What can change in a sport being played for three centuries with much of the same rules? Not much, many would say. But besides changing formats, sports has been undergoing a technological transformation, and cricket is no different. While not as radical as video games, companies such as Intel and SAP are aiding cricket with technology that can help players, coaches, teams, umpires and the sport itself.
None of this is new for cricket but many of the technological innovations have been to make the sport more interactive for fans. Besides, most of them have been from the bowler’s end and for the sake of accuracy. Snickometer has been used since the mid-1990s to graphically analyse sound and video, and show whether a fine noise or snick occurs as the ball passes the bat. Hawk-Eye’s ball tracking system, introduced in 2001, did not find a place in the sport until 2008 when the technology was adopted as a means for a referral. Similarly, Hot Spot, an infrared imaging system to determine whether the ball has struck the batsman, bat or pad, was used in 2006 but was considered for the referral system only in 2008, with many countries not having the tools to implement it.
More recently, SAP has introduced a technology to aid fans to simplify match analysis and provide them with a ball-by-ball data and information. But SAP is looking at advanced uses for its tool. In a break from usual bowler and accuracy culture, it wants teams to look at this data to train better and manage wins using data analytics. “Your car is digital. So are your appliances. Now, athletes too can be “digital”—if they can make sense of millions of pieces of data streaming in from wearables, sensors and other data sources quickly enough to improve performance,” the data analytics company said.
And, SAP is not the only company heralding this change. In the just concluded ICC Champions Trophy, Intel along with Bengaluru based smart-wearables start-up Speculur managed to get bat sensors and drones into cricket, introducing the technology from a batsman’s perspective for the first time. The bat sensors reveal how a batsman played the ball. The technology, BatSense, incorporates accelerometers, a gyroscope and a wireless transmitter, allowing it to beam data to the commentary box on everything from bat angles to stroke speed. Drones, on the other hand, provide pitch report, saving Dean Martin a trip to the pitch.
ICC chief executive David Richardson welcomes the initiative claiming that innovations “are like nothing we’ve seen in the sport before”, but Intel has more in the box. James Carwana, general manager, Intel Sports Group, , claims, “We will be deploying a range of technology at the event as part of our ongoing effort to bring a new level of data analytics to sports and to revolutionise how athletes train, coaches teach, scouts evaluate talent and fans enjoy sports.”
Sensors may not be restricted to the bat only. Much like as in football, some companies are also trying to get sensors into the ball to give an exact analysis of catches close to the boundaries and the speed. There is also talk of incorporating them in the crease to detect whether a bowler bowled a no-ball.
More important, wearable tech is also catching on. Baseball is showcasing technology where players have to wear sleeves that can predict arm speed. Based on this, a group of engineers from Pakistan have developed a sleeve that can detect chucking—an illegal bowling action. Called CricFlex, the sleeve can be used to detect invalid deliveries, as also to correct playing styles. It will not be surprising if we soon see players wearing heart sensors to detect their excitement levels at crucial junctures and bank on the ones who are calm in a crisis.
The losing side
Players and the sport will certainly benefit from the changes, the losing side will be the umpires. Till now, they have commanded an esteemed position on the pitch. Decision reviews and extensive use of third umpires—the one behind the screens—have aided them, but as more technology seeps in, they will become less important, and to some extent replaceable. Why would a match need two umpires? The leg umpire is likely to go when one can do the job.
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The new moneyball?
But would data make cricket the new moneyball? Probably not, while data analytics is important and coaches do look at averages, the game will still be heavily dependent on guts. A computer cannot tell you when to steal a run, or whether to take a chance with that run-out or not. More important, as in baseball, there will be many to resist the new changes. Many believe that a computer cannot teach you what experience can. That might be true, but a computer can certainly teach you more than what your coach knows. Whether cricket does become analytics dependent or not, we are certainly in for a better generation of players.