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Tried and tested: Business as usual at Kookaburra factory, despite recent criticism

The first Kookaburra balls were hand-stitched, or rather stitched by the hands of its owner AG Thompson, who was a saddle and harness maker in England.

Written by Sandip G | Melbourne |
Updated: December 22, 2018 12:40:56 pm
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A bronze statue of Victor Trumper in his stately pose – arched onto his front foot, bat above his head, ready to fetch the red-leather ball far – greets you at the Kookaburra factory in the Melbourne suburb of Moorabin. At the reception is an old photograph of its founder AG Thompson, inside the meeting hall is a cut-out of Usman Khawaja, it’s brand ambassador, besides framed photographs of Australia’s women’s hockey team. The gallery has a whole set of memorabilia including a box of the first white balls used in cricket at the World Series Cricket. On the ragged, soiled balls is inscribed the score of the match.

They treasure the set of balls not because they are fond of cricket-relics, because that’s where it all started for them, their catalyst to global domination, a reminder of their humbler times as well as the symbol of their inventiveness. There is a story behind the origin white balls too.

“When Australia hosted the Olympics in 1956, they wanted white balls. What we did was we painted the red-cricket balls white. And when Packer came up with the idea of coloured balls, we suggested the white ones. The rest is history,” says Shannon Gill, the manager.

Forty years later, they invented the pink ball too, but seldom has their monopoly (and quality) ever been questioned as it now. The Aussie great, and a Victorian himself, Shane Warne urged the ACB to replace Kookaburras with the English hand-stitched Dukes. “The Kookaburra, for a long time, hasn’t been a very good ball. We’ve been saying the same thing but nothing seems to be changing. A few of us have said, ‘let’s try the Duke ball here’. I’d love to see it used all over the world. The best ball is the Dukes ball, so let’s use it. It’s time for Kookaburra to have a spell and get the Dukes ball out and try that,” he’d said in 2015.

Former coach Darren Lehman, besides the beleaguered Steve Smith and David Warner, too had expressed their displeasure over the brand of ball they’d used to while growing up. The reasons were several, that the seam wore off rapidly, that it would get worn out too soon and had to be changed frequently. Batsmen tend to prosper against such a ball, which does not offer the lateral movement, in the air and off the pitch, that can be obtained with the Dukes.

Even Ricky Ponting, who used Kookaburra bat for much of his career, recommended its use in first-class cricket. Adding to the chorus was Indian skipper Virat Kohli, who even endorsed the use of Dukes in India as well as domestic cricket, with its pronounced seam assisting more swing for the bowlers and the leather lasting longer.

Meanwhile, in England, the Dukes have sprung with their own brand of pink ball, which according to county experts far outperformed the Kookaburra in England.

But far from being shaken up, the developments have only stirred Kookaburra’s historic resilience. Gill gently states Kookaburra’s domination, as if to suggest the empire is intact. “All Test countries except India and England are using our balls. It’s used in their leagues and all ODIs and World Cup. So I don’t understand why there’s so much hue and cry. And of course, pink is the way forward for cricket.”

Even the pink ball, though, comes with its share of criticism. One of the widely carped aspects of the pink ball is that it swings too much at night, even more than the red ball despite being made of the same materials. “It can depend on conditions,” he says.

It’s also because they add a thin film of extra colour to the surface before lacquer finish. The film of bright-pink colour sprayed on top is referred to as the G7 finish. Gill would not reveal details of this spray coat, but detailed that its purpose was to enhance the visibility of the ball. Finally, to preserve the colour, another coating of lacquer is applied.

The extra coating of lacquer is one of the reasons, the pink ball does not offer scuff up and offer reverse swing. “With the red, the top coat does scuff off within the first 10 to 15 overs and then the natural fats of the ball are what encourage the later shining. This feature is still possible with the pink ball, however it is harder to shine. This will mean that teams will need to work hard at preserving the condition of the ball. After all, every invention needs to have some interesting challenge, lest it gets boring,” says Matthew Boons, one of the lacquerers.

However, the Indian cricket board has been averse to using the pink ball because it’s not dew resistant, and hence could unduly impact the matches. Gill assures they’re working on it. “You take any ball, be it SG, Duke’s or Kookaburra, it works differently in different place. There’s only so much we can do, rest depends on the grass, moisture and other things like that. It’s a trial and error method and we will come up with something. But yeah, we are looking address all those issues,” he said.

If, in case, they feel a little low, they can open the old pack of World Series Balls, sniff it and get inspired.

***

The first Kookaburra balls were hand-stitched, or rather stitched by the hands of its owner AG Thompson, who was a saddle and harness maker in England. He was all set to immigrate to Canada before someone showed him a picture of Canada in winter and he changed his might and set sail to Melbourne, where in 1890 he opened a retail leather store. But by the early 1920s, at the start of the Great Depression Era, his business was in decline as horse-ridden carriages began to dwindle. And so he decided to manufacture cricket balls. The name Kookaburra because he had a pet Kookaburra called Jackie.

The process of making a ball begins at an abattoir, in Queensland, which provides them with a special variety of raw cow-hide. “There are various breeds of cows, and we take it from a particular breed, which is a trade secret, which only the top guys know. But it’s from a 100 percent Australian breed,” says Nick, one of the workers.

The hides are then preserved in salt to remove dirt and blood, before they pluck the hair out of the hide, for which they apply chemicals. “It also helps in killing the bacteria and drains off moisture. The process take almost 4-5 overs and its’s hung to dry and then heated,” he says. The process is called alum-tanning, which dates back to 1000 years. “It’s one of the most important procedures because the chemical bonds produce a strong leather with good durability. Then it becomes easier to dye the hide as well.” he adds.

Later, the hides are put through a splitting machine that cuts them for consistent level thickness, preferably 3mm.

The tanned leather then goes for testing in a lab at the edge of the entrance. A strip of leather from every batch is passed through a resistance machine. Even the selected leather is graded according to endurance, the best ones go to Test cricket. The leather is then cut and made into a casing, which is stitched over the cork, the final stitching done with hands rather than machine. “More important than the leather is the quilt.”

Quilt is the nucleus, the smaller the quilt the better its durability.

The quilt is a sphere of cork and rubber, processed from a variety of rubber processed in Portugal. It’s the size of a quail’s egg. These spheres are wrapped with specially cut cork sheet in fiver layers, before they’re wound with wet strong coarse yarns and then dried. It resembles a potato in size, shape and colour. After they’re dried, the casts are fitted over it and stitched with machines, which resemble sewing machines with monstrous teeth. The last stitching, that is of the two rows of seam in the centre, is stitched by hands, by experts who had been in this profession for four decades. “Everything needs a human touch, after all,” says Boons.

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