Throwing in cricket is illegal, as it gives the bowler an unfair advantage. Now engineers are developing wearable technology to help remodel bowling actions.
Early last year, Jack Leach (a talented spin bowler tipped to play cricket for England) was coming off a stellar season in 2016 for his county, Somerset. He was bowling at the England and Wales Cricket Board’s (ECB) Loughborough University practice facility when analysts discovered he was bowling with an illegal action.
Leach was straightening his arm more than the legal 15 degrees from the beginning of his delivery, when his forearm was horizontal to the ground, to the point when the ball is released.
The spinner has since worked with ECB biomechanists to remodel his action. The new action was no less effective than the old this northern summer, as he took another swag of wickets in county cricket. However, he wasn’t selected for the current Ashes tour.
Throwing is banned by the sport’s governing body, the International Cricket Council (ICC), because it enables a bowler to impart extra spin or speed, an unfair advantage over batsmen, the ICC said.
Pakistan’s Saaed Ajmal, West Indian Sunil Narine and South African, Johan Botha, who plays for the Sydney Sixers in the Big Bash League, are a recent few who have tried to remodel their actions, after being found guilty of throwing. There have, however, been throwers for as long as there have been cricket matches. But what if someone had picked up the potential problem when these bowlers were just starting out, as kids?
Schools and cricket clubs obviously don’t have access to the high tech sensor and biomechanical analysis technology used by the ICC and the various cricket boards to monitor bowling actions. Which by the way, ICC doesn’t say much about, partly because a previous testing centre, no longer used, has in the past accused the ICC of stealing its intellectual property.
But two groups of engineers in Pakistan are in the process of developing technologies that the ordinary cricketer or their coach, could, in theory, use to check out whether their bowling action is legal or not.
Both groups hail from the University of Islamabad, but claim to be working independently of each other on separate, but similar, wearable technology designs.
Cricflex, is a company run by former university students; Criccoach, by current students and university academic staff. Both claim their wearable technology can measure elbow flex in action in real time, at an accuracy of up to one degree, plus or minus.
Tight-fitting sleeves contain motion sensors to collect information about the bowler’s arm movements as they bowl. A smartphone app then determines the degree of straightening and displays results.
These apps contain biomechanical models of what the legal deliveries look like. There’s one for fast bowling, leg spin, off spin, right and left arm.
“The player can compare what they bowl to the legal delivery,” said Criccoach’s Saad Qaisar, professor of electrical engineering at the university.
Qaisar explains that the shoulder point angle on the app interface is the calibrated angle at the start of bowling action (when the ball is behind the bowler’s back).
“The delivery point measures the angle of the arm at the point of the release of ball,” he said.
“If the difference between the shoulder point and the delivery point is less than 15 degrees then the bowler has a legal action, otherwise the action is illegal.”
CricFlex’s CEO and electrical engineer, Abdullah Ahmed, said that Cricflex tracks arm force, action time and amount of spin. Saad Qaisar said that Criccoach also provides twist and rotation values.
Both companies are targeting grassroots cricketers, but hope that one day, their technology will be used by professional and international cricketers.
For this to happen, though, any wearable technology would have to be as accurate as the existing systems used in the lab.
Back in 2012, the ICC started working on its own sleeve sensor technology with Griffith University in Brisbane. Instead of a smartphone app, biomechanists used a high speed video and motion capture system to analyse the data. Unfortunately, these sensors could only detect the moment the ball is released, not the arm’s straightness during the bowling arc and the ICC gave up on the idea. For now.
Cricket Australia sport science officer Rian Crowther thinks that this new wearable technology might still be useful as a training aid.
“It would need to be plus or minus five degrees accurate,” he said, adding that, to ensure a fair test, the sleeve would have to be fixed on the bowler’s arm in the exact same place, each time.
If any of the sensors were to move on the bowler’s arm during delivery, the sensor’s calibration would be affected, corrupting the data transmitted.
Ahmed said there’s a mark on the Cricflex sleeve so the bowler knows where to align the sleeve with the elbow joint. A Velcro strap fixes it in one place. But is this secure enough to stop the sensor from moving as the bowler runs in, or as their arms flail around during the bowling action?
Crowther wonders if the sensors might be more usefully placed on the bowler’s skin. Abdullah Ahmed said that this would be uncomfortable for the bowler and could make a player bowl differently than in a match.
“Accurate representation of hyper extension in a game is the Holy Grail,” Crowther said.
Preferably, a bowler would be monitored during a game without them knowing.
Markerless motion capture systems like those used in the film and computer game industries to track movements have been trialled in baseball for pitchers and to track tennis serving techniques, both similar movements to bowling.
A few years back, however, a study out of Sheffield Hallam University in the UK concluded that this technology doesn’t yet provide accurate enough readings to test the legality of bowling actions. The Sheffield researchers did add that this might change were someone to come up with an algorithm that would process the data to the level of accuracy needed.
Even if the Cricflex or Criccoach apps turned out to be the algorithm everyone has been waiting for (and remember, everyone is going to say that their wearable technology provides the most accurate readings) that would not be the end of things.
Crowther said that if a new system was to come in, either markerless motion or sleeve sensor, then it would have to replace the existing system altogether, and that would mean also changing all the rules, protocols and legalities surrounding it.
“You can’t have one system working in a match and another in the lab,” he said.
“You could potentially get two different readings from the same ball bowled.”
Sounds like an even bigger tangle than the late Max Walker’s bowling action. No wonder the ICC are keeping quiet about the whole thing.