Marsh Sheffield Shield 2020-21
Dukes proves spin hazard as CA ends experiment
Sheffield Shield will no longer include use of English ball after tweakers' opportunities became increasingly limited
2 July 2020, 04:45 PM AEST
Fears that a generation of spin bowlers may be slipping out of sight have prompted Cricket Australia (CA) to end its experiment with the seam-friendly Dukes ball in the Marsh Sheffield Shield.
After four seasons of using the British-made ball in the post-BBL rounds of the Shield and in the competition's final, CA announced today it would revert to using the Kookaburra exclusively.
The concerns expressed by leading domestic players that it's becoming more difficult for spinners to thrive in four-day cricket have been backed up by numbers that show they are being given fewer and fewer opportunities with both balls, but particularly with the Dukes.
Spinners accounted for less than 15 per cent of all overs bowled with the Dukes last summer, down from about a quarter of all overs in 2016-17. With the red Kookaburra, the number has dwindled from 26 per cent to 20.9 in the same timeframe.
Alarmingly, spinners took just 10 per cent of all Dukes ball wickets last Shield season.
The now-retired Steven O'Keefe was last season's standout individual spinner in the Shield overall with just 16 scalps, which left him outside the competition's top 20 leading wicket-takers. The nine-Test tweaker has since warned the likes of Ashton Agar and Mitch Swepson risk falling by the wayside unless changes are made to the competition, primarily in regard to pitch preparation.
It is hoped the move away from Dukes balls might see Nathan Lyon's successor emerge in time for when the champion off-spinner eventually hangs up his boots.
CA's head of cricket operations Peter Roach said the dwindling opportunities for spinners in the Shield was a factor, albeit not the only one, in the decision to ditch the Dukes.
"Nathan Lyon is not 21 years old and who's going to be next? That's the challenge we've got, among others," Roach told cricket.com.au, adding that the decision was made in consultation with states and players.
"We've certainly seen evidence of a strong benefit for faster bowlers with the Dukes ball and people who can swing it. There have been some examples of states not selecting spinners for games in February and March, which is when we'd usually expect spin to be playing a greater part.
"Historically as the weather gets better and the pitches get drier, the spinners should be bowling more and more as the season goes on. But we weren't seeing that. If they're not bowling, they're not going to get wickets.
"That rammed it home that that's not what we want to be seeing.
"That's not exclusively a Dukes ball problem – there were some spinners who think bowling with the Dukes ball is more effective for them. But we think this will provide better opportunities for spinners at a time of year when they should be suited (to the conditions).
"That's not just for the spin bowlers, but also for our batters to play (more spin) which is a big challenge when we go to the subcontinent especially."
O'Keefe suggested that failing to prioritise spinners would ultimately hinder Australia's chances of winning a Test series in India, the modern game's biggest challenge.
Ironically it was Australia's intense desire to win in another country, England, that prompted the introduction of the Dukes into the Shield in the first place.
CA's then team performance chief Pat Howard, with approval from state associations, announced the trial ahead of the '16-17 season in the wake of Australia suffering its fourth consecutive Ashes series defeat abroad in 2015.
Ricky Ponting was among the voices who had called for the move as Australia searched for batsmen capable of handling the increased movement the likes of Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad found in England.
CA's stated goal of succeeding in an away Ashes campaign was partially realised in 2019 – the urn was retained, though the series finished as a 2-2 draw – and Roach believes the exposure to the Dukes was beneficial.
It could not have hurt, for example, the development of Marnus Labuschagne, who had played the majority of Shield rounds that featured the Dukes between 2016 and 2019, as he emerged as a key batsman during the Ashes.
"I think it would be viewed as a success," Roach said of the Dukes experiment. "There are coaches and players around the country who have loved the challenge of a different ball.
"They (the Kookaburra and the Dukes) do perform fairly differently and the challenge for players and coaches to adapt has been significant.
"It wasn't the sole reason we were successful in England (last year but) you'd like to think there has been between zero and a lot of benefit in there – there certainly hasn't been no benefit."
Scheduling meant the experiment had little to no effect on several of Australia's best players between the 2015 and 2019 Ashes series, with national representatives barely featuring in the Dukes rounds of the Shield.
Fast bowler Mitchell Starc, for example, did not bowl with a Dukes ball in the four years between the series, and found himself on the outer for most of Australia's 2019 campaign despite playing all five Tests in 2015.
Fans of the Dukes ball argue it provides a better examination of batters' techniques and keeps fast bowlers in the game for longer as the ball ages, while issues with the Kookaburra ball's longevity in Australian Test cricket have popped up from time to time.
Some domestic players have also pointed out the contrasting climates of the United Kingdom and Australia, and the effect they have on each country's respective pitches, meant the gains from Dukes balls in Australia have been limited.
The type of Dukes used in the Sheffield Shield had to be tweaked from the one used in the UK due to the harder and more abrasive surfaces in Australia.
While it's been shelved for now, Roach did not rule out the possibility of the Dukes being reintroduced in the future, encouraging the manufacturer's owner, Dilip Jajodia.
"Having the opportunity to show the quality of our ball in Australia's premier domestic cricket competition has been a privilege," Jajodia said in a statement.
"We understand CA's decision and are buoyed by the potential for the Dukes to return in future seasons."
Kookaburra, meanwhile, has vowed to continue to improve its ball.
"We have worked very hard over many years in conjunction with boards around the world to develop a cricket ball that brings out all the skills of players," said Brett Elliott, group managing director at Kookaburra.
"We will continue to work with the sport to finetune our processes to produce the best possible cricket ball for the different formats."