The International Cricket Council’s World Twenty20 tournament takes place this March and April in India. More than ever, technology helps professional cricketers prepare for, and play, the game. But does it make for a better spectacle?
A few months before he was sacked, England cricket coach Peter Moores suggested, during a BBC TV interview, that he’d have to look at the data before he could offer a solution as to why England played so badly at the 2015 World Cup.Pundits, fans and former players rounded on him and said that the comment itself explained why England had been so poor under Moores. They said that any coach worth his salt should know why his team was playing badly. After Moores lost his job, he said quite angrily that he’d been misheard during that interview. He complained that he’d actually said ‘later’ not ‘data’. He also denied that he was a stats driven coach.
The cricketing world mumbled its disapproval, steadfast in its belief that the game is, and should always be, a sporting contest. Not a chess-like affair where grey, tracksuited men prepare players with iPhones and digital cameras after consulting their laptops.
Behind the scenes, however, coaches and analysts all over the cricketing world continue to use technology to give their players the information the analysts think they need to perform at their best and beat their opponents.
“Everybody has the tech, so if you don’t use it, your opponent has an advantage,” says Worcestershire captain Daryl Mitchell. Mitchell adds that when he started playing 12 years ago, team meetings consisted of a couple of senior guys talking about the opposition players and not much else. “Now every county has a camera at each end and staff who record and analyse every ball from every game,” he says.
Liam Sanders, a former England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) performance analyst, thinks this is a good thing. “Players get objective information from which they can draw conclusions and make decisions,” he says. “Without it, they have to rely on subjective judgement alone.”
Basing team plans on a few words of wisdom from the senior pro was OK in days gone past when the only thing riding on the result of a cricket match was a team’s win or loss record and bragging rights between supporters. There’s big money involved in cricket these days - sponsorship deals to secure, contracts to win, salaries and lifestyles to maintain. With so much money at stake, cricket teams look to technology to give them an edge over their rivals.
ProBatter is a programmable bowling machine, developed for baseball, which helps batters prepare for games by mimicking opponents’ bowling styles. Analysts program in video footage of opposition bowlers and the 3D screen attached to the machine shows life-sized video footage of that bowler running in to bowl. The screen is at the opposite end of the practice pitch, 22 yards away from the batter, which is as close to facing the opponent in a game as you’re going to get.
When the virtual bowler jumps to deliver the ball on the screen, the bowling machine fires out a ball, which behaves like those delivered by the real bowler in matches (same sort of speed, swing, bounce, trajectory, spin). The ball comes at the batter through a hole in the video screen. The video screen also provides instant replay so the batter can see how they’re getting on.
Technology helps bowlers, too. TrackMan uses missile-tracking technology to measure how many revolutions a spinner puts on the ball. The more the better if the spinner wants to take wickets at the highest level.
TrackMan is a small laser camera mounted on a tripod behind the bowler that detects the ball rotating in flight, which then sends the results to a laptop. Kistler force platforms measure ground reaction and give analysts an indication of a bowler’s injury risk. Placed on the floor so that bowlers can run over and jump on them, the platforms contain four transducers, one in each corner, measuring forces in forward-backward, left-right and up-down directions.
Catching the cheats
Motion-capture systems provide performance indicators for bowlers. These systems work out the distance moved by a bowler’s limbs and torso, calculating how fast the body parts are moving and how rapidly they can accelerate. Infra-red cameras flicker at different frequencies to track reflective markers placed strategically around the bowler’s body. The cameras send the information to a central computer where experts help the player analyse how their body movements enhance or detract from their performance.
It’s not just cricket teams who use technology these days, though. The cricketing authorities also use motion-?capture systems to test bowlers who they suspect of bowling with an illegal action. The laws of cricket state that bowlers may not bowl with a bent arm that straightens more than 15 degrees as the ball is released, or immediately after. Throwing, the game’s rule-makers say, gives the bowler an unfair advantage: extra speed, control and spin.
The International Cricket Council (ICC) tells its umpires to report any bowler who looks as if they might be exceeding that limit. The naked eye can’t tell for certain though, so the suspected bowler then has their action checked at one of the ICC’s testing centres at the University of Brisbane, Sri Ramachandra University in Chennai, the University of Pretoria, Loughborough University or Cardiff Metropolitan University.
The bowler goes through their repertoire and the markers emit an electronic signal or reflect light, which the analysts track with motion capture cameras, high-speed infra-red cameras and radar guns.
A bowler cannot play again until the ICC analysts have conclusive proof that they’re below the 15-degree limit. Since 2000, 12 international players have been banned for throwing. Individual cricket boards are responsible for testing suspected ‘chuckers’ in their own domestic professional game.
Yet cricket isn’t just a professional game. It’s played at grassroots, recreational and semi-professional levels in many parts of the world by people from all walks of life. Researchers from the National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST) in Islamabad have developed technology cheap enough for ordinary people to test their own bowling actions.
The researchers put sensors into wrist and arm bands and designed an algorithm that collects the data from the sensors as the bowler bowls the ball.
“An app contains biomechanical models of what legal deliveries look like,” says Saad Qaisar, professor of electrical engineering at NUST. “There’s one for fast bowling, leg spin, off spin, right and left arm, up to ten different models.”
During the bowling action, the sensors send information about the bowler’s arm movements to the app and the wearer can compare it to the legal delivery. “It will tell you how many degrees you deviate from the legal 15,” Professor Qaisar says.
If you look at the data alone, then it seems that cricketing standards have improved in the modern, technological age, particularly in international limited-overs matches and T20 internationals.
For almost 100 years, starting in 1877, international cricketers played only Test matches. These are two innings games nearly always played over five days. Historically, a few games were slightly shorter and, occasionally, teams agreed to play for longer.
England and Australia contested the very first one-day international on 5 January 1971. Played over 40 overs, England scored 190 and Australia knocked the runs off with six overs to spare. Four years later, when West Indies made 291 from 60 overs to win the first World Cup, a limited-overs competition, the cricketing fraternity was astonished by how quickly Clive Lloyd and his men made their runs. In Test matches back then, teams normally took a day and a half to score that many.
It’s a batsman’s game
In today’s limited-over internationals, teams regularly make over 350 and often 400 or more from just 50 overs. On a good day, they can get 190 in a 20-over T20 game.
Numbers, however, don’t tell the whole story. Most records broken recently are batting records. West Indian fast bowler Joel Garner has the best limited-overs bowling average and he played in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Only Australia’s Mitchell Starc, from the modern technology-rich era, gets on the all-time top 10 list of limited overs bowlers.
What the statistics actually show is that modern-day cricket is a batter’s game, particularly limited-overs cricket. That things have gone this way is more down to money than technology.
In the minds of those who run cricket around the world, TV audiences, crowds and sponsors like action. In other words, lots of fours and sixes and balls flying to all parts of the ground. To this end, boundary ropes are brought in to make playing fields smaller. Pitches are prepared with even bounce to help the batters, with not much spin, pace and sideways movement for the bowlers.
Take one look at today’s cricket bats to see just how far things have moved in the batter’s favour. Back in the day, only the biggest, strongest batsmen like Clive Lloyd or Ian Botham could use big, heavy bats to biff the ball over the boundary. Everyone else had to make do with lighter models and rely on touch and timing to score their runs.
Today’s players have the best of both worlds: lightweight, chunky bats, with plenty of wood in the hitting areas.
This is possible because bat makers have refined the manufacturing process. They cut wood away from the areas of the bat which aren’t used that often - the top, sides, toe end and the handle - and add more to the middle and the edges, the most used parts of the bat.
Some bat makers, such as Gunn & Moore, also use computer-aided design and manufacturing software to shape bats. The software programs a computerised numerical control machine to cut bats to precise specifications. Today’s bats are so good that even the mis-hits go for six. The bowlers still have the same ball they’ve always had.
Yet does all this really make for a better contest? For better entertainment and for better sport? Cricket has always been more than just a numbers game. Like match play golf, it pits individual against individual, over a sustained period, as part of a team game.
This January, England’s Ben Stokes smashed a remarkable 258 in a Test match against South Africa. In the following game, Stuart Broad blew the South Africans away with a sustained spell of devastating fast bowling. These two outperformed all the other players on the pitch, yet there were players in both the England and South African sides who have better statistical records than Broad and Stokes.
Despite all the high-tech training and video analysis, international players still tend not to play as well in unfamiliar conditions (away from home) as they do in their own backyard, particularly in Test matches.
England has the ProBatter, TrackMan and another bowling machine called Merlyn that allows batters to practise against the spinning ball. However, last November, Pakistan still thrashed them in the United Arab Emirates on spinning pitches. South Africa was trounced by India in India, and New Zealand lost to Australia in Australia, who in turn lost to England in Old Blighty in 2015. When England toured Australia the year before, they lost all five Tests.
Just to make things really confusing, New Zealand drew with England in England last year and, thanks to Stokes and Broad, England beat South Africa, in South Africa, last winter. What would the analysts make of all that?
Critics of technology’s influence on cricket also say that it takes away some of the game’s nuances and uncertainties and hence some of its entertainment value.
Had Mike Gatting used ProBatter to practise against Australian leg-spinner Shane Warne before the 1993 Ashes series, Warne might never have bamboozled the England man with his very first delivery and cricket fans might have never seen what became known as the ball of the century.
If Ian Chappell’s Australians had spent hours watching and analysing England’s David Steele before the grey-haired, bespectacled 33-year-old made his Test debut in 1975, the Aussies might have found a way to get him out cheaply. Thus the story of how the ordinary county pro blunted the world’s most fearsome pace attack, and went on to win BBC Sports Personality of the Year, would never have been told.
Stories like this are part of cricket’s enduring appeal. Technology enhances the game in many ways, but players who prepare to the nth degree leave almost nothing to chance and, for the spectator, very little to the imagination.
In 1975-1976, when the West Indies, not quite yet the super team they were about to become, took on the all-conquering Australians, in Australia, West Indian batsman Lawrence Rowe came unstuck against Australian fast bowler Jeff Thomson. Thomson wasn’t just lightning quick, he had a unique javelin-thrower’s bowling action, where his bowling arm remained hidden behind his backside until the last second, as he rocked back to bowl.
Had there been video footage, analytics, stats and programmable bowling machines back then, batters like Rowe would have been prepared for bowlers like Thomson.
As it was, Rowe had never seen anything like the Aussie speedster. After one Thomson bouncer whistled past his nose, Rowe walked up to his batting partner Viv Richards, eyes wide with fear. “I didn’t see it,” Rowe said. When Richards asked whether Rowe meant that he was having trouble picking the ball up, maybe the sightscreen behind the bowler wasn’t so good, or Rowe’s hay fever was playing up, Rowe shook his head. “I mean I didn’t see it,” he repeated. “This man Thomson is delivering the ball out of his a*se!”