Cricketer at Manchester

Sports technology - cricket

The new Merlyn bowling machine from Bola has prevented England from getting in a spin during this summer's Ashes series.

He may have packed away his baggy green cap and swapped it for a seat alongside Ian Botham and David Gower in the commentary booth, but the nemesis of spin king Shane Warne still haunts the England Cricket team.

The current crop of Australian spinners, who failed to win back the Ashes following the drawn test match at Old Trafford in early August, may no longer have the sublime skill of Warne but on their day Nathan Lyon, Fawad Ahmed and Ashton Agar are good enough to trouble the best batsmen in the world.

Preparation is key for the batsman but how to simulate the style and delivery of spin bowlers in the net has long been a quandary, that is until the advent of the Merlyn bowling machine from Bola.

There is nothing new about bowling machines. The first was invented by Michael Stuart way back in 1984 and was introduced the following year at Surrey Cricket Club. Since then, these machines - manufactured by Stuart and Williams - have been used by club and international cricketers around the world.

"In essence, the Merlyn machine is a one-trick pony," Nye Williams of the company explains. "It bowls spin, that's what it's for, so it's not a bowl anything machine. We have made machines that will bowl pace and swing for ages."

International bowling

Recognising the need for their batsmen to improve against world-class spin bowling, the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) commissioned Stuart and Williams to make 20 Merlyn machines - one for each first-class county and two for the national academy at Loughborough.

"The thing about the bowling machine is that it is a relatively simple device," Williams says. "It uses two spinning wheels - you feed a ball between the two wheels and it gets pinched between them and spat out the other side. That mechanism allows the user to impart spin on the ball, but only in the standard bowling machine configuration.

"It will only spin the ball in the same axis as the wheels are spinning. That axis is always perpendicular to the direction of the travel of the ball, so you can only get movement in one plane - sidespin, which makes the ball curve in the air, or backspin or top spin, which will either make it float or skip off the surface. It is difficult to combine, say, top-spin and side-spin and that is why we developed the Merlyn machine."

The Merlyn machine still only uses two wheels but the axis of the wheels rotate in relation to each other so that you can get different behaviours. They might describe an X configuration to allow you to generate rotation around the direction of travel.

"The difficulty is accurate control," Williams says. "If you do your geometry, you're playing with a circle - the length of the pitch is nominally 66ft between stumps, so you are playing with a circle that has a radius of 66ft. So in round figures each degree will account for a foot.

"When you want to control the accuracy to three- or four-inch increments, the mechanisms are moving a third of a degree, which even in our crude electronic terms is not much. Controlling it to that degree is a problem that we have dealt with. The machine has sophisticated electronic control of stepper motors and actuators."

Engineering the ball

Modern television coverage provides a vast array of stats and images that can be used by coaches to monitor the intricacies and nuances of any bowler's style, but spin bowling still provides its own challenges.

"It is interesting watching the rpm, which is given on the TV when spinners are bowling." Williams says. "The thing they don't give you is the orientation of the axis of the rpm.

"It is all very well to put the spin on the ball, but it is only really effective if it is around an axis that is pointing down the pitch and that will produce sideways turn when it hits the ground. It is quite difficult for those figures to give you an accurate picture of what exactly is going on with the spin of the ball - it is not just extreme revolutions that will make a ball effective, in a lot of cases it is more to do with where the ball pitches."

According to David Parsons, NcPC performance director at the ECB, one of the chief advantages of bowling machines is that they provide a reliable and constant feed. "A coach or player is able to easily adjust the pace, line, length and height of release at will. They demand that the batsman pays careful attention to the flight of the ball rather than relying on cues from the bowler.

"Merlyn is able to deliver a spinning ball, at any pace, to any line, to any length, spinning in any direction, with variable amounts of spin upon demand, from a variety of heights. It is possible to programme Merlyn to repeat deliveries, or to deliver a pre-programmed over. We can take the Hawkeye data attached to the actual deliveries from a Test match and programme Merlyn to deliver."

Despite the advances, Parsons believes that bowling machines are still a supplement to real bowlers. "They do not provide the cues that real bowlers do or the actual sense of 'reality'. They are a close simulation of reality but also provide better levels of reliability and control than real bowlers, therefore allowing the batsman to be more specific in his skills training."

Remote-control bowling

To combat that lack of reality the next evolution of bowling machines have already made an entrance in the United States. ProBatter uses a projected image of a bowler or pitcher on a screen with a machine behind the screen. There is a hole in the screen and, synchronised with the ball delivery, you get the image of the bowler running in. At the point of delivery, the machine spits the ball out. If that imagery is matched with the style of ball delivered by the machine, it allows the batsman to pick up visual clues.

"We are doing something similar to give you control over the bowling screen using a remote interface - either a tablet or phone," Williams says. "You are playing with a relatively small amount of numbers: you are only looking at speed versus length - there is obviously a correlation between the two, the harder you throw it the further it goes - and line versus the amount of swing you put on the ball.

"Top spin does come into it if you are using a spin machine but, fundamentally, if we put a standard machine behind the screen and bowl swing and pace with it you are playing with a small amount of numbers and it is a simple mathematical path to get the machine to bowl in a pre-defined slot."

Williams continues: "What we are working towards, and hopefully we will have this done by the autumn, is sitting and watching cricket on TV and creating a library of balls that you can bowl the next day with your machine in the nets.

"The basic machine has been fundamentally unchanged for 25 years until the time we came out with the Merlyn machine. Having done that and gone for the idea of an electro-mechanical machine by remote - so attaching the machine to computer either using a remote serial interface, we have moved on a generation technology wise.

"By the end of this year it will be a different product at the top end, although we will still be making the standard machine to serve that market; a machine that costs £1,500 that a cricket club can buy rather than something that costs '10,000 that there is a limited market for."

By the time England tour Australia for the return Ashes series over the winter, they will be able to prepare with even greater precision as they strive to keep Australia from regaining the Ashes.

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