Arise Sir Dukes: Why England’s Ashes Winners Owe Credit To Ball Makers | Mike Selvey
Over recent years it has become as much a part of the precursor to a Test match as the toss. Jimmy Anderson will choose the balls with which England will bowl, this one first, this should they need another. They sit there nestled in a box, half a dozen of them, gleaming gold lettering showing the royal crest, the name Duke and Son, the Special County mark and the A grade letter: the leather is red and glistening like a new-fallen conker.
Anderson will survey them and, just by eye, reject some. Cricketers refer to the ball as “the cherry” but that is an all-embracing term. Just as a cherry can vary in appearance from the vivid fire-engine crimson of the Stella to the dark red Morello, so with the Dukes ball. Anderson will survey the box, looking for the Morello.
Swing bowlers believe that the dark ball will swing more readily than the light ones, and if there is no great evidence to show that this is the case, the mind plays a part: it just feels better. There would seem to be no reason either why one ball should differ so significantly from another.
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The dye that Dukes uses is consistent and the leather of the same kind. However, there will be a variation in the hide used, and it would appear that some will take the dye better than others, absorb more, and so darken in colour. And, when the thin layer of lacquer wears off the new ball after half a dozen overs or so and the polishers in the team (this was once the domain of the bowler but no longer, it seems) get to work on it, it is this characteristic that helps them buff the ball up to a mirror shine on one side. Put simply, the darker ball polishes better.
Now he will take the chosen balls from the box and feel them in his hand, two fingers on top, thumb underneath, delicately, as he does when he bowls: Anderson is a caresser of the ball. He wants to see how it sits in his hand. A top-flight bowler such as he can detect the minute differences that others may not, just as a batsman is particular about the weight, balance and pick-up of a bat. The Dukes cricket balls are hand-stitched and all conform as near as possible to a general standard size and weight but there are tolerances so that the size can vary in circumference by up to 5mm, and the weight by three grammes: so occasionally one just feels a little smaller and lighter than the others.The Dukes ball can vary in colour and appearance but is something seam bowlers inspect carefully. Photograph: Matthew Impey/Rex Shutterstock
He will look at the seam, the half a dozen lines of stitching that run round the equator of the ball. Over the years, various trials have been made in England either to increase or reduce the effectiveness to bowlers of this stitching. For one season, the seam was flattened by reducing the number of strands within the thread and the outcome was some astronomical scoring in the County Championship. Another summer saw the reverse, with strands increased, and the thread wound so tight and hard that the balls might have been stitched with piano wire, so that they were known to lacerate the hands of unfortunate slip fielders. That year, the bowlers had their revenge. There is middle ground now, but even so Anderson will be looking to see if the stitching is unusually proud of the surface. Only when he has weighed up these variables will he make his choice.
The Dukes cricket ball has played no small part in England winning the Ashes at home four times in a row now, the thought of it inducing something approaching paranoia among the opposition to the extent that it has almost attained a mythical status as some sort of secret weapon. The problem for Australian batsmen, though, lies not so much in the ball used in England as that which they are used to facing elsewhere. Australians use the Kookaburra, as do all the Test match nations aside from England and West Indies (who use a specially developed version of the Dukes suitable for more abrasive pitches) and India, where the SG ball dominates.
The Kookaburra is an inferior ball, which goes soft very quickly (maybe 15 to 20 overs), swells, and has a machine-stitched seam, but it has managed to dominate the market. Batsmen tend to prosper against such a ball, which does not offer the lateral movement, in the air and off the pitch, that can be obtained with the Dukes. So ingrained techniques cannot cope when they encounter something trickier with the ball dipping and darting like summer swallows.
There is less excuse for the Australian bowlers, who have simply failed to bowl the right lengths or lines consistently. Such, though, has been the level of concern about the capacity to cope with the Dukes that the former captain Ricky Ponting will recommend to Cricket Australia that the Dukes ball should be adopted in first-class cricket in that country; given that Ponting used Kookaburra bats for much of his brilliant career that is some call.
For now, though, England will continue to try to exploit this extra advantage that they seem to have. And when the series is finally done and dusted, and the replica urn handed over to Alastair Cook so that the team can celebrate a job well done, they might spare a thought for this instrument of Australia’s destruction. There may not be the euphoria that accompanied the 2005 success, with open-top buses, thousands thronging the streets, a Trafalgar Square celebration, Downing Street reception, and gongs handed out to all and sundry. But maybe there should be some recognition of the part played by the manufacturer, who first started producing cricket balls in Tonbridge in Kent in 1760. How about something from Stevie Wonder’s seminal 1976 album Songs in The Key of Life: Sir Duke?