Don Topley: Why old balls could be key to an England Ashes victory this summer
- Credit: Archant
Cricketers annually spend hundreds of pounds on a new bat but place less importance on the major ingredient of any match – the ball – which has been topical this week in the professional game, writes Don Topley.
The ECB have been scurrying around every Test match and county cricket ground to see if there are any left-over balls from the 2017 and 2018 seasons - the official Dukes ball, which is their preferred choice of Test match ball here in the UK.
Every year, our governing body tinkers with the game and this spring the ECB have changed the specification of the match ball used for county cricket. Over the last two years, and especially last summer, average and non-international seam bowlers were turning up and claiming heaps of wickets on poor surfaces, all through the season.
True, there were many underwhelming pitches and it wasn't always the ball. Fast bowler's statistics were quite incredible, and everyone felt that Championship cricket, unlike the international game, was loaded in favour of the faster seam bowlers.
The 2019 Dukes ball is in essence the same and manufactured in the same way. The major change is that the 'seam' or stitching that surrounds the ball has been tightened and therefore pressed into the surface of the ball.
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The consequence of this is the seam is not so proud: when it is delivered into the pitch, it does not alter its course or "seam" about, challenging the batsman.
The result is many of those previously successful seamers have found this season particularly hard-going with higher bowling averages, even in dampish April. County scores have been surprisingly high, with many declarations and tame boring draws.
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The last time the ball had significant changes was back in 1990 when after a similar history, ball makers were ordered to reduce the strands combined into the seam from 15 strands to 11.
The consequence was the seam stood much less proud and deviated less - much to my own detriment in that season with successful Essex.
Like county cricket, the new ball was set to be used in the forthcoming Ashes Test matches, after the World Cup. Ashley Giles, Trevor Bayliss, Ed Smith and Joe Root (England's management) got together and realised the less potent 2019 ball will offer the fast and nasty pace attack of Australia a decent advantage.
England's bowlers will be weakened by their lesser pace together with less ball movement off the seam. With the evidence in county cricket scores, the management ordered the search for the previous year's balls. When not enough were found the ECB ordered Dukes to make 600 at the old specification! Schools and amateur cricket clubs will be shocked to know that Test Match balls cost £60 each.
Stuart Broad was consulted and is pleased, saying: "Fair Play, scores have been high in county cricket, so I think it's a decision made for what is best for Test cricket in England."
Australia would be more suited to the lower-seam ball and could deliver their normal lengths where the moving ball requires you to bowl fuller in England, - something Anderson, Broad and Woakes are used to.
Genuine swing bowlers are less affected by the seam as their movement is conducted in the air and has nothing to do with the state of the pitch. That is why swing bowlers are so special and sought after. The best swing bowlers swing the ball as late and as close to the batsman as they can.
Where swing bowlers are challenged today is with coloured balls. The poor pink ball experiment is gone for now, but all limited overs cricket is white ball, where the tanning of the leather and the artificial dye is different to the red ball.
They swing very little - maybe for just the first three overs - and is worryingly contributing to the dying art of the swing bowler.
In past decades, England's leg-spinning cupboard was dusty and empty but today we have internationals Adil Rashid, Joe Denly and Mason Crane.
Most counties have one, but if white ball cricket continues to dominate over the red ball in the professional game then the wonderful art of swing bowling will dwindle.