Earlier this year, the higher ups at the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) summoned skipper Misbah-ul-Haq for a meeting on how cricket in Pakistan could be improved. This led to a 40-minute meeting, claim PCB sources, with Misbah intent on driving home a single point: the quality of balls being used in first-class cricket needed to change as soon as possible.
Domestic cricket in Pakistan employs balls manufactured by Grays, a Pakistani company that is listed in the Karachi and Lahore stock exchanges. The Grays ball has attracted a lot of ire from a lot of current and former players, as it is often too soft and its leather and seams come apart too easily.
“Our pitches started changing during General Tauqir Zia’s tenure, but it’s actually the balls that have affected the quality of cricket,” explains former Test batsman Mohammad Wasim. “Until 10 or 12 years ago, we used local balls that were hard as a rock all innings long. That was the ball we grew up with, the sort of ball that wouldn’t deteriorate for 100 overs. And that’s what produced all the guys from my generation and the one before that. Then the authorities started experimenting.”
As part of the experimentation, the Naseem Ashraf-led PCB brought back imported Kookaburra balls for one season.
“In that season, over 130 hundreds were scored in the domestic game, when the average number is closer to 40. But since then, they have returned to Grays’ balls, which they claim are replicas of the Kookaburra,” says Wasim. “But these I feel, along with most guys I played with, that these are substandard balls. I can tell you of instances in Pindi alone when the seam has given way or the leather torn up within the first 15 overs. How can you train your youngsters for the highest level with such equipment?”
The legendary Pakistani pace bowling assembly line seems to have caught a snag as they’re left to play with substandard equipment
In principle, what is produced at the domestic level should also be replicated at the international level. Nearly every major country uses the same balls in its domestic first class competition as international matches that they host — something that ends up actually contributing to their home advantage.
In India, for example, the SG ball is used for Tests and Ranji Trophy; in Australia and New Zealand, it is the Kookaburra ball; while England has both Duke’s and Reader.
Pakistan, though, doesn’t follow the same principles. The past decade or so has led to several ball changes, including one season with the Kookaburra as the ball of choice in the first-class game. But when Pakistan play their international cricket, the ball used is almost always not the one used in first-class cricket.
“The problem with the Grays ball isn’t only that it’s faulty but that it poses questions that no one else has to answer,” argues former Test batsman Bazid Khan. “Grays swings naturally more than any other ball in the world, and so, what you get is guys like Ehsan Adil who are world beaters with the Grays balls but fail to make a mark on the international stage where they have to play with the Kookaburra.”
The solution, according to Bazid, is consistency.
“If you are going to keep the Grays ball in the domestic game, then the least you could do is introduce that Grays ball for your Test matches too. All these players who perform so well in domestic can then fully translate their domestic performances to the international stage. But the PCB will never do that, because using it in a Test match would actually make people care about the quality of the ball, and they know they will be exposed when that happens.”
Such assertions are in stark contrast to what officials at the PCB claim.
Sitting in his Gaddafi Stadium office, PCB Domestic Cricket Director Intikhab Alam holds up two balls, Super Match and Avenger, both manufactured by Grays. He details all the changes between these two balls — the quality of leather [that for the Super Match is being imported from England; for the Avenger, the leather is locally produced], the cork of the ball, and the quality of the seam.
If you are going to keep the Grays ball in the domestic game, then the least you could do is introduce that Grays ball for your Test matches too. All these players who perform so well in domestic can then fully translate their domestic performances to the international stage.
“From next season, the Super Match ball will be used in the Pakistani domestic game. Before, we used the Avenger,” says Alam, proudly claiming that instituting this change has been his crusade since he took over as the domestic cricket director. Rubbishing most of the claims made by Wasim and Bazid, he accuses them of being “biased individuals, who don’t realise the changes being made right now.”
“The torn up leather or seam generally happen because players themselves tear them off, often because they are unable to get that specific ball to reverse,” argues Alam. “It’s not as if other balls, Kookaburra included, don’t produce the odd faulty ball.”
In December 2014, Alam had spoken to the media about how the quality of locally-manufactured cricket balls that were being used in the season had improved, and therefore, that there was no need for the PCB to adopt costly imported balls.
Since imported leather was being used to manufacture the new balls, Alam had explained, the cost of the ball had almost doubled — from Rs1,250 to Rs2,500. And yet, this price was only a fraction of the Kookaburra ball, which costs Rs25,000.
“The PCB has worked very closely with Grays to develop this new ball, the Super Match. It is a Test-match quality ball, it is comparable in quality to the Kookaburra and the Duke balls despite costing half as much. We will continue working with the manufacturers to prove the doubters wrong,” asserts Alam.
Why the PCB was using Grays’ second tier ball for its first-class cricket is a question no one is willing to answer though, with Alam instead focusing on the fact that the changes have been made already. Several PCB officials declined to answer why is it that after five years of using the previous balls, the PCB has now decided that they weren’t good enough. Grays declined to comment on the story.
Meanwhile, in the Faisalabad region, where Misbah has the most clout, officials have initiated attempts to change the substandard balls dynamic. A petition has already been signed by over a dozen current and former first-class cricketers, several of whom have represented Pakistan, which asks for a reintroduction of the Kookaburra balls used by Pakistan in their “home” matches.
Alam argues that the thrust of using the new Grays balls is his brainchild. Others claim that the pressure from outside, particularly from active players, made it necessary for the PCB to actually do something about this issue. Either way, it took five years and perhaps dozens of affected careers for this to happen, without anyone really giving much of a toss about it.
And that really is the crux of the issue. The reason for the decline in quality in Pakistan cricket has far more to do with the apathy of the stakeholders than anything that the PCB has done.
More than three years ago, a story was posted at IBN Live, which quoted Basit Ali and several current players, complaining about the quality of the balls being used, and alleging that the contracts for these balls were offered during Ijaz Butt’s time to companies that were close to the then-chairman. Three years on, thus story lies on the ash heap of history, never followed up upon, ignored in popular imagination, while the descendants of Nero reign supreme.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine August 2nd, 2015