Two days ago, I visited India's largest cricket equipment factory, Sanspareils Greenlands. The company provided Sunil Gavaskar with bats for most of his career and even today, 19 seasons after his retirement, he lends his signature to their name. It was an exchange beneficial for both. But whereas batsmen's bats had been spoken and written about endlessly, an equally destructive object, the leather ball, had been forgotten. It was time to write a story about cricket balls. And so, after speaking with Paras Anand, a young man who ran the family business, to Meerut I went.
This is where Ricky Ponting's bats come from, though the label is Kookaburra's. Damien Martyn has his made here, as does Michael Clarke. I delivered gloves to a Pakistani cricketer today on Anand's request. Many other bats are prepared here, and are shipped with labels other than SG's. The same goes for balls. They are shipped to England, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and even Pakistan, where balls are mostly made in Sialkot. Though the process of making a ball has barely changed for nearly 400 years, a keen eye and instinct separate the best balls from ones that are passable, but to us the difference would not be noticeable.
As I wandered around the factory, watching the dyeing, waxing, oiling, drying, stitching, I asked Anand a barrelful of questions, and only received silence when I asked the cost of producing a ball. Then, after an hour's worth of questions and answers, he led me to a room where, I think, we found a way of ending the golden age of batting in India.
I met the chief ball inspector, a man who once played domestic cricket and captained Bishan Singh Bedi in the early 1970s. There were four boxes placed before him. One was filled with unpolished leather balls. The next had four. The next had a few more and the last had a larger number. He explained that his brief was to seek defects in balls. If there weren't any, he would toss them into the box with four balls. These were objects of the highest quality, with no blemishes, and were ready for international cricket. The next box would be for first-class cricket while the last - consisting of those with the most defects, of which there were few - would be for clubs. As I handled one, trying to find what made a perfectly good-looking ball less than Test-quality, it occurred to me that here, changes could be made to the ball which would help Indian bowlers recover from all the battering they were receiving on dead pitches. So we spoke about the seam, which is the white thread that holds the ball together. Recently, bowlers had said that it felt different, that the same balls somehow helped them more often. When I asked the ball inspector about this, he smiled and said that the seam had indeed been raised because the company had begun using a thicker thread. The thread provided increased resistance as the ball moved through the air, and this helped bowlers.
I was perplexed. It seemed to me, at that moment, that all the debates we had at work about the decline of fast bowling and about how easily batsmen made runs could be turned on their head right here, in this room, if the makers of the ball chose to make minor changes to it. Somehow, chasing another random strain of thought, I asked them which ball bounced more: the SG or the Australian Kookaburra? The Kookaburra, they replied. If you dropped both balls from the same height, the Australian ball would bounce back three inches higher than the SG. It struck me as silly. I asked if there was a limit on how much balls could bounce back. Yes, they said, a foot and ten inches; anything more than that would be deemed illegal. This was amazing, and I told them: pitches in Australia were already the sort that encouraged bounce, and yet their balls rebounded three more inches than an SG ball? The SG ball could bounce seven inches more before it was deemed illegal. So why didn't they use a different material inside the ball to make the ball bounce more? It could help Indian bowlers on these dead wickets. It could make batsmen work for runs, for Indian batsmen are notoriously bad when the ball rises uncomfortably.
The ball inspector thought about it for a moment. Then he reached forward, grabbed my hand and shook it with a vigour I will not forget. "Thank you," he said, "we had not thought of this before and we're going to try it now."
Then he sat back and looked outside at a blank wall as a nearby radio crackled into life with the excited pronouncements of a commentator salivating over a Mahendra Dhoni stroke. And he nodded disbelievingly and smiled.