Intel's smart cricket bat

The sensor technology powering smart cricket bats

Image credit: Intel

Cricketers are using sensor technology to improve their batting techniques. Will it help them score more runs?

When Bangladesh’s Tamim Iqbal scored the ICC Champions Trophy’s first 100 against England in June, his coaches would have been able to give him some new insight into why he did so well and how he might replicate that performance.

Normally, top-level cricket coaches would give their advice based on what they saw, perhaps helped by video analysis software and some biomechanical analytics about the batsman’s movements. Yet Tamim’s coaches had some extra help. The Bangladesh star was one of many players at the Champions Trophy using a smart bat with sensor technology in the handle – the first time this had been used at a major cricket tournament.

For a while now, cricket coaches and analysts have, during practice, placed sensors on key parts of batters’ bodies – arms, legs, the abdomen and thighs – that generate movements that determine how efficiently the batter hits the ball. Yet whereas the player’s body propels the bat, it’s the bat itself that actually speeds through the air and strikes the ball.

The new sensor tech, named BatSense, was devised by Intel, the International Cricket Council’s Innovation partner, and sports start-up Specular. The technology sends real-time data of bat speed and angle from the point the batter lifts the bat, through the downward arc, the moment of impact and the follow through, to an analyst’s computer.

“A batter needs fast hand-speed to create power through the ball,” says England and Wales Cricket Board’s lead batting coach, Graham Thorpe.

Thorpe, who played 100 Test matches for England between 1993 and 2005, explains the necessary bat speed can be created by big, tall players with long levers (arms), like England’s Alex Hales and Ben Stokes, but also the short snappy arm movements preferred by shorter players like Jonny Bairstow, Eoin Morgan and Thorpe himself.

Each BatSense chip weighs less than 25g and fits into a sleeve covering the bat handle beneath the rubber grip. It contains an Intel Curie compute module, which processes wireless data with motion sensors and built-in algorithms.

During the design phase, Specular engineers had to ensure these algorithms produced accurate measures from players’ bats. The average batter moves a lot as they wait to hit the ball, like tapping the bat on the ground and shuffling their feet. Some batters get rhythm from this, for others it’s habit. From the point of view of the analyst, it’s just noise, so the algorithm had to be taught to ignore it.

The smallest errors in a batter’s technique can be the difference between them succeeding and failing at international level.

In the second Test match at Nottingham’s Trent Bridge this summer, South African batsman Hashim Amla, who wasn’t using a bat sensor, was given out leg before wicket after hitting across the trajectory of a ball bowled by England’s Liam Dawson. Amla, a right-handed batsman, was trying to hit a ball angled into him from the left of the stumps at the bowler’s end by a left-handed bowler, trying to hit it to the right (leg) side of the pitch. Two balls earlier, Amla had hit a similar ball from Dawson for four on the opposite side of the pitch. England captain, Joe Root, immediately put a fielder on the boundary to cover that shot. Amla tried to improvise, took a risk, and got out.

That’s a world-class batsman at the top of his game. It’s even more difficult for someone making their way in the sport.

Thorpe says the new technology will provide coaches and players with information to enhance players’ performance. Thorpe’s former Surrey and England team mate Adam Hollioake, who has been working with the England team as a fielding coach, agrees, assuming the sensors give accurate data.

Specular estimates that BatSense information is 90 per cent accurate. During the Champions Trophy, the Intel Curie compute module was replaced by ultra-band wireless technology, which helps the data reach longer distances more reliably. The technology also enabled transmissions sent by sensors to avoid radio wave interference from the thousands of smartphones at the venue.

Former Australian batsman Dean Jones, who has also coached at the top level in Pakistan, likes the idea of a sensor that tells him what part of the bat the player uses to hit the ball, and how often. “I’d also like to know whether a batsman presents the full face of the bat when defending,” Jones says.

This is because bats are made with sweet spots, areas near the middle of the bat that have more wood than the bat’s edges, top and bottom. Hit the ball in the sweet spot while playing an attacking shot and it travels faster and further. Present the bat face to the bowler when playing defensively, rather than an angled bat, and there’s a more solid barrier between the ball and stumps.

Intel and Specular plan to launch a consumer version of this technology later this year in UK, Australia, India and the USA. While for a coach or player in a club or school team it might be useful to have information about bat speed and angle, there are more pressing things that they need to know. Balance, coordinating movements, tracking the ball with their eyes from the bowler, off the pitch and onto the bat, keeping their head still as they strike the ball.

Recreational players don’t have the support of a professional cricketer, just an eagle-eyed coach or senior player who can notice things others don’t and provide useful insights. Thorpe adds that even at elite level, with all the information available, human insight is important and players still need to practise technique.

While sometimes these clever insights come from one of the many experienced individuals that used to play the game, it’s not always the sort of help that current players appreciate.

When Nasser Hussain first played for England in 1990, there was no such thing as a cricket bat sensor and he took a few years to score runs consistently enough to establish himself in the England team.

In one early game against the West Indies in Jamaica, he had got out for not many runs and that evening in his hotel, he was spotted by former England and Yorkshire master batsman Geoffrey Boycott.

Boycott, by then a hard-talking pundit and commentator, didn’t have any bat sensors either. Yet he knew why Hussain wasn’t doing well. “You’ll never get any runs with that open bat face,” Boycott shouted across the lobby.

Back then, Hussain had a tendency to open his bat face to about 45 degrees, left to right, at the point of contact. This helped him guide the ball away to the boundary against mediocre bowlers in club and county cricket. Yet in a Test match, when that area of the field is full of catchers, it was more of a risk, particularly against the mighty West Indian team of the early 1990s with all those fast bowlers.

Despite this, Hussain ended up playing 184 times for his country and scoring over 8,000 runs. He always struggled with that open bat face though, and was never in the top bracket of modern day English batters. The problem, Hussain admits, is that he was never completely aware of when and how much he was opening the face at the point of contact. Hussain was also left out of England’s one-day side at times, because he didn’t score quickly enough or hit the ball hard enough.

How many more runs might Hussain have scored for England if he’d had a sensor in his cricket bat that measured his speed and the angle? 

Cricket technology fast facts

> At the Champions Trophy this year, Intel used a Falcon 8 drone to monitor pitch conditions. The drone carried HD and infra-red cameras to monitor and assess grass coverage, grass health and topology. TV commentators used this information to provide insights into how the pitch might affect play.

> Bats containing BatSense technology were used in fan zones at the Oval, London, and Edgbaston, Birmingham, during the Champions Trophy. Fans could put on a headset and face virtual-reality bowlers.

> Cricket Australia, the sport’s governing body Down Under, is preparing for the Ashes by using a new Microsoft sports analytics platform to help coaches better understand player performance.

> ESPN has relaunched its Cricinfo as a mobile-first website and app.

> To celebrate the ICC Women’s World Cup in July, Google Doodle released an animated game featuring a match between crickets and snails. Hit the ball and watch the snails chase it. If you miss the ball, it’s game over.

> Specular’s principal engineer, Nara Sundarajan, thinks it won’t be long before someone attaches sensors to cricket balls to record how much a bowler spins, swings the ball, or moves it off the seam.

Technique check: six things the smart bat measures

Time to impact Elapsed time between back-lift and the ball impact point.

Follow through angle Angle of bat from vertical to the rest point or direction change after impact.

Bat speed at impact The speed of the bat at the time of impact with the ball. 

Back lift angle Angle of bat from vertical to the rest point on the backswing.

Max bat speed Maximum bat speed within the swing between backlift and follow through.

Impact angle Bat surface vertical angle during impact with the ball.

 

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