Shernhall Street is a largely residential road in Walthamstow, east London, just under an hour by public transport from the manicured turf of Lord’s: 10 miles away but worlds apart. No 241 is a two-storey grey-brick building, whose blue double door gives no hint of what is inside. The owner likes it that way. Enter and you are greeted by the smell of leather, and a swathe of red, plus a bit of pink, white and orange: boxes and baskets of cricket balls. On a whitewashed wall is a large sign in red letters: British Cricket Balls Ltd. And since 1987, it is where they have been making the Dukes.
The owner, Dilip Jajodia, has spent 50 years in cricket-ball production. He set up Morrant Sports, a pioneering mail-order cricket-equipment company, in 1973, having left his job as a pensions fund manager in the City. A cricket-mad child in Bangalore, he boarded at Bishop Cotton School, the “Eton of the East”, whose alumni include Colin Cowdrey. It’s been a lifelong love affair, despite an accident at school where he was smashed in the mouth while fielding at silly point. “You could say cricket balls left their mark on me from that point onwards,” he says. “I was stretchered off and I’ve still got these metal plates in my mouth, but it didn’t diminish my enthusiasm.”
Producing the Dukes starts with the humble cow, and the best leather comes from Aberdeen Angus cattle fed on lush Scottish and Irish grass. The hides are sent to Spire Leather in Chesterfield, where they are cleaned, treated with aluminium sulphate to aid the tanning process, sprayed the desired colour, and cut. The thickness of the dried hides is measured: the bulkier areas around the backbone are saved for balls used in international matches, while the outer flanks will see lower-grade cricket.
The cut hides are then sent to the subcontinent to be formed into quarters, which then make their way to Walthamstow to be turned into balls. It is skilled, demanding work and one person can do only six or seven balls a day. It’s all about feel, patience and a good eye. Workers have subtly different techniques, passed down from parent to child. Some of the Dukes employees are third- or fourth-generation cricket-ball stitchers.
The last stage of ball production is called “lamping” the ball is held near a naked flame and a small amount of grease is applied. When the ball is rubbed on clothing, the grease is brought to the surface, producing shine. Darker balls are said to contain more, so bowlers often prefer a deeper shade of red. Finally, they are covered in polish, left on a rack for a few hours to dry, packaged up and sent around the globe. Dukes balls are as uniform as is possible without mass production – and no two are quite the same.
The company dates back to 1760, when Duke & Son was established as a manufacturer of cricket balls at Penshurst, in Kent. It received a royal warrant in 1775; at the 1851 Great Exhibition, the triple-sewn ball won a medal. In 1920, Duke & Son merged with John Wisden & Co, and in 1961 were amalgamated into Tonbridge Sports Industries, a joint-venture company that included Gray-Nicolls and Stuart Surridge. In 1987, the Dukes business was purchased by British Cricket Balls Ltd, where Dilip had been on the board for a few years. Since then, he has run the operation.
“I’m sort of a lunatic, you know?” he chuckles, sitting at a weathered workbench. “I can’t put up with anything second-rate or substandard – it just doesn’t work for what we do. It’s all about the process. I say to people: ‘You don’t realise how much care and attention we put into handling every order. This is a luxury product.’”
Dilip is in full flow, tossing a ball between his hands as he talks. “What is a good cricket ball? Most people don’t know. I know. A good cricket ball is one that gradually deteriorates over 80 overs, and offers assistance to batters and bowlers at different stages. A lot of bowlers nowadays want the ball to do something for all 80 overs, and when it stops, they want another one. Well, sorry, it doesn’t work like that.”
He pauses, and leans forward. “I’m going to tell you a secret I’ve never told anyone. You see, I’ve got something no one else has, and they’d likely do all sorts to get their hands on it …”
A few years after setting up Morrant in 1973, Dilip became involved in selling imported cricket balls. He noticed that the final polish wasn’t up to much: it would crack and peel, let in water, look unsightly. “I kept thinking, what do I do? I didn’t have enough technical knowledge, so I’d speak to the factory and they’d try something else, but everything they tried was always a bit plasticky, and didn’t really do the job.”
Then he spotted a tiny classified advert in a cricket magazine: “Ball Re-Polishing Kit, £20 – does 200 balls.” He placed an order and a cardboard box arrived in the post. “Inside was a piece of wood with six nails [a kind of rack to rest drying balls], a paintbrush and three small tins: one of a clear liquid, one of a red liquid, one of a semi-opaque liquid, plus some instructions. That was it.”
The kit was for use on old balls, but Dilip wanted to see how it would fare on new ones. The clear liquid was for cleaning; the red liquid was a stain and made the seam look messy. But the semi-opaque liquid caught his attention: “I painted up a few of my balls and gave them out for testing.” He played club cricket in Essex for Woodford Wells, where they used his prototypes. He sent out batches to other clubs on his books. “They all came back and said: ‘Oh yeah, these balls are a lot better. They are great.’ So I said to the factory, which was in the subcontinent: ‘Don’t put any lacquer on the balls you send me. I’ll polish them over here.’ That’s when I really got started.”
Dilip started to order the liquid in larger quantities and one day in the early 1980s he decided to meet the people providing it. The man who had placed the original advert was called Barry and he was based in Derbyshire, where he ran a metal-engineering company. However, he didn’t make the fluid.
“Barry took me through his noisy factory and led me to a space at the back behind this small partition. There was an old man at a table and he was making up this liquid. I was struck by his sense of calm amid the racket. There was something about him, an aura – he had a very still presence. We locked eyes. ‘This is Walter,’ said Barry. Walter was incredibly softly spoken. He knew who I was and we were very pleased to meet each other.”
Barry was a keen amateur cricketer frustrated by old balls at his club going to waste. He wanted to get more life out of them. That’s when he turned to Walter, allowing him to use the space at the back of his factory. “I couldn’t believe what I heard next,” says Dilip. “Barry explained that Walter was a German Jew and a leather expert. Before the second world war, Walter worked for the German government, where his job was to look after all the manuscripts and leather-bound state documents. He was highly skilled at preserving different types of leather. We didn’t go into the details but Walter had apparently survived Auschwitz and relocated to England some time after the war.
“I don’t know how they knew each other. Barry just said they were family friends but he obviously knew Walter’s expertise in leather and asked him to come up with something that might work on cricket balls. Walter went away and tried various chemical concoctions, before settling on this liquid. It worked like a dream. Barry was a bit of a marketing man and he knew it was good stuff, so he placed the advert.
“It was called ‘Pliandure’ – as in ‘apply and endure’. As I went to leave, Walter said: ‘Thank you for supporting the product.’ I honestly couldn’t thank him enough. I said: ‘Thank you! You are really supporting my business. This stuff is integral to the success of these balls.’ I was their biggest customer by miles, perhaps their only customer.”
Over the next seven or eight years, Walter and Barry sent Dilip the polish in bulk and he applied it to the balls. “It was very Heath Robinson: my small team and I were there with our paintbrushes every year.” After taking over Dukes, he immediately applied the polish to the hand-crafted balls. Wasn’t he worried that only Walter knew the formulation – and that he was, to say the least, getting on?
“I must confess, I didn’t think about it. After that meeting, I had very little contact and I only met them that one occasion at the factory. I was so busy and we were expanding all the time. I just used to post a handwritten order to Derbyshire, the polish would arrive in maybe 10-litre amounts and the invoice was paid. There was no need for any more discussion. As the years went on and I took over Dukes, I might have started to think about things, but I didn’t have the nerve to raise it with Walter or Barry.
“One day, I got a call from Barry. Walter had died. It was very sad. He was obviously extremely old and had lived this incredible life. But I do remember blurting out: ‘Oh no and what am I going to do about the polish?’ Barry said: ‘Don’t worry about that. I’ve got some good news for you. After that first meeting years ago, Walter gave me a brown envelope and told me to keep it in my safe for when he died.’ Can you guess what was in the envelope? The formula – the recipe for the polish. It was a wonderful moment.”
Dilip let me into his secret last October and, since meeting him in Walthamstow that day, I have been re-running the story of the polish and Walter over and over. I haven’t been able to shake it since. Does Walter have a family and do they know about his integral role in world cricket? Is Barry still around? Does he know more about Walter’s incredible life story?
I soon sent Dilip an email with all these questions and more, hoping we would be able to track down Barry and he could tell us everything. His reply came back, “I regret that I didn’t write it all down and now it is over 40 years ago and I can only remember certain things.”
While at the factory in Walthamstow, I noticed that Dilip completes all his orders by hand. There are no computers, with everything done by pen and paper. Dilip gamely went through all his old files and boxes of invoices, anything that he still had on the premises or at home that might throw up a key detail or lead to some further information about Walter.
In January he called me to say he had found a box with “Pliandure” written on it, but still nothing with Barry’s full name or the address of the factory in Derbyshire. He can’t remember where the factory is from his one visit more than 40 years ago. “The irony is I’m actually a great hoarder, but occasionally I would have these big clearouts and I can only think it is so long ago that all the stuff from that period is long gone.”
I thought that, if we could find the original classified advert that Dilip saw, then it might reveal Barry’s full name or address and then a simple Google search or trawl through Companies House online would probably lead us straight to Barry. Dilip thinks that he saw the ad in The Cricketer magazine at some point in the mid-1970s. Cue many a trip to the Lord’s library to rifle through the archives.
I fully expected to spot Barry’s original advert in the back of an old copy and began methodically searching through every issue before, during and after the mid 1970s. I became well acquainted with adverts for all sorts of cricketing paraphernalia. Regular ads for artificial wickets, club ties, scorebooks and cable knit sweaters were interspersed with the odd doleful lonely heart or mail order side of smoked salmon.
Still the breakthrough didn’t come. I realised I could view The Cricketer archive online and so would spend spare moments at home scouring the archive again in case I had flicked past it by accident, but there was no sign of Barry’s original advert.
I’m in touch with people who have been involved for many years with the Derbyshire cricket leagues to see if I could find Barry that way. Lots of people called Barry haveplayed cricket in Derbyshire over the years and I can vouch for the patience of most as I rang them and enquired if they were my Barry. I’d trawl social media and send Dilip screenshots of men in their 70s who I thought could fit the bill with the caption “Is this Barry?” or “Could this be Barry” and after a while simply: “Barry!?”
I enquired at the tannery to see if Walter’s story rang any bells for current or former employees. I contacted engineering firms and metal-work factories in Derbyshire and South Yorkshire, and I bombarded Dilip with heavily pixellated images of their entrances from Google maps to see if some architectural quirk might jog his memory. Nothing.
If ever I needed a reminder that I’m a cricket “writer” and not a proper journalist then this was it. I’d imagined getting the breakthrough in my mind; it would be like a montage from a detective drama – the story up till now laid out on a clear perspex wall, the camera cutting to my hand circling classified adverts with a felt tip pen under the glow of a green banker’s lamp and then to footage of me gesticulating on the phone to confused septuagenarians. All leading up, of course, to a crucial breakthrough, a Eureka moment.
Alas. In reality this moment hasn’t arrived. As it stands the case isn’t closed. The truth, and the rest of Walter’s story, is still out there. Somewhere.
I’m in touch with The National Holocaust Centre and the Association of Jewish Refugees to see if we can trace Walter through their networks, periodicals and social media. Michael Newman, the chair of the Association of Jewish Refugees, says this is the first cricket/holocaust enquiry they have received. Richard Ferrer, the editor of Jewish News, has been in touch to confess he is a lifelong cricket nerd and wants to help trace Walter. So there’s still hope. Who knows, maybe someone will be reading this now and will get in touch with a missing piece of the jigsaw. Maybe.
For Dilip, he’s glad he has shared the story of Walter, Barry and his unique polish. “I don’t normally speak openly about anything. I’m a bit secretive on the whole, but I just felt like it was time and it’s hardly a state secret – the stuff is over there in the sink!” He’s fully supportive of my digging and intrigued to find out more after all these years but he’s still very busy with the business.
I’m also pleased Dilip decided to tell me his secret, but I can’t let it go. It feels like unfinished business, with so much of Walter’s story still unknown. In truth, I’ve scoured the classified ads and confused a few more blokes called Barry a good few times more while writing this.
Walter’s recipe is still a secret. Dilip hasn’t passed it on to a manufacturer to mass produce for him. “No way! That’s too dangerous, I wrote out a copy and I make it by hand, I get my gloves and my goggles on and follow Walter’s recipe to the number and letter.”
Is it still the exact same formula that is used on the Dukes balls today, the Test match balls? “It’s exactly the same, nothing has changed, it is Walter’s secret recipe and has been used on Dukes balls since 1987 and will continue to be used. Dilip has personally selected and hand polished the Dukes balls to be used in the forthcoming Ashes series. A copy of Walter’s formula is locked in his (huge) safe. “I’ve got a copy of it that my son will inherit when I’ve passed on. As I look back on my life and career it is something that is just quite wonderful: the secret, the mystery, the romance of making cricket balls.”
This is an edited extract from Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack 2023, published by Bloomsbury. If you have any information, James can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.