The crimson rambler

MATERIAL WORLD In 1751, Frederick, Prince of Wales, passed away, his demise caused by an abscess that had formed as a result of a blow on the side from a cricket ball
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Nothing fires the sporting imagination like a new cricket ball fresh out of the box. Deep, dark, shiny red, with the maker's name glittering in gold, it sits heavy in the hand, immaculate and full of possibilities. A bowler thinks of bounce and spin, runs a finger speculatively along the seam. A batsman thinks of the sound it will make in the middle of the bat, and tries not to think how hard it is, how neatly it snaps fingers and blackens their nails.

They have not changed much since the earliest days of the game: a poet writing about the game in Latin in 1706 described the "crimson orb", and the Lord's Museum has a ball of 1820 that is little different from today's new Readers and Kookaburras. The weight has been set twice: at between five ounces and six ounces in 1744, and at between five-and-a-half and five-and-three-quarter ounces in 1774. Similarly, the lawmakers have spoken twice on circumference: they decreed nine to nine-and-a-half inches in 1838, and (you can hear the grumpy buffers arguing the toss over this one) eight-and-thirteen-sixteenths of an inch to nine inches in 1927. Due to metrication, the British Standard (BSI 5993) for a top-grade men's ball is now set at a weight of between 156g-163g and a circumference of 224ml-229ml.

The key chap in cricket ball manufacture is the quilt-winder: he it is who fashions the interior of the ball - the quilt - from cork, synthetic rubbers and fibre, all held in place by a layer of smoked sheet rubber. This, and the subsequent application of the leather cover, the turning, milling, stitching, seaming, blocking with gold foil, and polishing, is craftsman's work: 75 per cent of the price of a new cricket ball represents labour costs.

Blacker arts are applied to the finished object. The bowler's cunning grip will make it spin and seam and swing - or seem to swing, for scientists say it is impossible. One side will be scuffed, the other polished in pursuit of lateral movement in the air. It is against the rules to apply dirt to aid the bowler's grip. (England captain Atherton controversially appeared to be doing this in 1994.)

Then there is the seamier side of ball-tampering, in which the bowler picks at the seam of the ball to make it stand up, so that bounce and direction are unpredictable. This alleged activity was at the heart of the recent Khan v Lamb and Botham court battle during the course of which Geoffrey Boycott averred that such ball-tampering had been going on as long as the game has been played.

The ball has inspired cricket writers as well as players. Neville Cardus invested it with animal qualities when he wrote of "the crimson rambler", and in 1979 one Hugh Barty-King devoted half of his book, Quilt-winders and Pod-shavers, to the history, design and manufacture of the cricket ball. The Pod-shavers half was about bat production, and need not concern us.

Craft, crime and culture - and yet the scholars of the game grant the ball little importance. "I don't think there is an awful lot to say about cricket balls," said Stephen Green, curator of the Lord's Museum. "Although I went around a factory that made them once, Down Under. Amazing how complicated it all was. Two-and-a-half hours, the tour took, in baking heat. Awfully nice of them to show me round, but all rather lost on me, I'm afraid."

Yet you underestimate the importance of the cricket ball at your peril, for one of them affected the destiny of Britain in the most direct manner. In 1751, Frederick, Prince of Wales, passed away, his demise caused by an abscess that had formed as a result of a blow on the side from a cricket ball. He would have reigned as King Frederick I. But we got the madness of King George III instead. Princes William and Harry would be well advised to stick to tennis