Thursday , November 30 2023

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In between World Cup matches in Delhi, my adventurous instincts lured me to undertake a trip to Meerut, 80 km northeast of the capital.

It is renowned for manufacturing cricket balls. In a previous column, the production methods and techniques of producing cricket balls had been detailed, but I wished to see these in action.

A car and driver were arranged for the trip, which was expressway for 80 percent of the journey.

Internet research into the factories had identified two as having accessible, welcoming, and informative websites. However, my request to the driver and his handlers to telephone a factory prior to setting off, to arrange an appointment, met with a lack of enthusiasm. My own attempts to make contact by email through the factory’s website failed to generate a response.

On arrival, Meerut appeared to be a hive of light industrial activity and traffic bustle through narrow streets, typical of urban India. The bustle was exacerbated by construction work associated with the building of an elevated metro link. Earlier in the week, on Oct. 20, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had launched a 17-km priority section of India’s first Regional Rapid Transit System on the Delhi-Meerut corridor.

Road closures and diversions seemed to fool the driver and his GPS. The navigation system on my phone was better and it enabled us to reach a street which the chosen cricket ball manufacturer listed as the address.

It was Suraj Kund Road, no ordinary street, since, from one end to the other, it was filled with retail outlets selling sports equipment and services. Later, I learned that there are some 300 such outlets on the street.

My driver went off in search of a cricket ball factory, returning in triumph beckoning me to enter a shop whose name bore no resemblance to the name of the factory. Inside, a man appeared from behind the counter. When he was shown the website which related to the factory, he confirmed that I was in the right place. However, I could not visit the factory, which was in another part of the city, because it was closed on that day, courtesy of a festival, Dussehra.

The incredulous look on my face must have registered and an interview was granted in a side-street office. There I learnt of many things about the sports goods industry and market in India, including the economics of cricket ball manufacture.

I am grateful to Vibhor Agarwal for his insights. My credentials were established by showing evidence of Arab News weekly columns on a laptop.

Originally, the business was started by his father, Vinod, in 1977, focusing on leather volleyballs and footballs, the demand of the times. In 1996, the focus switched to leather cricket balls. They were chosen over bats because balls are a daily consumption item.

All of the balls, red, white, and pink, are hand-made. Quality must be strictly controlled. Therein lies a key business risk. Five or six people work on the production of a cricket ball. If one of them does not show for work, semi-finished products will lie idle.

Currently, the cost of machines for cricket ball production is prohibitive for all but the big producers. This means that only between 10 and 15 percent of cricket balls are machine made at present, although production costs are lower. The ones used in this World Cup are machine-made under a non-Indian brand.

A second quality issue is leather. The amount available is controlled and tends to be released from older cattle, which is weaker in quality. A leather technologist checks the sheets and sets aside those with blemishes or scratches, so that visual defects are eradicated.

My internet search for cricket ball manufacturers in Meerut turned out to be the tip of an iceberg. Apart from an extraordinary number of such manufacturers, perhaps more than 500, there are also makers of bats and other equipment. This clustering can be traced to the relocation of people having those capabilities from the Punjab during Partition.

New growth has recently come to the market, as demand for cricket equipment has boomed and a greater belief in the quality of Indian products has emerged. Retail prices have also risen.

Meerut is recognized as the Sports City of India. It is likely that most international cricketers are playing with equipment produced there.

Not all the raw materials are produced in Meerut. Cricket bats are still largely dependent on imported English willow. However, a shortage of willow and increased demand have led to increased sourcing in India. Willow is harvested in the northern states of Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab, Haryana, and Gujarat, but it is heavier than English willow.

Well-established English bat brands have agreements to produce locally in Meerut, taking advantage of a lower cost base and proximity to a large and growing Indian market.

Having learnt that Meerut is the hub of cricket equipment production, it was time to return to watch how the world’s top players deploy this equipment.

Evidence was plentiful the next day in Delhi where Australia’s David Warner scored a century against the Netherlands.

That was followed by an astonishing innings by Glenn Maxwell who broke the record for the fastest one-day international World Cup century in a 40-ball frenzy of hitting. He beat the previous record of 49 deliveries set 18 days earlier by South Africa’s Aiden Markram. Australia amassed 399 for eight and bowled the Netherlands out for a mere 90.

More evidence was witnessed in Dharamsala, where Australia beat New Zealand by only five runs in a match with an aggregate score of 771 runs.

Another run riot was witnessed in Pune where South Africa scored 357 for four against New Zealand, Quinton de Kock and Rassie van der Dussen both scoring centuries.

These dented New Zealand’s hopes of reaching the semi-finals and all but cemented South Africa’s top-four place.

Batting records have been tumbling but spare a thought for the machine-made ball being battered mercilessly in this World Cup.

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