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Cricket balls
Q2 2018

What affects a cricket ball?

The way a cricket ball is put together and handled during the game by the players all play a role in how the ball acts during play

A cricket ball is a relatively inexpensive item of sporting equipment compared to a bat, but it is one that can have a huge impact on the game.

Television commentators, who picked up the ball tampering during the Australia and South Africa cricket test match earlier the year, commented that the ball wasn’t acting as it should, even before it was confirmed that the ball had been tampered with. They were commenting about what they considered excessive reverse swing.

The tampering scandal reminded one how sensitive the ball can be, and that the smallest change to its surface can make a big impact on how it performs. This is because it will change the aerodynamics of the ball, how it moves through the air, and therefore its flight.

At the start of the game both sides of a cricket ball are smooth and shiny so that the air travels at the same speed around the ball and keeps the ball straight on its path. The Kookaburra ball used in test cricket in South Africa, can swing conventionally from the start.

In a test each innings will see a new ball, and one day internationals (ODIs) start with two new balls — one from each end. As the game progresses the ball naturally gets scuffed and roughened as result of impact with the bat, ground, etc.

The fielding team will keep one side of the ball smoother and shinier than the other and allow the other side to remain scuffed.

This is to enhance the swing of the ball. The shiny, smooth, side offers very little wind resistance while travelling through the air, but air will grip to the rough areas and cause the ball to fly in a curved projectory.

Additionally, applying a lot of saliva or sweat to one side will weigh it down more than the other, which will also have an effect.

Players can polish the ball on their kit or towels and apply saliva to the ball, but may not use artificial or foreign substances, for example saliva sweetened by something like mints (it’s believed this creates a better shine), lip balm, rub the ball on the ground, scuff it with a fingernail or sharp object, pick at the seam, etc. — anything that will alter the ball in an unnatural way is not permitted.

Swing bowling

Conventional swing is achieved by bowling the ball so that it lands on the seam at an angle to the flight, which will make it swing out. With Reverse swing the ball will swing inwards on an outswinging delivery, and vice versa, when bowled at pace. The ball moves unexpectedly and the batsman has very little time to make a judgement on how to play.

Reverse swing can be achieved naturally when the ball gets older and has more signs of wear on one side, usually around 40 or 50 overs’ use. In the third test in Cape Town the Australians were achieving this reverse swing after ± 26 overs, which tipped off commentators and cameramen that there might have been some interference with the ball surface.

The fielding side might also attempt to illegally pick at or lift the ball’s seam, which will exaggerate the ball’s bounce. In general, the thicker the seam, the more movement a bowler might get from the ball.

Time on pitch

In a test, the fielding side may ask for a new ball once 80 or more overs have been bowled with the same ball. If a ball needs to be replaced for other reasons (e.g. it has become damaged), the umpires may replace the ball with one that has had comparable wear.

Their test cricket balls are designed to last for 80 overs, says Shannon Gill from Kookaburra in Australia (Kookaburra is locally distributed by JRT Crampton). “This is a part of the fabric of cricket. The ball is supposed to deteriorate as time goes on and Kookaburra is loath to mess with this essential aspect of the game.”

There has to be some sort of gradual deterioration over a day’s play, and it’s how the deterioration is achieved that shows the skill of the product, says Dilip Jajodia of British Cricket Balls Limited, manufacturer of Dukes balls, which is locally distributed by Opal Sports.

Deterioration should not be to such an extent that the ball has to be replaced prematurely.

How the ball is made

Using a top quality leather is the first crucial step to making a quality ball, and manufacturers will look for any imperfections or blemishes before selecting one.

Dukes cuts the leather into strips and uses the inside strips for test balls, because the strongest part of the leather is on the back.

The leather hemispheres can each either be made from one circle or two pieces that are stitched together with an inside seam, leaving it barely noticeable on the outside. A ball made from four pieces (two on each hemisphere) is a higher quality, but it’s also more expensive.

Inside the leather cups is a core of cork, which is tightly wound in layers with string (and sometimes additional layers of cork) to create a round shape. Kookaburra, for example, uses five layers of cork and worsted yarn over the cork core, which helps control the consistency and performance of the ball by controlling its hardness and by ensuring that the ball’s bounce will be even and consistent over the duration of the cricket match.

There are six rows of stitching. The seam, the middle two rows, holds the ball together.

On a machine-stitched ball, this is the only stitching that holds the ball together (the rest is decoration). On a handmade ball, the outer two rows are hand-stitched, going backwards and forwards underneath the seam. By going through both sides it adds extra strength and tension, which hold the ball together tighter and keep the shape better.

It takes about three and a half hours to make one of their balls, of which the hand-stitching itself takes over an hour, says Jajodia. After the stitching, the ball has to be pushed back into shape.

Each ball is weighed, put through rings to make sure that the size is correct, and are put through a bounce test.

The stamp is then heat-sealed onto the ball, and the ball put through the milling process for final shaping to gain the perfect shape.

After these steps, the ball is put through lamping for a good look and so that it also performs well during the game: it spreads the grease that is in the leather evenly over the ball by rubbing it in and heating it up.

The final step is to polish the ball.

There is a greater risk of the seam splitting with machine stitching because there is less control in the machine manufacturing process. There is, for example, a chance that the thread might get damaged, which can make the seam split.

Hand-stitching avoids destroying the thread. “That is why our balls don’t open,” adds Jajodia.

“Kookaburra balls used in international cricket have a hand stitched closing seam (the seam that holds the ball together), but a definitive view on what kind of stitching is more conducive to swing is unclear,” says Gill.

“Many claim that hand-stitching makes a ball swing more, but, for those involved in grade and first class cricket in Australia, it’s generally accepted that machine-stitched balls used below first-class levels can swing more than their hand-stitched counterparts at first class level.”

Getting the colour right

The colour of the ball assists the batsman to pick out the ball against the background and players’ kits whilst it is travelling towards him.

The pink ball, used at night under floodlights, was first used in an international day-night game in 2015 between Australia and New Zealand. In addition to having to find the right colour, the stitching on the new ball also had to be right because players pick up the stitches and the seam — green, as used on the white ball, is also the seam colour for the pink.

Red is the only colour that permeates the leather enough to remain red throughout play, so the pink needs to have a special coating to maintain the colour. In turn, this coating also keeps the ball shiny for longer.

“We managed to dye through the leather in pink so that if the ball hits something it is pink underneath and it doesn’t come through white,” says Jajodia. “You can dye it pink, but you can’t make it natural, so we put a bit of pigment on top and applied polish on top of that. That is why our pink ball lasts.”

A white ball is made from naturally off-white leather, but as it wears and scratches the ball picks up the green from the grass. This is why ODIs use two new balls in each innings, one at each bowling end.

Apart from the colour process, which includes an extra layer of lacquer finishing on the pink, the three types are manufactured the same way.

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