A new formula to add polish to matches
“New ball bowlers will look forward to bowling with this,” grinned Stuart Broad, just after zipping one past his best mate Luke Wright’s outside edge in a live demonstration on Sky last Friday. Broad was referring to is the pink Dukes ball, which he will use at Edgbaston when England play West Indies in a day-night Test in August, and in nine Championship games from Monday.
These rather lovely little pink things are made at the endearingly ramshackle warehouse that is Dukes’ north-east London home, and Dilip Jadojia, the company’s boss, is explaining the process to the Spin. It is a den of organised chaos and mastercraftmanship in which he estimates there are 120,000 balls. Everything is done by hand, from the milling and polishing of the balls to the notes and labelling, before they are distributed across the cricketing globe. Jadojia has a box he carries around containing the component parts of a Dukes that he explains to anyone who will listen, and another with a century-old Dukes to show how well they age. He says his white ball would end the need for a ball from each end in ODIs and reckons the England and Wales Cricket Board should use his orange ball for its new T20 tournament from 2020. He is most bullish regarding these pink balls, however.
His confidence comes with good reason. It took 18 months to develop, with plenty of trial and error over the colour; the seam is black (it’s the same thread as a red ball, only dyed) and they have developed a new formula for the polish so the colour holds. Last August it handsomely outperformed its Kookaburra counterpart – in terms of behaviour and condition (both colour and shape) – in a second XI match between Warwickshire and Worcestershire at Edgbaston last August.
In Abu Dhabi in March, it produced a brilliant, bowler-friendly (but not dominated) match between Middlesex and MCC, containing two scores of 300 (including a successful chase), but also two below 200; a hat-trick for a seamer and a four-fer for a leg-spinner; eight ducks and seven scoreless partnerships, but runs, too, both stylish and grafted – batsmen reached 40 11 times. Wickets fell in clusters, particularly as the sun went down, but batting was a serene enough exercise in the afternoon and once darkness had fully fallen. The in-between stage was more problematic, with visibility trickier from high in the stands, and the ball talking. The game became something of a meeting of minds, with a delegation from Edgbaston, including the groundsman, Gary Barwell, looking to learn as much as possible.
Grumbles were largely absent from those taking part, although the bowlers, not fully briefed on what exactly they were using, thought it felt painted, not dyed, like a red ball (they were wrong – only that polish is different) and, like Broad, felt the seam more pronounced. Generally the playing body understand why this is happening: the ECB’s head of cricket operations (the fixtures guru), Alan Fordham, says there has been no bite back at all. “Even two or three years ago,” he says, “there would have been much more reluctance to take such a step.”
A fine example is Gary Ballance, Yorkshire’s colourblind captain. He has been working with Yorkshire’s club optician (a wonderful concept) to develop lenses that allow him to play. He will take part but has not finalised whether with his natty specs or not; as a man right in the frame for an England recall, he would be mad to sit out. It is not only the Edgbaston Test and the Adelaide Ashes game – England’s first Test in New Zealand next March, at Eden Park, is set to be played under lights, too.
The nine Championship games presents the ball’s greatest challenge yet, given the variety of conditions it will encounter; Jadojia is certain that pitches need not be made to order, like they were for the first day-night Test in Adelaide in November 2015, when a healthy layer of grass was left on and the game was over in three days.
Scheduling the round was tricky for Fordham because only 10 grounds were available, with floodlight restrictions and global event commitments; the available venue that missed out was The Oval, which feels an opportunity missed, given the ground’s ability to draw casual cricket fans by morphing into south London’s biggest beer garden. That said, the hope is that this will be such a boon for the Championship that a round will happen every year, whether England have a home day-night Test or not (with India and Pakistan the opponents in 2018, for timezone and broadcast reasons, a day-nighter is unlikely).
Some counties, needless to say, are doing better at promoting and pricing these games then others. Some, like Glamorgan, are pricing it per session, while others, such as Yorkshire, Sussex and Essex, have a price for the final two sessions, to target the 5pm crowd. At Edgbaston and Northampton, the final session is free but that’s the case for any Championship game at those grounds. There are some interesting things going on, such as the Warwickshire League’s top two divisions using the pink ball this Saturday to get into the spirit. Overall, though, it does not feel like a neat opportunity to innovate in marketing method and pricepoint has been seized. Perhaps the ECB will wish it had taken charge a touch more.
The sense is that day-night long-form cricket will come to play very different roles in different parts of the world. In England, the climate, the length of summer days, and the fact that Tests are already relatively well-attended make them a luxury but it feels right to learn whether long-form cricket can work later in the day and draw better crowds full of new fans (Warwickshire say 45% of buyers for August’s Test have never been to a Test at Edgbaston before). Certainly in high summer, the problems encountered at twilight elsewhere are barely a concern: sunset in Birmingham is not until 9.35pm on Monday, which is around the scheduled close of play, whereas it was around 6.30 in Abu Dhabi, when dusk was a major player.
Even with the ball ready, there are enough unanswered questions – both cricketing (dew? Reverse? Visibility? Temperature?) and administratively (is anyone watching?) – that, like Broad, it seems worth just sitting back, looking to learn, and enjoying the sense of a step into the dark (well, twilight).
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