An uthi hui (pronounced) seam, a darker shade of red and a harder core to prevent the ball from becoming soft early in the innings on Indian outfields. The official match ball used for the Test series against England will be a bit different in nature.
It will provide ‘extra bounce’ and retain its hardness till the 60th over, according to official ball suppliers Sanspareils Greenlands (SG).
The ball has been criticised in the past during Test matches in India, even by captain Virat Kolhi and off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin. Getting scuffed up early and losing hardness within the first 10 overs were some of the issues raised by the players.
“An important change is the seam. It is more pronounced now. The spinners especially wanted a seam which they can grip and thereby get more revolutions on the ball,” Paras Anand, the marketing director of SG, said.
Following feedback from Indian players, including the bowlers, the manufacturers have improved the consistency of the hand-made ball to make it as close to the finish of a machine-made product.
— BCCI (@BCCI) February 3, 2021
Give me (darker) red
The India cricketers also had a colour preference, a darker red.
SG changed the dye and ‘went back’ to the colour the players were used to when most of them first played domestic cricket.
“They (Indian cricketers) were happier with the darker shade of red. Over a period of time, you don’t realise and you don’t see the change. So, what they felt was that the colour used to be a darker shade of red. We have gone back to that dark shade. That request came from the Indian team. I feel it is more psychological. But they believed if you use a darker colour, you get a good result. Not just one bowler, a group of bowlers has said that and they felt that the darker the leather, the more helpful it is for the bowlers. Someone gives feedback and you listen. Nobody was in favour of a lighter colour,” Anand says.
Former India pacer RP Singh said there was no science to bowlers opting for a darker shade though there is a pattern. “There is a general feeling among fast bowlers that darker the ball the more it swings. There is no science to it,” he said. A prominent seam helps in gripping the ball better. “With a less prominent seam, it is tougher to swing the ball and you have to bang it harder, which means you have to strain much more.”
SG has been the official supplier for first-class cricket in India since 1993 and the feedback from cricketers has prompted them to take a closer look at their manufacturing process.
Ashwin was vocal about the change in nature of the SG ball in the past.
“When I started playing Test cricket, the SG ball used to be top notch, and you could bowl with it even after the 70th or 80th over. The seam used to be standing up strong and straight. But it is not the same anymore,” Ashwin had told the official broadcaster during the home series against West Indies in 2018.
In addition to the seam being more pronounced, the Meerut-based manufacturers have also tried to address the players’ concern about the ball getting soft early in an innings. Extra hardness in the core, which is made of cork, and close quality checks of the leather used in each batch has made the latest version long-lasting, the company says.
“Hardness will stay longer, say 50 to 60 overs. There will be something for the bowlers. The extra bounce too will help bowlers,” Anand claims.
During the home series against West Indies, Kohli had called for the Dukes ball to be used for Test cricket around the world, including in India. “To have the ball scuffed up in five overs is not something that we have seen before. The quality of the ball used to be quite high before and I don’t understand the reason why it’s gone down,” Kohli had said during that series.
He had expressed concern that the ‘soft ball’ was bringing down the impact of bowlers by 20 per cent in unforgiving Indian conditions.
‘Kaizen’, the Japanese business philosophy of constant improvement, is at the heart of the process of ball development, Anand says.
After talking to the players in 2019, SG has been fine-tuning the manufacturing process for 18 months and the latest version will be close to 100 per cent consistent in all aspects and is one “players will like”, Anand adds.
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Former India pacer Irfan Pathan noticed the evolution of the SG ball when India played South Africa at home in 2019.
“I felt the seam was a little more prominent and the ball was much harder when I was doing commentary for the India vs South Africa series. I remember in the Pune game, the way the fast bowlers were bowling, it seemed like they were not bowling with an SG ball, but with a Kookaburra ball. The ball has become of better quality and lasts longer. I think because the seam is a lot more upright, you will see the fast bowlers getting a lot of help as well,” Pathan said.
Anand talks about the strict quality control during the process of making the ball.
“Before every batch is approved for production, the hardness of core and strength of the thread which is being used for stitching is matched to specifications. We have tried to ensure variation is as minimal as possible. It is all about training the people who stitch it (seam). They are very skilled but they just had to give that little bit extra. We have ensured stringent quality checks for a batch (500 to 1,000 balls each), be it the leather, the dye, the core. Everything is checked, batch-wise. There is so much consistency, it seems like it is machine made.”