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Wisden Almanack 2023

Picking at the seam: The mystery of the Dukes ball, explained – Almanack

The Morrant Sport factory that finishes off the Duke cricket ball in Walthamstow, London on November 20, 2015
James Wallace by James Wallace
@Jimbo_Cricket 10 minute read

This story on the Dukes cricket ball originally appeared in the 2023 edition of the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack.

Shernhall Street is a largely residential road in Walthamstow, east London, just under an hour by public transport from the manicured turf of Lord’s: ten miles distant, but worlds apart. No. 241 is a two-storey grey-brick building, whose blue double door gives no hint of what’s inside. The owner likes it that way. Enter, and you are greeted by the smell of leather, and a swathe of red, plus a bit of pink, white and orange: boxes and baskets of cricket balls. On a whitewashed wall is a large sign in red letters: British Cricket Balls Ltd. And since 1987, it is where they’ve been making the Dukes.

The owner is Dilip Jajodia, who has spent 50 years in cricket-ball production. He set up Morrant Sports, a pioneering mail-order cricket-equipment company, in 1973, having left his job as a pensions fund manager in the City. A cricket-mad child in Bangalore, he boarded at Bishop Cotton School, the “Eton of the East”, whose alumni include Colin Cowdrey. It’s been a lifelong love affair, despite an accident at school: fielding at silly point, he was smashed in the mouth. “You could say cricket balls left their mark on me from that point onwards,” he says. “I was stretchered off, and I’ve still got these metal plates in my mouth, but it didn’t diminish my enthusiasm.”


Producing the Dukes starts with the humble cow, and the best leather comes from Aberdeen Angus cattle fed on lush Scottish and Irish grass. The hides are sent to Spire Leather in Chesterfield, where they are cleaned, treated with aluminium sulphate to aid the tanning process, sprayed the desired colour, and cut. The thickness of the dried hides is measured: the bulkier areas around the backbone are saved for balls used in international matches, while the outer flanks will see lower-grade cricket.

The cut hides are then sent to the subcontinent to be formed into quarters, which then make their way to Walthamstow. There they are sewn into half-ball cups, which are in turn stitched together around a cork and rubber core; the middle two rows of stitching form the seam. The outer seam – another two rows of stitching either side of the main join – is made up of 80 stitches. This is skilled, demanding work, and one person can do only six or seven balls a day. It’s all about feel, patience and a good eye. Workers have subtly different techniques, passed down from parent to child. Some of the Dukes employees are third- or fourth-generation cricket-ball stitchers.

The ball is placed in a heavy mould to press down the raised seam and compact everything together, then checked for bounce, size and  weight. Balls must be between 8 13/16 and 9 inches in circumference, and weigh between 156g and 163g. If not, they are rejected. A gold-foil stamp signifies their quality, and Dilip hand-picks those for the English Test summer. Now comes a final shaping, in a milling machine using  equipment repurposed from Crimean War shells.

The next stage is lamping: the ball is held near a naked flame, and a small amount of grease applied. When the ball is rubbed on clothing, the grease is brought to the surface, producing shine. Darker balls are said to contain more, so bowlers often prefer a deeper shade of red. Last, they are covered in polish, left on a rack for a few hours to dry, packaged up and sent around the globe. Dukes balls are as uniform as is possible without mass production – and no two are quite the same.

The company dates back to 1760, when Duke & Son was established as a manufacturer of cricket balls at Penshurst, in Kent. It received a royal warrant in 1775; at the 1851 Great Exhibition, the triple-sewn ball won a medal. In 1920, Duke & Son merged with John Wisden & Co, and in 1961 were amalgamated into Tonbridge Sports Industries, a joint-venture company that included Gray-Nicolls and Stuart Surridge. In 1987, the Dukes business was purchased by British Cricket Balls Ltd, where Dilip had been on the board for a few years. Since then, he has run the operation.

“I’m sort of a lunatic, you know?” he chuckles, sitting at a weathered workbench. “I can’t put up with anything second-rate or substandard – it just doesn’t work for what we do. It’s all about the process. I say to people: ‘You don’t realise how much care and attention we put into handling every order. This is a luxury product.’”

The summer of 2022 was chastening. The Dukes was accused by players and coaches of going soft too easily – of falling apart at the seams. The sight of a gauge-wielding umpire surrounded by a gaggle of teapotting fielders became familiar, and balls were often replaced. Stuart Broad called them “rubbish… like bowling with a rolled-up piece of plasticine”. James Anderson likened them to oranges, adding: “They’ve tended to come apart easily, and then go really soft. They haven’t stayed round either. If the ball isn’t round, it’s less likely to swing. You can’t swing a Rubik’s cube.”

A run-glut in the County Championship seemed to confirm something was awry. There were 48 totals of 500 or more (only 12 in 2021), the highest Glamorgan’s 795-5 against Leicestershire, including a quadruple-century by Sam Northeast. The pressure was on to find the root of the problem. “I tried to explain that, if there’s something inherently wrong with raw materials that started their journey nine months ago, then there’s not a lot I can do about it now,” says Dilip. “The problems can’t be seen until it’s too late and the balls are already in use. A hand-made, natural product can’t always be perfect.”

He confesses to some early panic, before he and his small staff set to checking all the balls. They found two explanations. The furloughing of tannery staff during the Covid pandemic meant the leather was treated less skilfully than usual. Then came the difficulty – because of the pandemic and Brexit – of obtaining chemicals from Germany. These bind the fibres in the leather, and the UK alternatives were less effective. The result was an entire season’s worth of balls that looked fine, but were invisibly flawed. Once Dilip and his team realised this, they cranked up the milling machine, to try to compress the leather fibres even more, and make the balls last longer. He believes the quality improved towards the end of the season.

“We dealt with it as best we could. We couldn’t swap horses – or cows, in this instance – so we had to react and adapt. I’m not in the business of blaming anyone: we learned from it, and moved on.”

Did he feel angry about the perception that Dukes had let people down? “It hurt. I also found it a little disappointing. Take Stuart Broad. Here’s a guy who has used a Dukes ball to get a load of his 500 or so wickets, and I think the way he went about it showed a degree of immaturity, of petulance. There’s a way to say your piece, but to use words like ‘rubbish’… I was a bit hurt by that. But England won six out of their seven home Test matches, so maybe I should make these ‘rubbish balls’ all the time! I always want Jimmy or Stuart to get an early wicket. If they don’t, then the head goes down and they start inspecting the ball. I’m on tenterhooks, invested more than most, thinking: ‘Go on Jimmy, get a wicket. You’ll be happy as Larry!’”

Dilip is in full flow, tossing a ball between his hands as he talks.

“What is a good cricket ball? Most people don’t actually know. I know. A good cricket ball is one that gradually deteriorates over 80 overs, and offers assistance to batters and bowlers at different stages. A lot of bowlers nowadays want the ball to do something for all 80 overs, and when it stops, they want another one. Well, sorry, it doesn’t work like that.”

He pauses, and leans forward. “I’m going to tell you a secret I’ve never told anyone. You see, I’ve got something no one else has, and they’d likely do all sorts to get their hands on it…”

A few years after setting up Morrant, Dilip became involved in selling imported cricket balls. He noticed that the final polish wasn’t up to much: it would crack and peel, let in water, look unsightly. “I kept thinking, what do I do? I didn’t have enough technical knowledge, so I’d speak to the factory and they’d try something else, but everything they tried was always a bit plasticky, and didn’t really do the job.”

Then he spotted a tiny classified ad in a cricket magazine: “Ball Re-Polishing Kit, £20 – does 200 balls.” Soon after, a cardboard box arrived in the post. “Inside was a piece of wood with six nails (a kind of rack to rest drying balls), a paintbrush and three small tins: one of a clear liquid, one of a red liquid, one of a semi-opaque liquid, plus some instructions. That was it.”

The kit was for use on old balls, but Dilip wanted to see how it would fare on new ones. The clear liquid was for cleaning; the red liquid was a stain, and made the seam look messy. But the semi-opaque liquid caught his attention: “I painted up a few of my balls, and gave them out for testing.” He played club cricket in Essex for Woodford Wells, where they used his prototypes. He sent out batches to other clubs on his books. “They all came back and said: ‘Oh yeah, these balls are a lot better. They are great.’ So I said to the factory, which was in the subcontinent: ‘Don’t put any lacquer on the balls you send me. I’ll polish them over here.’ That’s when I really got started.”

Dilip started to order the liquid in larger quantities, and one day in the early 1980s decided to meet the people providing it. The man who had placed the advert was called Barry, and he was based in Derbyshire, where he ran a metal-engineering company. He didn’t, however, make the fluid.

“Barry took me through his noisy factory, and led me to a space at the back behind this small partition. There was an old man at a table, and he was making up this liquid. I was struck by his sense of calm amid the racket. There was something about him, an aura – he had a very still presence. We locked eyes. ‘This is Walter,’ said Barry. Walter was incredibly softly spoken. He knew who I was, and we were very pleased to meet each other.”

Barry was a keen amateur cricketer, and frustrated by old balls at his club going to waste. He wanted to get more life out of them. That’s when he turned to Walter, allowing him to use the space at the back of his factory. “I couldn’t believe what I heard next,” says Dilip. “Barry explained that Walter was a German Jew, and a leather expert. Before the Second World War, he worked for the German government, where his job was to look after all the manuscripts and leatherbound state documents. He was highly skilled at preserving different types of leather. We didn’t go into the details, but Walter had apparently survived Auschwitz, and relocated to England some time after the war.

“I don’t know how they knew each other. Barry just said they were family friends, but he obviously knew Walter’s expertise in leather, and asked him to come up with something that might work on cricket balls. Walter went away and tried various chemical concoctions, before settling on this liquid. It worked like a dream. Barry was a bit of a marketing man, and he knew it was good stuff, so he placed the advert. It was called ‘Pliandure’ – as in ‘apply and endure’. As I went to leave, Walter said: ‘Thank you for supporting the product.’ I honestly couldn’t thank him enough. I said: ‘Thank you! You are really supporting my business. This stuff is integral to the success of these balls.’ I was their biggest customer by miles, perhaps their only customer.”

Over the next seven or eight years, Walter and Barry sent Dilip the polish in bulk, and he applied it to the balls. “It was very Heath Robinson: my small team and I were there with our paintbrushes every year.” After taking over Dukes, he immediately applied the polish to the hand-crafted balls. Wasn’t he worried that only Walter knew the formulation – and that he was, to say the least, getting on?

“I must confess, I didn’t think about it. After that meeting, I had very little contact, and I only met them that one occasion at the factory. I was so busy, and we were expanding all the time. I just used to post a handwritten order to Derbyshire, and the polish would arrive in maybe ten-litre amounts, and the invoice was paid. There was no need for any more discussion. As the years went on, and I took over Dukes, I might have started to think about things, but I didn’t have the nerve to raise it with Walter or Barry.

“One day, I got a call from Barry. Walter had died. It was very sad. He was obviously extremely old, and had lived this incredible life. But I do remember blurting out: ‘Oh no, and what am I going to do about the polish?’ Barry said: ‘Don’t worry about that. I’ve got some good news for you. After that first meeting years ago, Walter gave me a brown envelope and told me to keep it in my safe for when he died.’ Can you guess what was in the envelope? The formula – the recipe for the polish. It was a wonderful moment.”

By early 2023, extensive efforts to find out more about Walter or Barry had met with little success. Dilip still completes his orders by hand, and thinks he might have thrown away his correspondence with Barry during one of his periodical clear-outs. He does call to say he’s found an old box with “Pliandure” on it, but there’s nothing with Barry’s full name, or the address of the factory.

Other avenues are explored. The chief executive of the Association of Jewish Refugees, Michael Newman, says this is the first query he has received linking cricket to the Holocaust. Richard Ferrer, editor of Jewish News, gets in touch: a lifelong cricket nerd, he wants to help trace Walter.

Dilip is glad he has shared his story. “I’m a bit secretive on the whole. But I just felt it was time – it’s hardly a state secret.” And he fully supports attempts to find out more. He’s still busy, though, and keen to put the travails of 2022 behind him. “By the way, the new batch of leather we’ve been getting… the sound of the balls is unbelievable.”

Dilip hasn’t passed Walter’s recipe on to anyone for mass production. “No way! That’s too dangerous. I wrote out a copy, and I make it by hand. I get my gloves and goggles on, and follow Walter’s recipe to the letter. It’s exactly the same, nothing has changed. It has been used on Dukes balls since 1987, and will continue to be used. I’ve got a copy of it, locked in my safe, that my son will inherit when, uh, I’ve passed on. As I look back on my life and career, it is something quite wonderful – the secret, the mystery, the romance of making cricket balls.”

James Wallace writes for The Guardian and Wisden Cricket Monthly.


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