On a serendipitous Thursday, with the Christmas spirit having already taken root, the factory is in its final day of operations before a two-week shutdown to ring in the New Year. Normally a beehive of activity, it is sparsely populated with final touches having already been made and all promises of production and delivery kept.
Everywhere you look, there are cricket balls – red, white, pink, orange, yellow. There are rows upon rows of leather sourced from tanneries, waiting to be processed. There are spherical covers of the cricket ball, primarily but not singularly red. There are cores of various shapes and sizes, around which the twine-cork-twine composition is formed. The smell of lacquer is overpowering, and even on a very light day, machines go plop-plop-bang.
The Kookaburra is the preferred sphere of operation in white-ball and pink-ball international cricket, while the red ball is used in nearly three-fourths of Test matches worldwide. Only India, with their indigenous SG Test, and England with their Duke’s, have resisted the surge of the Kookaburra. The red Australian ball has attracted adverse scrutiny in recent times because many players believe it goes soft too early, and the white Kookaburra has been under the scanner because it doesn’t swing anywhere near as much as it used to, but despite these question marks, its popularity remains as pronounced as ever.
The Kookaburra people acknowledge that they are aware of misgivings in certain quarters, but are confident that their product, and the processes that they have fine-tuned over a hundred years, continue to be relevant. “It isn’t just that 70% of all cricket balls used in Australia across formats and grades of cricket are from our stable,” says Shannon Gill, the Communications Manager at Kookaburra Sport. “Our balls are also used for Test matches in most countries around the world. That indicates a vote of confidence in the Kookaburra. The one word that we are focussed on when it comes to the cricket ball is balance – there should be balance between swing and seam, and as the ball grows older, there should be natural deterioration so that spinners have purchase as well. But we don’t want it to be only a bowlers’ paradise. We feel our balls offer a very good balance between bat and ball, which is so why so many countries around the world are happy using them.”
Kookaburra Sport is a family-owned business founded by Alfred Grace Thompson, born in 1863 in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire in England. Alfred learnt his trade as a saddler and harness maker from his father William. Interestingly, had it not been for the Australian weather, Kookaburra Sport might never have come into being.
When Thompson junior decided to leave England for good, his options were to go to either Canada or Australia. Canada was cold, dark and foreboding; Australia’s warmth and sunshine proved the welcoming clincher that Thompson was looking for, but when horse and carriage were being sought to be overrun by the motor car industry, he branched out into making cricket balls.
At his peak as a harness maker, Thompson got the occasional cricket ball to repair. That’s how the idea of a cricket ball manufacturing idea germinated when it was time to move beyond harness and saddle. AG Thompson Pty Ltd needed a new name, and as Thompson looked around, his eyes came to rest on Jacky, his pet Kookaburra bird. The Kookaburra is a terrestrial tree kingfisher native to Australia and New Guinea. With the establishment of Kookaburra Sport in 1920, the bird has well and truly soared, metaphorically a lot higher than the winged creature can ever reach.
The process of ball manufacture begins from collecting leather from tanneries, which is then processed and dyed depending on what format it is sought to be designed for. A few chemical tests assist the process, but the grading of the leather is done by experts who are able to identify its quality merely by touch and feel. The highest grades are used for international cricket, as is to be expected; the rest, depending on their quality, go into first-class, grade, club and schools cricket.
The core of the ball is made up of a mixture of cork and rubber, the cork exclusive to the barks of trees that grow in Portugal. Together, cork and rubber are ground finely to arrive at a mixture of granules which, depending on what size is desired, are baked in an oven for between 35 and 45 minutes. The four-piece-cover Test leather ball has the smallest core which warrants a five-layer quilted process of cork and twine. The balls that are employed for progressively lower grades have different sized bigger cores, and several of them have only two hemispheres that make up the outermost cover, as opposed to the four-cover balls for internationals.
Even as the core is being engulfed by the leather, exhaustive tests are carried out at a small lab where the fat content, the salt content and the tensile strength of the leather are measured. It’s only when these readings are found to be within acceptable parameters that the go-ahead is given for the ball to be sent out to the market.
Contrary to popular perception, Gill reveals, the Kookaburra isn’t entirely machine-stitched. “The final stitching across the seam is done by two individuals, one with 40 years of experience in the field and the other with 30,” he points out. “It takes each of them 15 minutes to apply the finishing touches to the stitching of each ball.”
After all this, Gill tells us, every ball is hand-checked by one of the members of the Thompson family for shape and balance, before it is passed fit for international cricket. Should the ball not measure up to the Thomson standard, it is then used for lesser grades of cricket.
Gill then rolls the clock back to the mid-70s, when Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket made its bow. When World Series, with Richie Benaud as the brightest light, approached the Thompsons for the manufacture of white balls so that cricket could be played at night under lights, there was understandable excitement. “When Australia hosted the Olympics Games in Melbourne in 1956, the Kookaburra cricket balls were painted white and used for the hockey competition, so we had a little bit of experience of that,” Gill explains, as he shows us some of the first white cricket balls ever used, either in practice or during the World Series. “Therefore, we were more than happy to take up the offer of manufacturing white balls. Today, every white ball that is sent down in international cricket is made in our factory.” Gill isn’t able to provide an approximate number of how many balls are manufactured in the factory every year. “But it’s tens of thousands, I can assure you of that,” he laughs.
There is constant feedback from the largest stakeholders of the game – the players -- with regard to the feel, the hardness of the core, the gradually disappearing swing from even the white new Kookaburra, and the lacquer that can be used on the pink ball to ensure that it can remain resistant to the impact of dew. “We take note of all suggestions, but unless we try out the changes in a gradual manner at various levels, we will not be introducing those to our products,” Gill asserts, adding that there has been no request from any cricket board for a specific slant to the balls to be used in that country. “We wouldn’t do anything like that, of course,” he remarks. “It will be against the spirit of the game.”
While Kookaburra is synonymous with the cricket ball, it also manufactures bats. Currently, the bat-making star is a 25-year-old grade cricketer who goes by the name of Lachlan ‘Lockie’ Dinger, who has been at the job for nearly 11 years now. “My father is into manufacturing and so I have always been around wood and heavy-duty machines all my life,” offers Dinger, holding in his hand a bat that he is in the process of carving out for Usman Khawaja, Australia’s Test No. 3. “The guys are not all that fussy about the weight because most of them use 2.8 to 2.9 pounds and don’t want too many changes to that. It is around the sweet spot that there is greater activity. The change in bat specifications hasn’t affected us a great deal. Some of the other manufacturers would use more than one piece of willow to make one bat and laminate the two blocks, so they might have more issues.
“Bat manufacturing has gotten smarter, as you would imagine,” he adds. “Earlier, the wood had more moisture, then the guys found that if you drained the moisture out, you could have more wood in for at same weight. We try and give the players as close to what they want as possible, but at the end of the day, it is more up to the batsman than the bat.”
Kookaburra Sport is also into hockey, but it is as a cricket brand that it has become a household name. The next time you see, or diss, the piece of cork-and-rubber core encased in four-piece leather, just remember that it hasn’t stumbled on to the cricket field by accident. No matter if it goes soft occasionally, or out of shape even more infrequently.
Alfred Grace ThompsonaustraliaFrom the press boxKookaburraKookaburra SportLachlan ‘Lockie’ DingerShannon Gill
First Published: December 22, 2018, 7:59 AM IST