By Adrian Meredith
England's recent rise up the cricket ladder has had one interesting facet to it: all of a sudden they were almost unbeatable at home. Previously, England was a team with no major home ground advantage, other than against India and Sri Lanka who themselves have major home ground advantages. But now, suddenly, since 2007 or so, England's home ground advantage has been the biggest of any country.
What has happened?
England haven't started ‘doctoring’ pitches. They don't suddenly have conditions that are so vastly different to other parts of the world. They are, as they always have been, much the same as in South Africa, Australia or New Zealand. Perhaps there is a bit of uniqueness but they aren't enormously different. Nothing has changed in that regards. The major difference is the ball that they are using: the Duke ball.
Now, England have used a ball that was called "Duke" for several decades, but only recently has this ball been changed to be something that is quite different to what it used to be. Since 2007, something has been done to it to make it reverse swing a lot quicker than any other ball. While other balls might reverse swing after 60 or 70 overs, if prepared expertly and with exactly the right kind of bowlers, the Duke ball will reverse swing after just 20 or 30 overs - a massive difference indeed.
The ability to reverse swing much more quickly isn't the only difference in the "new Duke" (I say "new Duke" so that I don't have to deal with people who say that England have been using the Duke ball for decades - since the "original Duke" has virtually nothing in common with the ball that is currently used - other than the name). The "new Duke" is a lot heavier. It comes off the bat more quickly. Thus, even if the pitch isn't bouncing very much, off the bat it will bounce a lot anyway. Edges fly higher and quicker.
As you can imagine, if you are used to this ball, you can get big runs really quickly. After all, with it being heavier and going off the bat more quickly, batting to fast bowlers it is really easy to hit boundaries and sixes, at least if you are used to it. It makes for quicker scoring rates. It makes for more exciting cricket.
Perhaps, fittingly, the only country which was able to challenge England in England was a country that is master of reverse swing - Pakistan. If Pakistani bowlers were able to have the Duke ball in their own country, they would not even come close to losing a match, ever. But for everyone else, even countries who have worked out reverse swing, they have found it very hard to adjust. Seeing reverse swing come in as early as the 30th over, yet themselves being unable to get it to start happening until the 60th or 70th, it is a big advantage.
It is little wonder that since 2007 England have barely been threatened at home. Their only losses at home in Tests in that period have been to Pakistan, who, as previously stated, are themselves masters of reverse swing. Nobody else has come close.
England have, of course, put the credit on Andrew Strauss and Andrew Flower, the new captain/coach team that has taken a haphazard team and made them now the No 1- ranked team in two formats who, were it not for rain, would have been No 1 in all 3 formats.
But England away from home haven't been any better than they were previously. Oh sure, they won an Ashes series in Australia. But Australia warmed up for that series horrifically badly, warming up by playing a T20 and ODI series against Sri Lanka! England were whitewashed by India in India and they have struggled everywhere else overseas. Yet in England they are unbeatable.
In terms of conditions, India have a big home ground advantage, of course, because the conditions are vastly different, with lots of spin, dusty tracks, low bounce and the rest, so very different to anywhere else, especially to outside the subcontinent.
West Indies still has a big home ground advantage - they actually win occasionally at home while they struggle to even come close away.
And in terms of conditions New Zealand probably have the biggest home ground advantage - conditions that suit slow bowlers - not spinners - but military medium bowlers that just kind of put the ball on the spot. It is just that New Zealand's team haven't been good enough to take advantage of it.
So England, who have no natural home ground advantage, have manufactured one through having a very, very different ball.
But is it fair?
In theory, the current rules state that all countries get to pick their own ball for their home series. It just so happens that everywhere else around the world they happen to pick the same or similar balls, with no major differences. There is nothing to stop Pakistan from using the Duke ball for themselves at home, too. If they did that, then, even if they never played in Pakistan again, they would be virtually unbeatable anywhere they went.
You might say, "But England are therefore at a disadvantage away from home, because they are used to the Duke ball". But that isn't true. Given that everywhere else in the world uses virtually the same ball, England get to use the Duke ball half the time (including their domestic fixtures) and the other ball the other half of the time.
In comparison, all other countries get to use the Duke ball only when they tour England, only 10% of the time, or less, often years between using it. They have no time to get used to its intricacies.
So should all countries adopt the Duke ball?
If they did, then England's home ground advantage would disappear quickly. They certainly wouldn't be the No 1 team in any format. But should they have to do that? The Duke ball doesn't suit all types of cricketers. It is good for England and would probably be good for Pakistan - but it probably wouldn't be good for Australian or other nations.
So how exactly did the Duke ball get approved?
The Duke ball was approved about 30 years ago - back before it was modified to be made heavier, to reverse swing more quickly and so forth. The ICC's laws have a loophole, which says that they only need to approve the ball once - and if it is changed, then it doesn't need to be approved again. Other countries have no say as to whether they object to it. And, at the time that the Duke ball was changed - 2007 - England were so hopeless that nobody much thought that it would matter. They just thought that it'd add some excitement.
In my opinion, the Duke ball should be banned from international matches.
If they want to use their own ball for domestic matches in the county championship, where all players are being treated equally, then fair enough. But, given how enormously different it now is to all other balls, it is simply not fair to use it in international matches.
Secondly, I think that they should be tighter on what balls they allow to be used for international matches.
I am tempted to suggest that they should be required to use the same ball in all internationals; but of course there are various companies with contracts etc. But they certainly need to have them all be essentially the same. You can't have one ball that is considerably harder, bounces a lot more and allows reverse swing three times quicker to be on the market. It is like one team playing with a tennis ball while the other plays with a hockey puck. It just isn't fair.
This is the most unfair thing in the game since West Indies were allowed to get the second new ball 15 overs earlier than everyone else.
I remember watching Test cricket in the 1980s and if it was in West Indies they changed the ball after 70 overs, while for everyone else it was after 85 overs. Why? Well, because they thought that it would advantage their four-pronged fast bowling attacks. It was absolutely unfair, of course, and was a large part of the reason why West Indies had such a huge home ground advantage. And it was completely unfair. This Duke ball issue is much more unfair than the changing the ball much more quickly issue. And it needs to be stamped out.
Sadly, far too few people are aware of the issue. I am sure that if the public at large were aware of just how big a difference there is between the Duke ball and every other ball used in the world, and how much of an unfair advantage it gives to England when they play at home, then I am sure that there would be a widespread protest that would lead to the Duke ball being banned.
(Adrian Meredith, an Australian from Melbourne, has been very passionate about cricket since he was seven years old. Because of physical challenges he could not pursue playing the game he so dearly loved. He loves all kinds of cricket - from Tests, ODIs, T20 - at all levels and in all countries and writes extensively on the game)