Cricket World Cup:The swinging Duke is not all it seams

The Equipment: The white ball; Graeme Wright enters the debate surrounding the World Cup ball

CHANCES ARE that the American music publisher Irving Mills never saw a game of cricket in his life. But he was responsible for two lines that have a special resonance when it comes to the World Cup. "It don't mean a thing, if it ain't got that swing."

Appropriately, the lyrics were written for Duke Ellington. Because it is the swing factor of the Duke cricket ball that has been exciting comment in the build-up to the World Cup. The white Duke, that is. The one used in the Sunday League since 1993 and used here last year in the Emirates Triangular tournament. If you believe some of the stories going round the county circuit, this Duke swings as sweetly as old Edward Kennedy Ellington himself.

Dilip Jajodia, the managing director of British Cricket Balls Ltd, who have made 540 white Duke balls for the World Cup proper, for practice and the warm-up games, does not subscribe to the stories. Talk to him on the subject and the swinging white ball becomes an urban myth to rank alongside Stainsby girls or crocs in the khazi. Because when it comes down to it, the white Duke is made in exactly the same way as the red Duke, except for its finish. Whereas the red ball is leather in its natural state, with grease rubbed in to bring out the colour, the white ball (the leather is dyed with a white pigment) has a polyurethane finish that gives it a protective skin to retain the whiteness.

"If we didn't," Mr Jajodia explained, "the grease and dirt which is absorbed by the leather of the red ball would turn the white ball black. The poly skin absorbs nothing, not even water." The seam on the World Cup balls, incidentally, is not polyurethaned, which should remove any illusion that the white ball has a more pronounced seam than the red.

So where's the beef? There's talk that the white ball is harder. It was said after the Emirates tournament that the Sri Lankans would complain to the International Cricket Council that the white ball damaged bats. Nothing came of this, but Mike Atherton does agree that the white ball is harder on bats than the red. He has even used a harder bat on Sundays rather than risk his softer bats. "I've not noticed a lot of difference in movement," Atherton said, "but the white ball seems to ping off the bat more. It's harder on the hands as well when you're fielding close to the bat."

It depends on what you mean by hard. Dilip Jajodia argues that the hardness of a cricket ball is determined by its core, not its finish, and that the centre of the white and red balls is exactly the same. The white ball might sound harder off the bat because of its finish, he concedes. And it will not feel as soft in the hands as the red ball. It is like the finish on a piece of wood. Rub in a polish and it feels softer; brush on polyurethane and the finish is harder. The wood itself has not changed, except in perception.

It is in the way the eye perceives the white ball that the question of movement becomes interesting. Just because you see a white ball better, and so see any movement better, it does not follow that the white ball moves more. As pigments, white is the lightest of all tones and black the darkest. Used next to each other in printing and painting they create special effects. White coming out of a black background appears to expand. To my eyes, a white circle on a black background appears bigger than a same-size red circle on a white background.

So if a batsman sees a white ball "expanding" out of a black sightscreen, what is to stop him assuming the ball is closer than it really is and playing his stroke too soon? The England coach David Lloyd, whose innovations have included eye tests, recalls that reaction tests showed how John Crawley saw the ball early (forget the colour for a moment) and went for it early. Yet the received wisdom for playing the swinging ball is for the batsman to hold his line as late as possible until he needs to play a stroke. Play too early against a moving ball and the chances of an edge are magnified.

There is more than perception and a swinging white ball, however, behind some low Sunday League scoring in recent years. To be honest, seam-happy pitches, which will not be so brazenly on offer in the World Cup, are a more likely explanation. The Duke ball did not prevent high scores when used in Sharjah and the West Indies. Nor last Sunday when Essex and Lancashire thumped a couple of white Dukes all around Chelmsford to the tune of 599 runs. As Lloyd points out, it is not as if English cricket is brimful of Darren Goughs who actually swing the ball before it pitches, as opposed to the Angus Frasers who make it nip back off the seam.

This is not to say the white ball will not move about when bowled with skill and intent. Of course it will, and England in May and June should produce home-made conditions for home bowlers. (The best three bowling returns in the World Cup, all recorded in England, came from a West Indian and two Australians.)

Another factor in England's favour is that the Duke keeps its shape, its shine and its seam longer than its Kookaburra counterpart used in Australia and overseas. In theory, if not necessarily in practice, it should not bring the wrist spinners into play quite so soon. England's batsmen will not mind that one little bit.

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