How times have changed today! If we talk of anything, we always compare the present with the past. That has exactly happened in cricket. For today’s generation, cricket means either an entertaining Twenty-20 or a One-Day International match. Such limited over formats always creates speculation and generate interest among youngsters today. I too, agree to this fact to some extent, but I am not sure still.
But what about Test Cricket? It is the longest form of playing cricket for over five days. Traditionally, it is played during daytime and players donning themselves in whites and holding a shiny red ball, as compared to the coloured kits and the white ball in limited overs. Who on earth has so much patience today, as they will come to know the expected result after playing for five long days. Yes, sometimes matches get over by three or four days, but that is still too much waiting for a result. And since they are generally played on daytime and on working days, therefore the crowd dwindles drastically during those days. It is of no use of watching a Test match in the middle of nowhere, if you were not following it in the stadium or on your television.
Test cricket is still a fashion amongst senior citizens and cricket lovers in countries like Australia, India and England to name a few. It has been played continuously under natural lights since 1877. The ODIs and T20s came much later. To keep a check on the reducing interest and dying of the longest format, a proposal of keeping a day-night Test match was first done by James Sutherland, the chief executive of Cricket Australia (CA) in 2008. The pink ball was introduced and was made successful in the trial periods of the Sheffield Cricket Season of Australia for two years (2013-2015).
He has welcomed the ICC’s endorsement for all Test-playing countries to play day-night Tests, and indicated that Australia would consider proposals to play day-night Tests at home, to better help the cricket crazy fans follow the ‘cricket’s premium format’. The arrangement would require bilateral agreement on playing times and the brand, type and colour of the ball used. Initially, Cricket South Africa expressed doubts about the ball’s viability and the nature of the new pink ball, while day-night first-class matches have also been trialled in England, West Indies and, most recently, Bangladesh.
Sutherland said that when a Test was played in Perth on Australia’s west coast, which is three hours behind the cities of Sydney and Melbourne, the television audience was much higher because fans on the east coast were home from work. However, the move to day-night Tests could gain extra momentum with Cricket Australia set to negotiate a new broadcasting deal over the next few months. Channel Nine, the sports channel in Australia, is keen on the idea of Test cricket being on air later in the day, when more viewers can tune in.
After successful and satisfactory trials with the pink Kookaburra ball, Cricket Australia and New Zealand Cricket came to a consensus that during the latter’s tour to Australia in November-December 2015, an inaugural day-night Test match will occur at the Adelaide Oval between November 27-December 1, 2015. The match has been successful so far, with a total of around 1,25,000 spectators attending the first three days of the game so far. The Test was evenly poised, with both teams having good chances to win. In the end, Australia were the favourites to win the nail-biting game, by chasing a stiff target of 187 on a green top, beating New Zealand by three wickets. They also won the Trans-Tasman Trophy handsomely by 2-0.
Now the question arises! Has Test cricket come back to life? And by organising day-night Test matches, will the broadcasting companies earn a handsome revenue? Well, all such questions can only be answered only if other countries shows interest in taking the initiative of hosting the newest format of Test cricket.
My close friend, Kevin Keiths who lives in Dover in South-East England, got a rare opportunity of visiting a manufacturing factory that produces Dukes, which is a cricket ball variety. His father, Jonathan Keiths, who happens to be a sports’ journalist, visited a tannery near the city to see how balls are manufactured so wonderfully. Various colours like red, white, orange and the recently used pink balls are produced in huge bulks. He has personally asked me to share his observations of how pink balls and other balls are produced and work their way into various formats of cricket. So, the journey of the pink cherry begins from here, we can say.
The Strong & Fisher Co. in Rayden near Dover produced clothing leather, but at Joseph Clayton & Sons tannery in Chesterfield in Sussex a significant proportion of the production is cricket-ball leather. Claytons are the UK’s major producer of leather for cricket balls and have been supplying Dukes and Readers for over 20 years since. But in terms of quality and life, Kookaburra is much better as compared to the Dukes, used by England and West Indies and SG Balls used in the Indian subcontinent.
Dukes manufacture the balls used for both men and women Test matches and first-class cricket in the UK. Frankly speaking, his mission was to better understand the differences between red, white and pink cricket-ball leather. While many things contribute to the way a ball behaves in a match, a major factor underpinning it is how the leather for that ball is tanned and finished.
Production of leather for a traditional cherry-red Dukes with a hand-stitched seam starts with a raw cowhide. Once the hides have been cured to prevent bacterial breakdown, the hair and flesh is removed, and the skins are pickled, ready for tanning. During tanning, a chemical reaction takes place between the skin protein and a tanning agent, preventing any further bacterial action.
Alum-tanning, dating back to around 1000 years ago, is the preferred method for tanning cricket-ball leather because the chemical bonds produce a strong leather with good durability. Alum tanning produces skins that are easier to dye, and the whitish base colour makes them ideal for producing white and pink leather as well as red.
When the tanning process has been completed in large drums, the skins are thrown across wooden clothes-horses overnight for the chemical reaction to complete and for excess moisture to drain off. Then they are hung or pinned to dry slowly, ready for further processing, which begins with the skins being shaved on the flesh side to a uniform thickness of 3 mm.
The skins are now ready to go back into more drums for re-tanning, fat-liquoring (lubricating the fibres in the skin to ensure the leather is supple) and dyeing. With the red ball, dyeing gives the leather a pale red hue and variations from one dye bath to the next help to explain slight differences in shade from one batch of cricket balls to another.
Once the leather arrives with Dukes it needs to be finished. The finish is critical in explaining the properties of different coloured balls. Leather for red cricket balls is aniline-finished. Transparent dyes, mixed with water, are applied and there is no artificial covering of the natural grain surface of the skin. The addition of synthetic buck fat (warm liquid wax) gives the leather its dark cherry red appearance as well as a degree of water repellency as it absorbs into the naked surface.
Wax is significant because a fine shellac coating is later applied to the ball and, when this wears off during use, the waxy surface is revealed. With heat generated through friction, polishing of the grain surface can commence. The aniline finish is not colourfast, hence the red marks on cricket whites. The ability to polish a ball is of vital importance to its performance and behaviour.
To date, no tannery or cricket ball manufacturer has been able to produce a white or pink ball concurrently that polishes up in exactly the same way as the equivalent cherry red, although the Australian company Kookaburra say they are very close with the pink ball they have developed for the ongoing day-night Test match at Adelaide in Australia.
White and pink leather for cricket balls has usually been pigment-finished, whereby the desired pigment is mixed with resin and several coats of colour are sprayed on to the surface of the leather. Bright-pink leather can be achieved in a dye drum, but if buck fat is applied as it is in Dukes’ manufacturing method, the leather darkens and the brightness of the pink is lost. With a pigment finish, the lighter the colour, the smaller the pigment molecule and a greater number of coats need to be applied in order to achieve a solid, uniform covering of either pink or white.
These spray coats completely cover the grain surface of the leather. Like the red dye, the resin pigment is not colourfast but whereas with the cherry red the dye has gone through the skin, any wearing of colour from a white or pink pigment finished skin will result in the pale whitish colour of the alum base tan being revealed underneath. In cricketing terms, this is a ball losing its colour. To prevent this, several coats of hard polyurethane or cellulose lacquer are applied.
The use of a different white ball at each end of a 50-over ODI or a T20 match has helped balls keep their colour, but the effect of the lacquer is that when a player tries to shine the ball, it can be like trying to polish plastic. The natural grain surface of the leather has been completely covered by lacquer and pigment, and there is no heat reacting with buck fat to create shine, as is achievable with the red Dukes.
The ball used in the day-night Test has been extensively tested by MCC, and Kookaburra say it is the closest in properties yet to their own red ball, which relies on natural oils to achieve shine rather than the addition of buck fat, and which is coated in a hard nitro-cellulose lacquer, a special semi-liquid grease. In terms of behaviour, the red Kookaburra is known to swing for a shorter period of time than the red Dukes.
After tanning by Packer Leather in a big London tannery, the leather is drum dyed by Kookaburra to a pastel-pink colour, with the dye penetrating right through the skin. The film of bright-pink colour sprayed on top is mysteriously referred to as the ‘G-7 finish’. Its purpose was to enhance the visibility of the ball. Pigment completely covers the surface of the leather, forming a barrier to the natural grain. But there is one thing, that we have deduced from the pigmentation process of cricket balls. Pink balls are much much better in their appearance, because of their single dyeing method, which is cost saving.
The pink ball will be harder to polish than the red Kookaburra once the outer layer wears down. With the red, the top coat does scuff off within the first 10-15 overs and then the natural fats of the ball are what encourage the later shining. This feature is still possible with the pink ball, however it is harder to shine. This will mean that teams will need to work hard at preserving the condition of the ball. Pink balls are very much visible during the dark hours and can be followed much easily by spectators, like that of a white ball. Compared to red and white balls, pink balls lose their colour a little quickly. Therefore, they are changed twice, once after 30 overs and then after 60 overs, for completing a 90-over Test match in a particular day.
Comparing the pink ball, it is finished in a way that is somewhere between the red and white Kookaburra ball. They have identical centres, so in terms of hardness and bounce, all three are identical. They also all use the very best of both English and Australian hide which is alum tanned. However, the red and pink leather is dyed, whereas the white is not. The main difference between the pink and red Kookaburra ball is that we add a very fine film of extra colour, paint, to the surface of the pink ball, and then we put the clear cellulose lacquer finish on both the red and the pink ball.
How interesting it is, folks? Well, it is fair to say that crowd numbers have been disappointing recently, so if this is what we can expect in day-night Test cricket, then it may just be the way forward. There is a huge hope and scope of improving and hosting Test matches even during the dark hours. Basically, if the whole concept is hugely successful over the next few years, then the golden era of Test cricket will surely return, and with the drawing of a huge number of crowd even during weekdays, then the format and the contest both will be a bumper one to watch out!