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Technology and Cricket: An Uneasy Alliance?

New technologies have enhanced accuracy and minimized chances of human error in umpiring. Infrared imaging to identity the spot where the ball hit the bat (Hot Spot) and graphical representation of sound from the impact (Snickometer) help in leg-before-the-wicket and caught-behind decisions.
The game has come a long way with adoption of a range of technologies. Skeptics still point to the underlying human element, but there’s no denying that technological aids have benefitted the game and have the potential to transform it in the days ahead
by Umar Farooq

When Saeed Ajmal made a late entry into the international cricketing circuit at age 32, he quickly went on to fill a void left in the Pakistani squad after an earlier-than-expected retirement of legendary off spinner Saqlain Mushtaq in 2004.

Best known for introducing the doosra – a delivery that spins away from a right-handed batsman like a conventional leg spinner – Mushtaq’s career had been cut short to a mere nine years because of a knee injury. Early on in his career, Ajmal mastered the doosra, using it to confound leading batsmen into giving away their wickets, and in the span of a couple of years, he was rubbing shoulders with the stars of off spin bowling Muttiah Muralitharan of Sri Lanka and Harbhajan Singh of India.

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In 2014, however, Ajmal faced a bowling ban after his action was found to be in violation of the 15-degree rule. Tests conducted at a high-tech biomechanics laboratory in Brisbane, Australia, showed that his elbow flexed up to an average of 42 degrees while bowling, and none of the deliveries bowled were close to the 15-degree permissible limit.

He worked on his action with assistance from lab technicians and experts, and returned to international cricket but the Ajmal who returned proved to be a shadow of his former self.

Biomechanics has the potential to revolutionize the sport. By enabling players to review their muscle movements in the field, it can enhance performance and minimize injuries. Courtesy of University of Sydney, Australia

Ajmal’s career came to a grinding halt in 2015, about a year before the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) decided to put to use $460,000 worth of biomechanics equipment gathering dust in the National Cricket Academy (NCA) for eight years. The equipment was passed on to researchers at the School of Sciences and Engineering at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) under a three-year arrangement. The biomechanics lab set up as a result has already fulfilled the International Cricket Council’s (ICC) technical requirements in terms of equipment and expertise for official accreditation. If accredited, the facility will be the fifth of its kind across the globe where tests and reviews are carried out on those reported for suspect bowling actions.

Cricket has come a long way since it became an international sport in 1877. The golden period of the game, since World War I, was ushered in with the setting up of the global governing body and featured improvements like preparation of manuals with rules and regulations laid down once and for all.

The conventional approach to the game, batting and bowling in particular, has largely focused on perfection of the playing technique. However, the game has also kept pace with technological advancements that have impacted how it’s played on the field and broadcasted to viewers all across the globe, as well as how players train off the field and their performance is overseen.

Take bowling actions for instance. While the naked eye can tell apart a legal delivery from chucking or throwing the ball, it’s impossible to gauge the exact degree to which bowlers bend their elbows while delivering the ball.

Enter biomechanics.

With the adoption of the technology, umpires can now refer bowlers with suspect actions to undergo a scientific review at one of the ICC’s biomechanics laboratories.

While it’s most widespread use for bowlers is to rectify their actions, biomechanics has the potential to transform the art of bowling altogether. Bowlers train by sweating in the nets, working on their wrist position, run up, follow through and pace. They can bowl with accuracy if their joint movements are perfectly balanced. How the bowler is landing to roll his arm and how every muscle in his body is responding to the movement can be assessed with biomechanics, and coaching tactics devised as a result.

Biomechanics can also help batsmen with their technique, and like other athletes, cricketers can use this technology to avoid injuries and boost performance.

“It’s about observing the form of movement,” says Dr. Hafsa Zaneb, a Pakistani biomechanics expert who was trained in Austria. “The techniques in the field of biomechanics can smartly and precisely identify fine differences in the movement patterns of athletes. These patterns define bowling style as well as body use and joint coordination strategies in athletes.”

Zaneb contends that movement analysis software can deconstruct the action of a bowler or body use by a batsman. Such an assessment can yield a treasure trove of information regarding the use of joints and muscles. This information can be very helpful for aspiring youth who want to learn from the techniques used by experts.

Similarly, biomechanics assessments can help identify a problematic style early in the career of a sportsperson so that a change in style can be brought about in time.

The report compiled by the Brisbane-based biomechanics lab in Ajmal’s case showed an elbow extension between 36 and 43 degrees in all of the 37 deliveries bowled during the test – including regular off spinners over and around the wicket, the quicker ball, and the doosra.

Recalling his experience, Ajmal says, “Throughout my career, I had been bowling with the same action only to find out that my elbow flex was over 15 degrees.

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It’s good that there’s technology available to deal with the problem but I have my reservations. Let’s suppose if markers that detect movement aren’t installed properly on a bowler’s arms. It will impact the outcome. After all, the machinery is used by humans so there’s still room for error.”

For technicians, meanwhile, such concerns are unwarranted. They point out that the ICC has developed protocols to be followed for installation of markers on bowlers’ bodies during tests.

Tech aids in coaching
Studies have documented that biomechanics can help improve muscle movements that involve anatomical factors, neuromuscular skills and physiological and psychological capabilities. Referring to these studies, Mian Muhammad Awais, a professor of artifical intelligence and in charge of the biomechanics lab at LUMS, says coaches can prepare customized instructions for players to fine-tune their techniques using biomechanical examination of muscle movement.

The Pakistan Cricket Board has set up a biomechanics lab at the Lahore University of Management Sciences that is in the final stages of accreditation from the International Cricket Council. Courtesy: Pakistan Cricket Board

On their own, experienced cricket coaches can identify problems in perfect execution of a hook shot, but they won’t be able to analyze in quantitative terms the biomechanical aspects of the problem. Awais says biomechanics can enable the coaches to determine the exact timing, position, and angular measurements of the batsman while playing the shot. Equipped with this knowledge, they can devise strategies to improve technique, he adds.

There are high tech gadgets used in coaching to track down player energy and keep a record of players’ physical activity to gauge their fitness levels. Countries in Asia, including Pakistan, are still conservative in adapting these technologies, or are inconsistent in their use, but leading cricketing countries like Australia have started using such trackers. The equipment is attached to player bodies to record how they perform in the field. The information extracted by the trackers is used to identify strengths and weaknesses of different players, and devise coaching plans accordingly. The use of video analysis to help players improve their techniques is also quite widespread.

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When it comes to coaching, however, there’s no rule of thumb for use of high tech gadgetry and technological aids to enhance performance. In most instances, it boils down to the preference of the individual coach. “We use technology mainly to study the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition,” says a coach from New Zealand.

“I think it’s important to have a balanced approach to avoid complete paralysis as a result of too much analysis. Sometimes you can over analyze players,” he says, adding that the strategy to study opposition players has proved quite effective for his team.

Some coaches prefer sticking to orthodox methods. At best, these tech skeptics would use video analyses to work around players’ techniques, keeping the mechanics straightforward. “I try to keep it as simple as possible because I believe the players can get too technical. There’s this tendency among coaches to overload players with advice. As well meaning as it may be, it’s a wrong strategy in my opinion.”

Julien Fountain is at the other end of the spectrum. A coach whose career features stints with national teams of Pakistan, England, West Indies and Bangladesh, Fountain has a range of gadgetry and technological aids in his arsenal.

“The first piece of technology that became a staple of my equipment was a digital video camera,” he says. “Using video allows me to analyze a player’s technique whilst they are performing any particular skill, be it batting, bowling or fielding. The ability to capture players’ movements, and to play the video back to them has been the single biggest leap forward in coaching. Very often, what a player feels they are doing can be significantly different from what they’re actually doing. When they see themselves in slow motion, they are unable to avoid the cold hard truth about certain aspects that need adjustment.”

By passing video footage through the Biomechanical Analysis Software, it’s possible to further break down a players’ movements and explain where things are good, and where they need adjustments, Fountain adds.

He also uses Vector Balls, hi-tech balls for vision training. “It’s especially designed to emit random impact-initiated colored light pulses. This allows a coach to overload a player’s senses during skill execution, thus improving motor skills.”

Fountain has designed a Fielding Specific Performance Software that enables him to collect data on a team’s fielding performance. “I have found that fielding has tended not to be measured in as much detail as batting or bowling,” he says, explaining that the software is simply a mechanism to collect useful data on a team or individual player’s fielding performance. “The more data you can collect, the better a picture of the actual performance you can get, rather than your perception of the performance which can be biased due to emotions.”

Each ball bowled inevitably becomes a ball that needs to be fielded in some way, and it becomes a distinct data point. The collection of these data points leads to a holistic picture of a team or a player’s fielding performance. Once that’s available, it can be compared to the fielding performance of other teams, or players, giving a fair and realistic assessment, Fountain says.

“If a fielder on the boundary dives and stops the ball from crossing the boundary, you will often hear commentators say that fielder has saved a four, when in reality, the batters may already have run between the wickets two times. This means that the fielder saved two runs, not four.”

Fountain contends that technological advancements have the potential to transform the attitude towards fielding. “Whenever a fielding mistake has been made that results in an extra run, or a wicket not being taken, there needs to be a record of the mistake to show how that impacted the game’s result. It’s perfectly acceptable in batting and bowling to be held accountable for one’s performance. Then why is it that official fielding statistics aren’t recorded in a similar way?” he asks.

The transformation of umpiring
Watching cricket on television screens is an experience that has changed significantly over the years. It’s not just become more glamorous and entertaining, but also attracts more viewers with the transmission of cricket matches from across the globe through satellite-based TV and Internet services. Hotstar, Walt Disney’s online platform with exclusive streaming rights for the 2019 World Cup, has recorded between two and eight million unique viewers at any given point during the first 21 fixtures. Then came the Pakistan vs India game, and the peak concurrent viewership rose to 15.6 million – a record for an international fixture, according to the ICC Media Zone.

In terms of unique viewership recorded for the entire duration of a World Cup match, the 2011 final between India and Sri Lanka stands out with 558 million viewers.

Software programs are now available for coaches to review batting and bowling performances and design customized sessions for players. Courtesy of Gameface.AI

Cricket broadcasting is a billion-dollar industry that has kept pace with technological changes in the field of telecommunications. To give viewers a 360-view of the stadium, broadcasters have introduced spider cams, buggy cams and drone-based cameras. These are besides cameras installed in stumps and on umpire’s hats or jackets. The hologram technology is deployed to make the broadcast more graphical and eye-catching.

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Thanks to the hi-tech gadgetry deployed in transmission and broadcast of the game, the ICC has been able to introduce a decision review system (DRS) to prevent such errors in judgment.

The DRS was introduced in 2008, allowing players to challenge umpires’ decisions. Hawk-Eye technology is used to visually track the trajectory of the ball in appeals against leg-before-the-wicket (lbw) decisions. An lbw dismissal happens when a ball in line to hit the wickets is missed by a batsman, and it hits the pads instead. Multiple cameras tracking the ball movement through the air pick up exact spots where it’s pitched on the ground and on the pads, making it easier to review an umpire’s lbw decision. Since its introduction, the DRS has been used to review at least 2,100 on-field decisions, of which a fourth were overturned.

Hot spot, ultra-edge, and snickometer technologies can accurately tell if the ball edged past the bat, or missed it completely. These are particularly useful in reviewing caught-behind decisions, where the impact from the ball touching the bat while passing it and landing into the hands of the wicket keeper or slip fielders is so quick that field umpires can’t tell it accurately.

The game today is far away from how it started in the 19th century.  For cricketers, cricket is ultimately about skill sets and techniques whose basics remain the same. However, the game is heavily reliant on technology now, and that has changed its persona. Skeptics would point to the underlying human element, but there’s no denying that technological changes have improved the game and are here to stay.

Update: The Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) announced on July 25, 2019, that the biomechanics lab set up at LUMS has been accredited by the ICC as an official testing center for suspected illegal bowling actions. It is now one of five international testing centers.

Umar Farooq is the Pakistan correspondent for ESPN Cricinfo.

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