Batters scrambling: The new Kookaburra ball that seams to wreak havoc

In contemplations on low-scoring Tests in Australia the past two summers, bowler-friendly pitches are drawing all the attention, like prima donnas, obscuring an equally important factor: bowler-friendly balls.

Two years ago, in an effort to liven up Test cricket, Cricket Australia introduced a re-designed Kookaburra ball, with an extra layer of lacquer for hardening and a lining under the surface that means the all-important seam stands prouder for longer.

How the new Kookaburra ball is different.Credit:The Age

Not coincidentally, a series of abbreviated but rapid Test matches has ensued. “The Kookaburra ball is contributing, definitely, and for me that’s a positive,” said commentator and former Test seamer Damien Fleming. “I think it is the future.”

Fleming said as well as the remodelled ball and grassier pitches, substandard top order West Indian and South African batting had led to havoc. “It’s a few things coming together,” he said. “I think we can all agree we don’t want that summer of four or five years ago when they were all absolute belters.”

Fleming recalled that on previously flat pitches, Australia’s quality fast bowlers had developed scrambled seam bowling to create some random if not especially prodigious movement. Mostly, it entailed cutting the ball a little one way or the other with their fingers, like a spin bowler, reducing pace.

“With a more pronounced seam, the scrambled seamer is a bigger weapon now,” he said. “In the last two years, with the Kookaburra ball on green pitches, scrambled seam means hardly a ball goes straight.

Jimmy Anderson and Joe Root hold the 2017-18 Kookaburra ball.Credit:Getty Images

“They’re not fast spinners, they’re flat out. Their wrists and fingers are behind the ball. The ball’s seaming at their usual pace.

“If you ask batsmen, they’d rather face late swing than late seam. Swing you can sometimes get a bit of a sighter in the air. When it’s on the seam and it’s full, you’ve already decided what shot you’re going to play.”

Fleming noted that captain Pat Cummins, encouraged by the extra movement, was bowing fuller. Previously, he did not get many wickets lbw. “In the last two summers, his lbs and bowleds have gone through the roof.”

Fleming said one pleasing side effect of the changed dynamics was to restore meaning to runs. “One thing I love as a commentator is that you rate runs,” he said. “Travis Head’s last two summers are super impressive. His two hundreds against England in bowler-friendly conditions were match-winners.

Mitchell Starc lets one rip at the Gabba.Credit:Getty Images

“Without this 90, we probably lose this Test match [against South Africa]. We can legitimately say he has won three Test matches in bowling conditions.”

On the fine line that curators walk, bowling conditions sometimes tipped over into obliterating conditions. Test matches in Australia in the last two years typically have been done inside four days, last year’s Boxing Day Test finished an hour into the third day and the first South Africa Test last week was over inside two days.

Scott Boland: at it again.Credit:AP

Fleming said he felt for curators. “Curating is a lot like new ball swing bowling. There are controllable factors and non-controllable factors,” he said. “The curators can control the grass on the pitch and the rolling, but they can’t control the weather.”

The pitches in Perth and Brisbane, for instance, have roughly the same clay content and sported a similar coverage of grass for recent Tests, but the Brisbane pitch was harder underneath, making it faster and inflicting carnage on batsmen. For Boxing Day, the MCG is anticipating a good pitch, but less lively than the one for last year’s Ashes Test, when Scott Boland made his spectacular debut.

Josh Hazlewood missed Australia’s past two Tests because of injury, but if fully recovered will create a pleasant headache for selectors on Boxing Day: him or Boland?

“I’m going with Scott Boland over Josh Hazlewood,” said Fleming. “Part of me can’t believe I’m saying that because Josh will end up one of our greatest bowlers, if he isn’t already.

“I’m worried about his injury, to that grunter muscle. There is some uncertainty around it. We’ve got fast bowling depth. We’ve got a guy who’s averaging 10 with the ball. I’d be erring with caution. We’ve got India. We’ve got England. We’ve got a guy who’s basically on fire. Big ‘Bolo’ for me!”

One thing is certain: between a bowler-friendly, bowler-friendly ball and a home crowd, the MCG is certain to be Boland-friendly.

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