A red Kookaburra ball at Sydney Cricket Ground

Playing the ball

The Kookaburra experiment seems a confused diversion, not a ticket to high intensity


This article is taken from the May 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

This summer, the teams contesting the County Championship have been issued with a clear instruction from Brendan McCullum, the coach of the England national team, and Ben Stokes, the Test match captain: bowl fast, use spinners and bat aggressively.

Of course, nobody coaching or captaining their county team needs to follow the orders of McCullum and Stokes, but the demand has come with a rule change. This summer, four rounds of county championship matches will be played not with the Dukes ball — English-made, hand-stitched, which swings and seams more and for longer — but with a Kookaburra. Australian-made, machine-manufactured, the Kookaburra has a less pronounced seam and moves less in the air and off the pitch.

This is the result of the High-Performance Review of English cricket led by the former national team captain Sir Andrew Strauss two years ago. The aim was to “challenge our bowlers to develop their global skills”. In other words, to try to produce new generations of bowlers — quicks and spinners — more capable of success in countries like Australia and India.

The argument was explicit. We need to “make it harder for seamers to take wickets” to force the development of the wider skill set needed at international level, such as extreme pace and reverse swing. We should “negate the dominance of seamers in domestic cricket”, to increase the need for spinners to develop and take wickets. And we must “extend more games into a final day” — with the aim, again, to increase the need for spinners.

England coach Brendan McCullum at a nets session in Dharamsala, India, 8 March 2024

The Kookaburra was trialled in two rounds of matches last year, and the England and Wales Cricket Board reported that in those games the use of spin bowlers increased from 23 per cent to 33 per cent. This is just what Strauss and others sought, but does it mean it will work? Alec Stewart, the legendary former wicketkeeper/batsman and more recently Surrey’s director of cricket, thinks not. “I just don’t understand it all,” he said. “I think it’s the worst decision ever.”

In the first two rounds of the County Championship this season, Strauss seemed to be getting more of what he wanted. Middlesex, with a bowling attack of several medium-pacers, conceded a thousand runs before they took ten wickets. And young spinners got plenty of overs. Liam Dawson (Hampshire), Matt Parkinson (Kent), Cameron Steel (Surrey) and Calvin Harrison (Nottinghamshire) all took wickets.

Does this lead English cricket into the future envisaged by Strauss, McCullum and Stokes? Wickets taken by batsmen masquerading as bowlers suggest not. Adam Lyth’s looping off-spin would hardly prise out Virat Kohli on a flat Mumbai wicket. Rob Yates, who took seven wickets for Warwickshire against Durham, is unlikely to spin England to victory in Adelaide.

Shoaib Bashir, on the other hand, may well do so. But he has already proved his talent for England, taking 17 wickets at an average of 33 against India this winter after playing only nine first-class matches — most of which were played with a Dukes ball, not a Kookaburra.

The run-fest enjoyed by county batsmen pointed to another hazard. Essex racked up 530 for seven, Lancashire 484, Surrey 428, Durham 517 and Warwickshire 698 for three. As the Bears scored their second-highest Championship total in history, the top three racked up 191, 256 and 178 not out. Is this really testing cricket?

Perhaps the England top brass would respond that the easier it is for batsmen, the tougher it is for bowlers. But this is not what the High Performance Review argued. It wanted to make life harder for seamers, not make it too easy for batsmen. Expecting fast bowlers to “bang it in” on an early-season April wicket, when the ball is likely to just lose pace and sit up to be hit, seems naive. Expecting spinners to develop by bowling on soft pitches also seems unrealistic.

In fact, the argument for switching balls seems to be based on flawed assumptions. English cricket produces the cricketers it does because of conditions in England. For obvious reasons, pitches are not as dry as in India, and they will never be as hard as in Australia. The England team may perform better at home, but the same is true for most Test teams. Indians and Australians struggle with swing and seam movement in this country.

The English-made Dukes ball has a wider seam

Some statistics tell a story. Fewer than 20 per cent of deliveries in domestic cricket exceed 84 mph, compared to more than 40 per cent in Tests. England has fewer players with foreign first-class experience than India and Australia. But other stats beg conclusions missed by the reviewers. It may be true that county spinners bowl 22 per cent of overs in domestic cricket compared to 41 per cent abroad — but watch a hot day’s cricket in Colombo or Karachi, and the reason is obvious.

The Kookaburra experiment, then, seems a confused diversion when other ideas would give England the high-intensity domestic cricket it seeks. Sort out the Kafkaesque fixture list, scrap the Hundred, invest in the youth and Lions teams, send more young players overseas, play more games abroad — including against the best domestic teams from other countries — and arrange selectors’ matches with teams comprising the best domestic players. But stop fiddling with balls.

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