The “Red Cherry,” as one popularly calls the cricket ball has been of the same size and dimension, ever since The Laws of Cricket were written. A famous incident concerning Sir Viv Richards, the West Indian cricket legend, comes to my mind. Len Pascoe, a fast bowler from Australia, delivered a vicious bouncer that hit the great man on his head. The bowler, seeing Richards flustered, told him its red, hard and 5 ½ ounces in size. Sir Richards, hit the next ball out of the stadium and said, “Mate, you know what it looks like, now go and fetch it”.
There are several such stories related to the leather cricket ball.It is still hand stitched and has remained exactly the same in size, weight and circumference for over two centuries. The first tinkering by the bowlers to add some spice into the ball to get some life out of it, was the use of saliva. This helped in retaining the shine and was also a good way to polish it. The bowler soon figured out that if one kept one side shining and the other rough, the old ball could also be swung, which today we popularly term as “the reverse swing”.
My earliest recollection and actual experience was in 1979 at the Oval in England. The legendary Pakistani bowler Sarfraz Nawaz, came to our Indian nets and requested if he could bowl to me. There was only an old ball available at the time and Sarfraz seemed happy with it. After a few deliveries,the ball started to swing in the air. I was happy to get some practice against him and later asked him how he managed to make the ball talk. With a sly smile and good wishes he told me that it was a “trade secret”. It took the Indian bowlers many years to fathom and then master it.
The ball has been an object for many bowlers to tamper with. Vaseline, lip gloss, hair-oil, bottle caps have all been used when rules were less stringent and television did not cover the complete spectrum of the ground and the movement of the players.
There are three main cricket ball approved brands that are being used in World cricket. The SG ball is used by India, the Duke ball by England and the West Indies, whereas, the Kookaburra ball is used by the rest of the major teams.Each one of them is manufactured differently and so they behave in a different manner. The SG ball has a higher protruding seam and therefore, in India, the spinners get more turn and purchase out of it. This is why Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja are more effective in India than overseas. This ball also helps seamers reverse swing when the ball gets old and with a plethora of good Indian seam bowlers, India has been enjoying the fruits of playing with an SG ball.
The most popular ball however, is the Kookaburra. This, like the Duke ball has a flat seam. This reduces the sharp turn and cut that one can get from the SG ball, hence a spinner from India needs to acquire different skills to adjust and adapt in order to get a batsman out. The Duke and Kookaburra ball does move in the air much more, as one could see Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Jasprit Bumrah, Ishant Sharma and Md. Shami utilising the movement admirably in the Test series against South Africa. Their performance needs to be applauded as they adjusted to the ball and the conditions exceedingly well.
The limited overs cricket format has brought in a new dimension and that is, the use of a white ball. Although the manufacturing process is identical to that of the red ball, the behaviour pattern seems to differ. The colour seems to have an impact and the ball seems to become much softer as the match goes on. Similarly, the introduction of night Test cricket has brought about the use of the pink ball. This ball seems to behave radically different under lights as compared to normal playing conditions.
In 1991 in Australia, there was an interesting experiment done with the ball during an Invitation World XI match led by Sunil Gavaskar, against an Australian side of former players. The ball used had two different colours on each side. This they said was difficult to sight, but the great South African player, Graeme Pollock, at 50+ still hit the ball effortlessly to all parts of the park.
One can conclude, that the cricket ball in any colour has no significant effect on a top performer and exemplifies the saying that “form is temporary but class is permanent”.