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By Suresh Menon
When will bowlers be allowed to use their version of the ‘Mongoose’ bat, Matthew Hayden’s much-publicised best friend with an extra long handle and an extra large ‘sweet spot’? As equipment continues to increase the gap between batsman and bowler, it is useful to remember that the cricket ball is the one piece that has changed the least over the years.
Thanks to new materials, pads have become lighter and smaller, a pleasant change from the original cane and cork offerings. Velcro has replaced the buckles. Gloves have become both stronger and more flexible, and there are protectors for body parts that are not even exposed to the bowler. The box, the ‘confidence-producer’, as Don Bradman called it, is something no batsman ever goes out without, although at least one South African batsman claimed to have done so against Lindwall and Miller because “it helped him concentrate”.
Boots are no longer the hard boats that caused many a twisted ankle nor are they likely to end careers. The modern boot is a luxury hotel compared to the dormitory it was some decades ago.
Through all these changes, the ball has remained more or less the same, the only significant modification being that the seam protrudes unlike in the past when it rested flush with the surface. There have been alterations in size and weight, but not enough to give the bowler an advantage. Douglas Jardine, the England captain during bodyline suggested using a smaller ball, but bowlers who wished to make it do unexpected things have had to resort to such tricks as using resin or Vaseline or scratching it with bottle tops.
A new cricket ball, in the words of a historian is a “shining miracle of leather, cork and twine”, and as long ago as in 1744, poets were singing praises of its colour and function. The military metaphors were already in use by then (‘the fatal missile’ was a favourite). And for those who thought that the white ball was a Kerry Packer innovation, there’s the story of the poet John Keats being hit in the eye with a white ball.
The side’s leading bowler is usually given the honour of choosing the ball he wants. It is an esoteric ritual which involves feeling around in the box, picking up a ball, closing the eyes and testing such things as balance and feel and texture and guessing just how much swing is contained in it. Hand-made cricket balls vary in feel, and bowlers have worked out simple codes to understand its secrets.
Yet the odds are tilted heavily in favour of the batsman who, as the shorter versions of the game have shown, often comfortably swing the best deliveries high into the crowd. This is partly because of new technique, as in the Twenty20 when the front foot instead of moving towards the line of the delivery moves away affording the chance to swing the bat freely at the ball. And mainly due to sophisticated bats.
The battle is an unequal one, which is why many former internationals argue that bowlers should be allowed to tamper with the ball. Allan Donald, and before him Richard Hadlee have called for ball tampering to be legalized, arguing that it ought to be fair so long as no foreign object was introduced.
The IPL can be a lab for testing innovation in ball manufacturing. When Hayden walks out with his Mongoose bat, the bowlers should be allowed to bowl ‘snake’ balls that swing and seam and take him by surprise. But who will develop the great equalizer?