Cricket’s rolling battle for The Ashes

Australian cricketers are testing a new strategy to overcome the team’s recent dismal results in The Ashes series on English soil – but it has nothing to do with players or practice.

According to Cricket Australia, the secret could be all in the ball.

It has been trialling the English Duke ball at Sheffield Shield matches over the past two seasons, and the results look promising.

Why the change?

Put simply, for the sake of our national ego and the need to win an Ashes series in England.

Australia’s failures in England since 2001 are blamed on our batsmen’s inability to cope with the different behaviour of the Duke ball, both off the pitch and in the air. Although the English conditions also play a part, it is a recognised fact that the Duke ball swings more than the Kookaburra ball used in Australia.

The Aussie masterplan is for the Duke to be used in place of the traditional Kookaburra, in the second half of each Sheffield Shield season. There’s one small problem though: critics point out that current Aussie team members’ international commitments late in the season means they’re unlikely to be playing in Shield matches while the Duke experiment is underway.

But the overall aim is to expose all players, including rising stars who will be hopeful of future Ashes selection, to the ball they’d have to face in England.

What are the differences?

The Duke and the Kookaburra both have different physical appearances in shape and colour which inevitably impacts the duration of time the ball moves throughout an innings.

While the Aussie ball is a lighter leather and machine made, it’s English rival is darker and hand-stitched, which is believed responsible for its tendency to swing more in flight, especially in English conditions. The hand-stitched seam on the Duke is more pronounced and therefore should hold together for up to 60 overs. The consistent shape helps seam bowlers make the ball swing – as long as the bowling team works on keeping the shine on one side of the ball.

The Kookaburra will start becoming softer after as few as 15 overs. As the seam is beaten down with use and the ball loses the consistent shape bowlers prize, it becomes less likely to swing, transferring a slight advantage to the batsmen.

Where’s the proof?

After two seasons of the Duke’s use in Shield games, there’s enough data to deliver some clear and telling results.

The figures for the Sheffield Shield 2016/17 season show that while the Duke ball was used bowlers’ strike rates improved and batsmen scored 15 per cent fewer runs across both innings. That significant difference suggests Australians struggled to adapt to the change.

But figures for the Sheffield Shield 2017/18 season show a smaller scoring differential when batsmen faced the Duke in the first innings, and a minimal difference in the second, suggesting the batsmen’s exposure to the ball over two seasons had a remarkable effect on their performance against it.

The player experience

Former Australian cricket all-rounder Trent Copeland has had experience playing with both balls. He told Hatch that while the Kookaburra suited the Australian conditions, it was beneficial for international players to practice with the Duke.

“The Duke [swings] a lot longer than what a Kookaburra does, but I still think the Kookaburra ball is more suited to the traditional hard, abrasive Australian wickets around the country,” he said.

“The Kookaburra will swing subtly but the Duke can swing significantly, and then from the 20-70 over period there is much less reverse swing with the Duke ball. It is a more conventional swing if you look after it.”

Copeland said the Duke gave bowlers a definite advantage but there were also other factors to take into account, such as how the wicket was prepared.

“If there is grass left on the wicket to look after the Duke ball then it can be [advantageous], but I think they go a bit softer, almost like a pillow when you hit it,” he said.

Copeland said players needed to adjust their techniques when bowling or batting with the Duke.

“A lot of people when they first bowl with the Duke, if you’re not 100 per cent comfortable with your wrist position and how you let the ball go, it can be challenging mentally because if you get the seam slightly wrong it can swing the opposite way to which you anticipate,” he said.

“Batting, you need to narrow your focus, hit the ball down the ground more, hit it later under your eyes because of the extra bit of movement that is not normally there in Australia.”

Main image from Hash Milhan‘s flikr