It’s the last working day at Kookaburra Sport -- the factory that produces the largest number of cricket balls in the world -- before the employees go on a long Christmas holiday. Its Communication Head, Shannon Gill, has invited a few visiting Indian journalists, covering the India-Australia Test series, to the facility to give an idea about the history of Kookaburra, how its operations began, spread and what actually goes into manufacturing an international quality cricket ball.
The factory is situated some 25km from Melbourne’s Central Business District, and if you aren’t a cricket fan, it’s easy to miss this nondescript plant. As you get down at the parking lot, you are immediately attracted to the bronze statue of Victor Trumper in his famous batting gait, his front foot bent and the backlift arching towards the ball. Go past the statue and you are ushered into the swanky front office on the walls of which different stages of how a turf cricket ball is manufactured are displayed.
On the right of the front office, there is a meeting room where a large photo of Kookaburra, a terrestrial tree kingfisher native to Australia and New Guinea, is displayed. It was a pet of Alfred Grace Thompson, the founder of AG Thompson Ltd, and he named the ball after the bird which he had named Jacky. Thompson, an Englishman, was a saddle and harness maker.
Born in 1863, he learnt his trade from his Scottish father William. Thompson had planned to migrate to Canada but upon seeing a poster promoting Tasmania on a cold and miserable day, he changed his mind and decided to set sail for a warmer Australia with his wife Ruth.
Thompson established himself as a leading harness maker in Brighton but when horse carriage business began to shrink with the advent of the motor car, he turned to ball-manufacturing business, having already received an odd ball-repair job. In 1890, he founded his company and after shifting a few bases as the business expanded, he finally moved to its current location at Chesterville Road, Moorabbin. It’s still a fully a family-owned business and Kookaburra is the most favoured brand when it comes to white and pink balls while its red spheres are used in most other countries except India and England who use their locally-produced SG Test and Dukes balls respectively.
The Kookaburra balls have come under a lot of scrutiny from players as they feel the red one goes soft too early and the white, players complain, doesn’t swing as much as it used to. The manufacturers are aware of these issues but they believe that their product and the processes that they have developed over a century are time-tested.
“It isn’t just that 70 percent of all cricket balls used in Australia across formats and grades of cricket are from our stable,” says Gill. “Our balls are also used for Test matches in most countries around the world. That indicates a vote of confidence in the Kookaburra. The one word that we are focussed on when it comes to the cricket ball is balance – there should be balance between swing and seam, and as the ball grows older, there should be natural deterioration so that spinners have purchase as well. But we don’t want it to be only a bowlers’ paradise. We feel our balls offer a very good balance between bat and ball, which is why so many countries around the world are happy using them,” Gill explains before guiding us inside the factory where the smell of lacquer overwhelms you.
There are rows of cricket balls everywhere of various colours – red, white, pink, yellow and half red and half white. You can see piles of large leather sheets ready to be cleaned and dyed, as per the colour requirement, before they are sent for quality testing where they are graded by experts and used for manufacturing balls for different levels.
There are buckets of granules, a fine mixture of rubber and cork. The cork is sourced from a particular tree in Portugal. The granule is baked in an oven for 35-45 minutes, depending on the size of the core, which forms the nucleus of a ball. The smallest one, which is used for making an international ball, is baked the longest so that it becomes as small as a walnut. This core is used for making international standard ball because it requires five layers of alternate quilting of thread and specially cut cork sheets.
“The bigger cores, which don’t require too much layering, are used for lower grade and school cricket because there the ball doesn’t need too much protection due to lesser speeds. An international ball, however, is bowled at substantially higher speeds and takes a lot of pounding. That’s why we use the smallest core for a Test ball so that it can have five layers to pass the durability test,” explains Gill.
After the layering, an international ball is wrapped with four specially cut leather sections of rare alum tanned type, characterised by its firm, stretch free toughness. Each section is matched in thickness and feel. Simultaneously, thorough tests are carried out in a lab to measure the quality of the leather. The leather is sourced from a particular Australian cow breed and only the owners and top-level officials know about it. It’s a trade secret. It’s only after all the accepted parameters are met that the ball is sent out to the market.
Kookaburra isn’t entirely machine-made, Gill reveals. “The final stitching across the seam is done by two individuals, one with 40 years of experience in the field and the other with 30,” he says. “It takes each of them 15 minutes to apply the finishing touches to the stitching of a ball.”
After the stitching is done, they are kept in boxes to be released but not before one of the family members comes and inspects the final product. He looks at it, sizes it and feels it. If he is happy, it goes for Test cricket, and if not, it goes into reject basket. The rejected ones are used for lower grade cricket.