A look at the journey of a cricket ball
Gone are the days of blissful commentary, one that would paint a comprehensive picture with unpretentious, almost curt words and leave enough silence to soak in the beauty of the game. Gone are the days of delicate personalization where the commentator would refer to the cricket ball as an enigmatic female who could stroll elegantly through the covers or rattle the stumps with scornful vengeance.
Why, I ask myself, would a meagre spherical object tossed around by all and sundry and beaten out of its skin by the mighty willow be honoured like a lady? Is it simply the superficial concept of poetic liberty entrusted upon himself by the narrator? Or is it the extensive trials and tribulations, the grueling ordeals that a ball has to go through – much like a woman in her life – before earning the certificate of appropriateness for a cricket match?
Having ransacked the internet, I was amused to find hardly any documented details about the life and times of a cricket ball. Apart from a Wikipedia page here and an anonymous article there, which I considered incomplete by their own standard, the cricket ball has mostly lived a life in as much obscurity as public apathy.
The story, I believe, needs to be told; the journey deserves to be scripted.
The day begins for woodcutters at the first stroke of sunlight. The rest of the morning would be spent in monotonous chopping of bark, pausing only for a brief moment or two to rejuvenate their tired muscles. The wood, then, would be piled up in trucks and shipped to their desired destinations.
At the ball manufacturing factory, each arrival would entail a series of proceedings by skilled craftsmen ultimately leading to the extraction of cork. Cork, ladies and gentlemen, is the sole essence of a cricket ball, regardless of whatever the outer leather may prompt you to believe.
In order to appreciate a cricket ball, one needs to understand a few basic characteristics of cork. A crude example of cork being used in daily life may be traced to the stoppers for wine bottles. The elasticity of cork, coupled with its singular attribute of being impervious, is perhaps what makes it an essential commercial element.
Again, this elastic property of cork is well-manifested in the bounce of cricket balls. But then, cork is not stuffed grotesquely into them just for the sake of it. The meticulousness and hours of diligent labour that go into assembling of a ball – in brief, the kind of delicate handling that a cricket ball demands, preserves the initial analogy of that of a lady desiring chivalrous treatment.
The details of the making
The cork is carefully cut into strips and wound tightly by strings so as to hold them together. This gives the ball the primary spherical shape. The initial leather case, that forms the second layer inside outwards, now covers the cork strips. The final outer covering of hard leather is cut into four pieces and sewn assiduously giving origin to what is known as seam. Fixing glues are also added to keep them intact.
A keener look at the seam would suggest a total of 6 stitches around the equator, 3 on either half but so close together that they could be perceived as a single, elevated rough circumference of some breadth. Molding the leather into a uniform sphere is of paramount importance, and this is ensured by putting each section into a vice that carves out a perfect hemisphere.
The final touch lay in dying the leather and stamping the maker’s name on it before enveloping it in multiple coats of polish. The much-talked-about shine of the cricket ball is thus born.
Although the factories in Kent, England, earlier held the monopoly of employing efficient labour in the manufacturing of cricket balls, the ever-increasing demand of supplies and equally escalating labour prices propelled them to cut down production costs by involving cheap labour from the subcontinent. Soon, Jalandhar in India and Sialkot in Pakistan emerged as prominent centers, with a majority of balls used in club cricket owing their origins to these two places.
The red, white and pink
Although their willow counterparts in the game have undergone severe modifications in the recent past, cricket balls have essentially remained the same throughout centuries, the subtle differences being the colour of the leather and the manufacturing companies.
Before delving into the intricacies of the red and white ball and the subtle differences between them, let me take a quick tour of their pink sibling which came into vogue in 2009-10 when occasional first-class games in the West Indies were played under lights with pink balls. The likes of Michael di Venuto and Morne van Wyk have scored centuries under lights with the pink ball and have testified to the fact that it was ‘easy to pick up.’
But then, the pink ball is only a recent development. Yes, yellow and orange balls were used briefly in the 1990s with disconcerting results, but the colours that have stood the test of time are red and white. While the red remains as old as the game itself, the white ball was first used in the late 1970s when day-night matches were introduced in World Series Cricket resulting from the difficulty of following the trajectory of the red ball under floodlights.
Is there any difference in their behavior?
In spite of regular claims by cricketers from around the world that the white ball tends to swing a lot more than the red cherry, Stuart Waterton, brand manager of Kookaburra Sport UK continues to maintain that ‘a great deal of effort and emphasis is placed on ensuring that the performance and characteristics of both the balls are the same’, the sole dissimilarity being the colour of the leather.
Indeed, experts believe that the geometrical specifications of both Kookaburra balls are essentially the same which would imply similar aerodynamic performances regardless of the extra polyurethane coating on the white ball that prevents it from getting dirty too early in the innings. They are, therefore, inclined to attribute such claims to visual impression and perceptive judgment rather than achieved quality of smoothness.
That said, the notion of white balls having a glassy consistency compared to the red cherry’s leathery texture and hence, an extra fraction of smoothness is so widespread among cricketers that it is of no secret that spinners, who can find it difficult to grip the shiny sphere, are less keener on using a new white ball than their pace counterparts for whom swing and control hold the key to success.
The Kookaburra, Dukes and SG
The explanation to swing and seam lies more in the manufacturing factories of different countries. The ball market is single-handedly dominated by the Big Three not unlike the administration body of the sport. While the Kookaburra is the most famous company based in Australia supplying white balls for ODIs and T20Is regardless of the teams involved, in addition to red ones for Tests played Down Under, the Dukes supplies Test balls for matches in England and Meerut-based Sanspareils Greenlands (better known as SG) contribute to Test balls in India.
Two points that characteristically separate the three kinds are – one, the Dukes and the SG are typically the outcomes of manual labour unlike the Kookaburra which is machine-made and two, the Kookaburra has a relatively less conspicuous seam than the other two.
Further, the Kookaburra and the SG are used on sun-battered, hardened tracks and thus more prone to wear and tear while the Dukes continue to maintain their shine for long, courtesy the lacquer on the ball and the lush, soft outfields as sustained by the English rain gods.
These three balls, however, exhibit one aspect of very curious interest – the seam. The machine-manufactured Kookaburra boasts of smooth quarter seams that help it to attain greater lateral deviations in the first 10-20 overs as a two-piece ball would. The surface, however, soon yields to abrasion and reverse swing enters the scene once the fielders begin to salivate on one particular surface, leaving the other as it is.
The Dukes and the SG are, however, hand-made (and it is of no exaggeration to state that it takes 75 days to produce a Test ball in India) and therefore, demonstrate more pronounced seams. Caressing the surface would suggest rough quarter seams with the implication of better flow asymmetry and consequently, better lateral movement. Unsurprisingly, this is evident from the fact that the Dukes continue to swing for a longer time than the conventional Kookaburra in Test cricket.
The rewards of deference
The nuances of the cricket ball may not kindle the attention of everyone alike, but it promises as much mystery for the aerodynamics enthusiast as it does for the keen bowler, albeit on variable planes of romanticism. The rewards of holding this beautiful, feminine entity in absolute reverence are plenty, and the alternative, as every cricketer would know, unforgiving.
Hell, as they say, hath no fury like a woman scorned.