Sheffield Shield 2016-17
Dukes up: Bowlers thrive with UK ball
Runs and centuries fall in the Sheffield Shield following trial of Dukes ball
Analysis of the impact made by the English-manufactured Dukes ball on last summer's Sheffield Shield competition has shown it might provide a boost for Australia's Test team striving to break a 16-year Ashes drought in the UK.
Cricket Australia's Head of Cricket Operations, Sean Cary, said the statistical data collected from the five rounds of Shield matches (plus the competition final) that employed the Dukes ball had yielded results largely in keeping with expectations that drove the trial.
The most significant being the drop in the average number of runs scored per wicket taken; 28.9 against the Dukes ball as opposed to 34.6 in the three rounds of Shield cricket last summer that featured the traditional, Australia-made Kookaburra red ball.
As well as the comparative reduction in individual centuries – 19 against the red Kookaburra (6.3 per round of matches) versus 18 in total in preliminary Shield rounds using the Dukes (3.6 per round) – suggesting that batters found it tougher against the English ball that is reputed to swing further and retain its hardness longer.
CA announced last October they had worked with UK-based manufacturer to produce a ball that mirrored the performance of the English version, but was designed to suit harsher Australian conditions, to help the nation's top-level domestic batters and bowlers better adapt to the idiosyncrasies of the Dukes.
The trial was driven by the struggles that successive Australia Test teams have endured against their Ashes rival on English soil, where the visitors have not won a campaign since Steve Waugh's team triumphed in 2001.
"It (the two-month Dukes trial) delivered what we thought it would deliver, we thought it would create challenging environments for the batsmen and give the bowlers a little bit more to work with," Cary told cricket.com.au.
"I think the long-form game, if anything, needs to favour the bowler a little bit because the batsmen get plenty of favouritism in the white-ball formats.
"So it was about allowing local cricketers to adapt, and seeing who among them can adapt more quickly, as well as those who are prepared to accept that challenge.
"And then they put their foot forward in terms of selection for 2019 if they can become consistent."
The unique properties of the Dukes ball – slightly smaller and darker than its red Kookaburra counterpart, and with a more prominent seam – were most evident on day one of the 15 Shield matches played prior to the final between Victoria and South Australia (which also featured the English ball).
In eight of those matches, the team batting first lost their initial six wickets for 150 runs or less, compared to 12 such day-one collapses in 34 matches using the red Kookaburra ball over the past two summers.
As a result, the average total of the team batting first on day one dropped from 335 against the red Kookaburra at the start of the summer (when pitches are traditionally at their most lively) to 270 from February onwards when the Dukes ball was used.
"We've seen that the Dukes ball swings in any conditions, and at different times of the day as well," Cary said of the ball's performance in Australia.
"It was quite interesting in the Shield final (at Alice Springs last March) on the first day, it didn’t swing at all early on when it was quite warm and humid yet the days after that it did swing around when it was quite dry."
Cary acknowledged that a key element of playing Test cricket in England – the presence of heavy, low cloud and high levels of air and surface moisture ,such as prevailed at Trent Bridge in 2015 when Australia was bowled out for 60 in less than a session – cannot be replicated during an Australia summer.
But he noted it was the players who had experienced first-class cricket in the UK who adapted most readily to the introduction of the Dukes ball to Sheffield Shield, with four of the five leading runs scorers against the Dukes (Ed Cowan, Moises Henriques, George Bailey and Joe Burns) all having previously plied their trade on the England county circuit.
And that it was genuine swing bowlers who historically pitched the ball fuller and 'kissed' the pitch – seamers such as leading Dukes ball wicket-taker Chadd Sayers and Western Australia pair Jason Behrendorff and David Moody – who proved most potent when the Dukes was first introduced.
"Over the course of the five rounds and the (Shield) final, the bowlers learned to adjust," Cary said.
"There were some comments early that Australian bowlers are taught to hit the deck and they weren't swinging it, but those bowlers that were genuine swing bowlers were able to reap benefits early, and then the other bowlers caught up over the course of the five rounds.
"So by the time the final came along, the Victorian pace bowlers (James Pattinson and Chris Tremain) had learned how to swing the Dukes ball, and they were very effective.
"Ed Cowan made some comments in light of his experience of batting in England, that very early on in the game you've just got to play with really soft hands and let the ball come on to the bat and be patient.
"And then, as you get in, you can start to formulate your innings and force the pace."
While a decision on whether the Dukes ball will be used in the coming Australia domestic summer is yet to be made by CA, Cary believes the feedback from players and coaches as well as the data gathered from matches indicated the trial was a success.
He said the only setback was unexpected wear and tear problems with some of the Dukes balls in the early matches, but the manufacturer had quickly acknowledged the performance fault and pledged to rectify it.
"Coaching staff were really positive around the use of different balls and the way it taught the players to learn to adapt," said Cary, the former WA seamer who departs CA next week to take up a role as senior director with the United States Tennis Association based in Florida.
"Players don't necessarily like change at the best of times, but sometimes we've got to force the change on them so that they develop adaptability skills and learn to challenge themselves in different environments.
"Hopefully it holds them in good stead for opportunities down the track where they need to go back to their memory banks and recall how they learned to adapt to a different environment."
"From a CA perspective, we're happy because we're getting appealing, result-driven cricket.
"As far as Test cricket's concerned, that's really important.
"If we're going to maintain an attractive format and long-term product for fans then we need results, and we need bowlers to be in the game all the time."