New Delhi: Wasiullah Khan picks up the ball and twirls it around like the offspinner he once was. But his eyes aren’t focused on the batsman at the other end of the 22-yard pitch. He looks at the ball spinning in the air, runs his fingers over the seam and tosses it into one of the three boxes in front of him.
“Test cricket quality”, he says, standing in the middle of a small room that serves as a storehouse for finished cricket balls. The balls that don’t quite meet the highest quality standards are relegated to the two other boxes, one for first-class cricket and the other for club cricket.
The 59-year-old Khan is the chief ball inspector at Meerut-based Sanspareil Greenlands (SG), which supplies balls for Test matches and first-class cricket in India. Each ball that is supplied to the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) is approved by him before it leaves the factory.
“One can’t really just look at a ball and say whether it will last the full 80 overs,” says Puneet Anand, executive director at SG, which has been manufacturing cricket balls since 1931. To the untrained eye, it’s almost impossible to differentiate between the balls that are chosen for Test matches, the highest level of cricket, and those used for club matches. “There are certain things you look for such as the colour, the way the seam is stitched,” says Khan, who represented Uttar Pradesh from 1971 to 1974 in first-class cricket. “But at the end of the day, you can call it instinct.”
Khan became interested in ball manufacturing when SG cricket founder Kailash Anand, a teammate from his club cricket days, told him that balls weren’t retaining their shape. It took them nearly three years to figure out the perfect combination of cotswool and cork that today make up the core of the SG ball.
“It was a hit-and-trial effort,” says Khan, who, along with Anand, are the only two people at the company who know the exact combination of the cotswool and cork. “We imported lots of balls, took them apart and hit upon the correct mixture.” While the quality of leather is important, it is the core that decides how much the ball would bounce. Khan claims he can make balls that will bounce up to 12 feet after pitching on Indian pitches, which are known for their low bounce.
Despite this breakthrough, SG has come under fire recently as first-class cricketers have been complaining about how the ball changes shape very quickly. A change in the shape of the ball is the main concern for ball makers as the bounce and swing become unpredictable, making life difficult for both batsmen and bowlers.
“There have been matches when teams had to change as many as 10 balls,” says Parthasarathy Sharma, former Indian test player and currently a consultant with the National Cricket Academy. “Complaints have gone to the BCCI.”
SG defends itself by saying that it’s having problems with the leather. “We faced the problem only last year when we had to import leather from abroad since our regular suppliers couldn’t meet our demand,” Khan says.
BCCI is now trying out balls from other manufacturers such as Kookaburra and Stanford for one-day internationals and junior cricket, respectively. “We are looking at other manufacturers, but for the moment we are sticking with SG,” says Niranajan Shah, secretary of the cricket board.
BCCI has placed an order of 400 dozen balls with SG for the 2007-08 cricket season, an increase of 50 dozen over the previous year.
That’s good news for Khan, who has been with SG since 1982. Before joining SG, Khan worked for the State Bank of India (SBI), but his heart was always in cricket. Born in Rampur, Uttar Pradesh, Khan and his five siblings took to sports from an early age, playing club-level cricket or hockey. After graduating from Meerut University in 1970, Khan was picked up by SBI that was looking to build a team in Delhi. He represented Uttar Pradesh in five Ranji Trophy matches bowling offspin and batting in the middle order.
At SG, Khan oversees the manufacturing process from the time the material is imported to the factory. At that stage, he identifies the leather pieces—typically butt hide— that are suitable to make Test cricket balls. He then follows the process at every stage of production, from the raw hide treatment to dyeing, cutting and stitching, and ensures that only his more experienced staffers make the Test balls. SG, which incidentally shares its initials with the legendary Indian batsman Sunil Gavaskar, who is also the company’s brand ambassador, is one of the few manufacturers of hand-stitched balls.
Over 170 employees roll out 40 dozen balls a day in conditions that would probably drive away their foreign buyers. Workers toil away in cramped rooms, some of them with only an asbestos roof. There aren’t even ceiling fans in some of the sheds nor exhaust fans to dispel the stench of raw hide.
After his two lieutenants weigh and measure the ball, it is time for Khan to pass the final judgement. “At this stage, our rejection rates are nearly 20%,” he says, pointing out how the seam in one ball was slightly out of shape, before throwing it into the box meant for club cricket. Test cricket balls retail at Rs700 per piece, nearly double the price for those used in club cricket.
Sifting through about 15 dozen balls at the end of a one-hour session, Khan says, “As a cricketer myself, I know what problems cricketers face, such as bruised hands and quality of bounce,” as he begins the inspection.