Keeping the shine of the Dukes ball

The Indian Express reporter travels to a nondescript factory in the East End of London, and finds ball maker Dilip Jajodia, a man who revels in his work of art: manufacturing the iconic Dukes balls.

Written by Bharat Sundaresan | Updated: June 11, 2017 12:11 pm
cricket, crickter, ball maker, Dilip Jajodia, who is Dilip Jajodia, sports news, indian express Jajodia handpicks balls specifically for venues. Source: Bharat Sundaresan

Every ball that leaves from here has gone through my hand.” Dilip Jajodia is holding a brand new and shiny red Dukes ball in his hand while he makes this resounding statement. Nearly 100,000 balls leave the Dukes warehouse in Walthamstow before travelling to different corners of the globe. So Jajodia knows a thing or two about cricket balls. He proceeds to show just how well he knows cricket’s projectiles.

“I’m going to bounce this new ball on the concrete floor,” he says. Despite many requests to not go through with this abominable act, he does it. The ball bounces back into his hand, and he proudly displays it, saying, “Look at that, not a scratch or a bump. The polish is intact.”

His otherwise stoic face breaks into a wide grin for a change. You realise that you’re not the first dumbfounded visitor or potential client that’s been subjected to this party trick.

It also sums up Jajodia. He’s 72 but in no mood to slow down. He’s a confident man and one who isn’t shy of insisting that his product’s still the best in the business. The Marwari, who grew up in Bangalore attending Bishop Cottons School, came to England in 1962 and in his words, was originally a “qualified money man” with a management degree. He was also a cricketer of note during his school days, often compared to Brijesh Patel who he played alongside, and was rated highly as an all-rounder before an unfortunate injury nipped his potential in the bud.

ALSO READ | Ball by ball commentary of Dukes vs Kookaburra contest [read here]

“It was on St Peter’s Day, June 29 during the traditional game against the Old Boys on the Cottons ground, when I was stood at stupid silly-point. The batsman said “Sonny, better move back” but the captain insisted on me staying. He whacked it next ball and it smashed into my mouth and next thing I remember I was in the hospital. I lost my edge from that day onwards,” recalls Jajodia.

The cricketing bug didn’t leave him though and he continued playing at club level upon moving to England before venturing into the business of cricket equipment. He started off by acquiring Morrant and producing lightweight pads that were used by everyone from Sunil Gavaskar to Sachin Tendulkar before revolutionising wicket-keeping pads.

A visit to Jajodia’s workshop was always a part of the itinerary for Indian cricketers who travelled here in the 70s and 80s. Then after having started working with cricket balls in 1983 he bought Dukes, which had been producing cricket balls in England since the 1700s, four years later. Since 1987, he’s been the godfather of cricket balls in England, and also a dear benefactor of every fast bowler who’s rolled his arm over with a Dukes in his hand. To the extent that in some circles, he’s described as the Indian man who makes English bowlers swing.

Every Test ball that’s been used in England over the last two decades doesn’t just have Jajodia’s stamp of approval, but it has also been picked from a selection of dozen balls he’s specifically chosen for that particular venue. While in the days gone by, Dukes would send 6000 balls a season to the ECB during a season, now they simply tell Jajodia, “We’ll leave it to you. You’re the man.”

Not surprising, considering how picky and fussy he is about every ball that’s manufactured at his warehouse, which he shifted from Tunbridge Wells in Kent—the original home of Dukes since the 18th century—to Walthamstow in the East End of London.

It’s at this nondescript warehouse, which carries nothing but the house number on its blue door, that you meet Jajodia as he’s busy preparing himself for a sales pitch to the ECB a day later. Walthamstow is famous in Europe for having the longest single-street market in the entire continent. Its demographic is mainly a mix of east Europeans, Pakistanis and Jamaicans and it’s the last stop on the Victoria Line. The Dukes factory is a 20-minute walk from Walthamstow Central Station and located anonymously in the midst of a bunch of unremarkable townhouses—intentionally so, considering the crime rate in these parts according to the owner.

Almost expectedly, Jajodia is busy fiddling with a box of balls that he’ll be exhibiting to the English cricket officials. Behind him is a sign that reads British Cricket Balls Ltd since 1760. Around him lie thousands of balls in various colours—pink, white and orange apart from every shade of red. There are also machines and apparatus of various kinds—some that seem to have been around since 1760.

Jajodia isn’t just a perfectionist; he takes immense pride in being one. He wastes no time in presenting a crash-course on all the steps that go into the making of a Dukes ball, insisting that it takes nearly three-and-a-half “man-hours” to make every single ball. And it takes only one gram here or there for them to get rejected.

“Nowhere in the world can they check my balls and find something is wrong. It has to be 156-163 grams. I challenge anybody anywhere to find a ball that’s outside that,” he declares. Irfan, one of the two men hard at work in the factory, is immediately summoned for a demonstration with the weighing scale. It shows 162 gm. “It passes but I would prefer 163. If it doesn’t apply to that, it goes in the drawer here,” he says while pointing at a drawer with hundreds of balls that look perfectly fine to the untrained eye, but have been rejected by Jajodia and will be used mainly by counties for net practice at most.

He then takes you to the back to explain the branding and stamping—the balls are kept in pressurised containers and pressed in before being left overnight—processes. Then it’s time for the lamping—where grease is applied then melted using a light flame—before the final polish.

Jajodia describes each process with the same enthusiasm of someone doing it for the first time, and he’s not kidding when he says ball-making is more than a business for him, it’s a passion.

“This is the traditional English Alumtine finish which is also what they do in India. India have alumtine leather. This is cow leather and we put grease into it. Grease waterproofs the ball,” he explains. “When it’s a darker shade (more like an apple than cherry) it does more, because it means the leather has taken more grease,” he says.

In many ways, Jajodia is trying to keep an old art alive by sticking to the more traditional techniques developed hundreds of years ago.

The cricket world has moved on, with other companies now getting balls machine-stitched and with sleeker equipment being put to use.

But Jajodia isn’t one to budge. Ironically while it was Kookaburra, an Australian company, that substantially affected Dukes’ monopoly in English cricket; Jajodia has now broken into the Australian market with Sheffield Shield Games being played using his trademark balls with the Aussies desperate to do better when they come here for the next Ashes. Jajodia is at the workshop nearly seven days a week, and if not he’s travelling the globe signing business deals.

He isn’t completely blind to the changing climes though and admits that it’s not only on the field that the ball plays the inferior cousin to the bat.

“They’ll say, 600 pounds for a bat, but they want the ball for 5 pounds,” says Jajodia. He blames the diluting of the market on the subcontinent.

“Anybody can go to the bazaar in Pakistan, buy a ball for 3 pounds and come and charge 10 pounds here and say we’ll give you 2 pounds back for a ball. I tell them those might be red and round but they aren’t cricket balls,” he says.

Jajodia, who also runs a local club Woodford Wells which hosted Chris Gayle recently, does have cricketers over often, but he quips about how clueless they can be when it comes to the equipment they use. “I don’t encourage it. Honestly, the cricketers are very ignorant. I show them the inside of the ball, and they say ‘Oh this is inside?’ And you tell them that it takes three and a half hours to make this and they go ‘Oh really?’” he shrugs.

Specification and specific integrity is what has kept Dukes in the top bracket of the ball-making business despite competition arising from everywhere, according to Jajodia. He is a puritan when it comes to his work, and insists on not bending the rules for anyone.

“If the ECB fellows tomorrow come and say they don’t like the polish, or something else, I’ll say ‘sorry, this is what we make. No changes possible’,” he says. And you can trust him to do that and maybe even leave them staggered by bouncing the new ball on the road for good measure.

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