How Dukes have managed to produce a ball to dye for

(Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images)

By Alison Mitchell

Look out for the blue door. Call me if you can’t find it. That was the instruction issued by Dukes’ owner Dilip Jajodia before I paid him a visit at the Dukes’ factory in Walthamstow, East London. The building has a fairly faceless, pale brick facade, with, as described, a double wooden door, painted blue. Fixed to the door on the left, is the street number. On the right there is a red ‘no parking’ sign. There is nothing to suggest that this is the headquarters of the manufacturers of all Test and first-class cricket balls in the UK, and now the provider of pink balls for the UK’s first day/night Test.

I knock and there is no answer. A padlock is keeping the door firmly shut. I am, however, ten minutes early for my meeting with Jajodia. Suddenly a well-dressed bespectacled man approaches from down the street, clutching a sandwich and a coffee cup. Jajodia had just nipped out to buy his lunch. He greets me warmly, apologises for not being here when I arrived and after fiddling with two different locks on the blue door, we enter Dukes HQ.

It’s more of a warehouse than a factory. Brown cardboard boxes full of cricket balls, pads, shirts, trousers and umpires coats are stacked to the ceiling ready for distribution to clubs, shops and counties. The floor in one of the workshops is strewn with plastic baskets and more cardboard boxes, each containing a specific number of different coloured balls, in different stages of readiness.

Walthamstow is where the finishing touches are applied to the pink Test match balls used at Edgbaston. Jajodia has already selected the best 12 by his own hand to be sent off to the ECB. Prior to Edgbaston, each of the four other floodlit Tests in the world have featured a pink ball made by Australian company Kookaburra. The ECB, however, chose to stick with their preferred provider of Test balls in this country, Dukes. If the ball is a success, Jajodia hopes it might be adopted for use in other countries, too.

“We were set a challenge,” says Jajodia. “Can you produce a pink cricket ball for use in all conditions? Once you accept a challenge like that from international cricketing bodies, you have  to spend a bit of time making sure that you get it right. So once we had preserved all the things we believe in, in terms of the raw material, the key was to make sure the shade of pink, and the way it penetrates into the leather, was right.”

The raw material remains British cow hide (the best part of the hide for cricket ball leather is the back, says Jajodia, rather than shoulder or sides). However, rather than having the skins tanned and dyed at Clayton & Sons in Derbyshire, where the leather for the red Dukes is processed, Jajodia has turned to a different UK tannery, with whom he has worked to develop the dying and finishing process specifically for Test match pink.

“We had to crack this problem where people said it is impossible to dye a cricket ball leather pink. But we set about trying to get it right. The leather is dyed through. Absolutely vital. Having said that, you can’t then carry on as if it’s red, because with red, we apply grease, and grease makes leather go darker. With this, you have to preserve that vibrant pink, so we had to apply a pigment to the surface to make sure that it preserved the colour.”

(Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

So far, the process is very similar to that used for the pink Kookaburra ball, where the leather is dyed pink, before having a final spray coat of pigment added to give the desired vibrancy for visibility. Finally, for the Kookaburra, a coat of hard nitro-cellulose lacquer is applied, to protect the ball in abrasive Australian conditions.

Jajodia believes his tannery’s method of pushing the pigment right into the follicles of the skin will help the ball to retain its colour. They’ve coded their particular shade of pink, C5.

“It’s both sprayed and rolled, because I think that makes it pretty tough. The colour is actually into the grain. We haven’t had any problems with it peeling off in all the experiments that we’ve done.”

Kookaburra developed their own ‘finish’, which they’ve called G7, and Jajodia believes that Dukes, too, have hit upon a formula, which will produce a successful pink ball, capable of lasting 80 overs, but providing levels of deterioration similar to the red version.

The finish on the leather, and the final top coat, is a big factor in the way a ball behaves in the air. With a red ball, once the top coat of shiny shellac or lacquer wears off, there is no barrier to the grain surface of the dyed leather, and so polishing can commence, with a cricketer rubbing the ball on his or her trousers. The natural fats of the skin come through the leather, and the heat caused by friction creates shine. In the case of Dukes’ red, additional grease has been applied to the ball, which aids shine further.

With the pink Dukes (and similarly, the pink Kookaburra) the need for bright pigment to be sprayed onto the surface of the dyed leather, means those natural fats never come up through the ball because the pigment creates a barrier. Jajodia doesn’t dodge this issue, yet he believes Dukes have come up with a finish and polish that partly compensates for this, and will enable the ball to be ‘looked after’ by bowlers.

“We’ve developed our own polishes and finishes. It’s not the straightforward shellac that we put on our red ball. We’ve had to apply our own top coat, which is a bit of a hybrid. It will wear off. It’s not going to stay there forever and be very resilient, but on the other hand, it will protect the surface.

“My advice to the bowlers is just leave one side totally alone and work on the other side, like a red ball, and hopefully it will do what you want it to do, although not in any exaggerated way. I think it will be fine.”

While Jajodia remains tight-lipped about where the leather for his pink ball is being tanned and dyed, and what he calls their “secret formulas” for the finish and polish, the biggest difference between the pink Dukes and pink Kookaburra still appears to be the hand-made element of the Dukes. The four quarters of the ball, together with the seams (black thread for the pink ball) are all hand-stitched at the Grays of Cambridge factory in Sialkot, Pakistan – the same workers who produce the red Dukes – meaning the pink Dukes retains the pronounced seam so familiar to James Anderson and Co. Kookaburra hand stitch their closing seam, but the outer seams are done by machine, which leads to a slightly flatter ‘rudder’ overall.

Jajodia will be at Edgbaston to monitor how his pink Dukes performs. Of course many other factors will influence the way the ball behaves, such as the overhead conditions, the pitch conditions, and not least, the bowlers’ skill. A successful day/night Test, though, will not only be judged on the balance between bat and ball, but on how many people attend and watch a match, which is designed to make the game more accessible, by stretching into the evening hours, beyond the normal working day.

Alison presents Stumped, the weekly cricket podcast from the BBC World Service

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