricket, he said, was that it challenged players in many forms — with different balls, pitches, atmosphere, weather conditions, all of which varied from country to country.
Cricketers’ greatness was gauged on how well they coped with these factors when taken out of a familiar territory. If MCC succeeded in ramming through a standardised Test ball for the championships, it would rob the game of a vital differentiator, Gavaskar said.
The MCC committee, headed by former England skipper Mike Gatting, is only a recommendatory body. For a decision to be implemented worldwide, it has to be first accepted by ICC’s cricket committee and then ratified by the world body’s executive committee.
At present, Australia-made Kookaburra white balls are used in limited-overs tournaments. The same manufacturer’s pink ball is used in day-night Tests. The MCC recommendation pertains to the red ball used in Tests. Since 1991, Tests in India have been played with the SG ball. In England and West Indies the preferred ball is the Dukes, while all other Test-playing countries have settled for the Kookaburra ball.
The big question then is: Would it make a difference if one of these three balls was considered to be the standard one? The answer lies in the composition of each brand of ball and why they are the way they are. The Meerut-manufactured Sanpareils Greenlands (SG) ball is made of buffalo hide. Unlike the soft, lush green outfields of England and Australia, Indian grounds are hard, and tougher buffalo leather is favoured.
England-made Dukes use calf leather while the Australian Kookaburra depends on steer hide. Even the manufacturing process is different. Dukes sources all material — leather, cork, threads etc — from England but the hand-stitching is done in Sialkot, where expertise and cheap labour are aplenty.
Dukes, like SG, hand stitches all six rows of the seam to hold the two hemispheres together (all quality cricket balls are composed of four quarters of leather. Two-piece balls are cheaper and used only in club nets). The threading is also different in that it runs underneath the seam and bind the hemispheres a lot tighter. Dukes also lavishly greases the leather from the tanning stage to make the ball water-proof for damp English conditions. Neither Australia nor India have this issue, and hence use a lot less grease.
The quality of cork and the tight threading that make the core of the ball are as important as the leather and the seam. The seam for both Dukes and SG balls is more prominent than that of the Kookaburra.Dukes also has its own special polish, which makes the ball a darker red than SG. The excessive grease and proud seam make the Dukes a lot more conducive to swing bowling. The SG ball, thanks to the rough outfields in India, gets roughened up quicker but supports reverse swing.
While Dukes and SG balls are hand-stitched, the Kookaburra carries a combination of machine and hand stitching. Its outer seams are machine-stitched and supposedly ornamental. Its seams are flattened, thus not as helpful for swing and seam bowling. These variations in seam and manufacturing pose their own set of challenges to batsmen and bowlers. The ability to swiftly come to terms with them is a key challenge for visiting teams.
Recently, Australia introduced the Dukes in the first-class season to get players ready for the Ashes series in England. Scores were low as batsmen struggled to cope with its alarming swing. Spinner Nathan Lyon was critical of the excessive help the Dukes gave fast bowlers and hoped they would return to the Kookaburra. While the SG is the best Indian ball, recent complaints against it claimed it deteriorated from new ball to old very rapidly.
All three manufacturers have been in business for a long time and have made balls suitable to their markets.
The ICC, if it zeroes in on any one for the Test championship, would do well to try that ball at lower levels across the world before taking the big leap.
Going to the highest bidder will reduce the skill and dexterity associated with Test cricket and undermine the legacy of all-conquering greats like Gavaskar, Viv Richards, Brian Lara, Sachin Tendulkar, Javed Miandad and Ricky Ponting.
Vedam Jaishankar is a cricket journalist
Your guide to the latest cricket World Cup stories, analysis, reports, opinions, live updates and scores on https://www.firstpost.com/firstcricket/series/icc-cricket-world-cup-2019.html. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram or like our Facebook page for updates throughout the ongoing event in England and Wales.