In recent times, runs for Mahendra Singh Dhoni haven’t come at a rate neither he nor the watching public will be satisfied with. During the Champions Trophy, The Indian Express reported that Dhoni has been wanting to set it right ever since the Indian Premier League started in April. The problem was both with his stance and bat swing it was said.
“I’ve been working on it for a while,” he was quoted as saying. “I’m basically trying to work on getting myself more upright in my stance. I noticed that the head is bending over a little and is not in line with the front toe.”
Dhoni is most definitely not using ‘Bat Sense’, but the latest technological tool to enter cricket may well be able to provide such answers for legions of cricketers. The bat sensor, developed by Specular, a company based in Bengaluru, in collaboration with Intel, was tried at the Champions Trophy with players such as David Warner, Travis Head, Azhar Ali and Tamim Iqbal allowing the 25-gram heavy chip to be mounted on top of their cricket bat. The result was a data set which indicated the bat speed, follow-through angle and back-lift angle among others.
“Why are these things a mystery?” asks Atul Srivastava, Founder & Managing Director of Specular, and the brain behind the product. “Because we had no way of knowing these things. With this device we will now know. For a batsman, the bat is a weapon. The better he uses it, the better for him. With this a lot of techniques will get unlocked with respect to the bat.”
Much of cricket-related technology that has been developed thus far is either to eradicate errors from the game or geared towards increasing the fan experience. Data analytics hasn’t quite made a splash as it has in sports like baseball, basketball and football. Bat Sense, Srivastava believes, can help kick-start that.
“We are positioning this as an aid to coaching,” he says. “Academies and coaches are the biggest channels for us. When you get coached in India, you just come, bat, bowl and go home. But this can act like a report card that a student of the game can carry home.
“Every single ball you play gets stored in 3D form as well as in data form in a phone through Bluetooth and this data is something a coach can always see. If say a player plays 75% of his shots only on the leg side, you can say there is some problem with his grip, the way bat is coming down or stance. When he is getting bowled too many times, it means there is a possibility of the bat not coming down in time. These things may be known from the Ranji Trophy level on. But for an eight-year-old or 10-year-old he won’t know a thing. So this is a tool which can transform coaching.”
G. K. Anil Kumar, the newly-appointed assistant coach of the Karnataka state team, concurs. “It can give inputs to the coaches and players can do comparative analysis to see where they stand. Elite players can use it as a self-analysis tool. All cricketers ultimately fall back on the coach and for the coach this simplifies a lot of things.”
However, cricket has its own challenges. No other game is perhaps at the mercy of so many external factors as cricket. Cricket technique in itself is so broad-based. Add to that the playing equipment; cricketers with their full gear on seem more like astronauts travelling to space rather than someone out there to enjoy a game.
“Golf has only one swing and the ball is stationary. Baseball only one swing. But cricket is different and it’s a difficult proposition,” Srivastava explains. “It took us six months to decide where to put it on the bat. The hand shouldn’t feel a foreign element. We then zeroed in on the top of the handle.”
“Drawing the arc the bat takes is tough,” says K. Sri Harsha, the Chief Technological Officer. “On the handle when you hit a yorker the force is 3000g (g-force is a measurement of the type of acceleration that causes a perception of weight). Making such a device is incredibly difficult. We initially designed for 120g. When we took it to the field, 1500g was normal! For professional cricketers it went up to 2000 to 2500g!
“We need to tune the accelerometer to great precision and this takes time. So we are constantly testing. On the field, at different temperatures and even about what happens to the device when put in a kit bag!” he says.
But for any device to be trusted, there needs to be a way to corroborate the data, and Srivastava reveals that they have been able to achieve 95% accuracy thus far.
“There are high-speed cameras at our lab. So for the same shot that’s played, the high-speed camera is giving us data and the bat sensor too. These two should match. We are looking at 95% plus accuracy,” says Srivastava.
“For example, back-lift is easy to measure. But when a ball hits the bat at 150 km/h, that accuracy will be tougher to achieve. But this is artificial intelligence. As you use it, it will become more and more intelligent.”
The product has thus far received enthusiastic response, Srivasatava says, and recollects an incident involving David Warner.
“At the Champions Trophy, Warner analysed the data and he realised that in the first match, the bat face was open and in the second match it was closed. This technicality I could have never seen in a video replay. Even if you open the bat by just five degrees, it is still a big number,” he explains.
“I have seen them grow the product for the last two-three years,” says Karun Nair, Indian Test batsman. “It’s a great start for technology to get into cricket. I have used it a couple of times. Most players in this day and age do value such analysis.
“Normally it’s not advised to change too many things early on. But if something has happened without you knowing, with this tool you can go back and see how you were playing when you were doing well. This helps in re-creating something you have done good and can try and do that again.”
For Srivastava, the next step is to grow the product. The logical next step would be to launch a broadcast product in addition to the consumer product.
“These are two different things,” he says. “Broadcast product works on Ultra-Wide Band antenna, where there are antennae around the ground and they are talking to the bat. The consumer product is talking to a phone 10 metres away. We need to see if countries want to use it because there is a cost to it.”
Going forward the idea is to devise things for the ball, pads and helmets, says Raghavendra Patnaik, the CEO. “Helmet is interesting because it will tell you at what force the ball hits when it does and the message will immediately go to the support staff. You can decide whether the player can continue or not.”
If Specular’s start is anything to go by, it might not be long before this comes to fruition too.
BAT SENSE — SALIENT FEATURES
How does it look?
Has a circumference roughly equivalent to that of a five- rupee coin, but much thicker. Mounted on top of the handle and weighs around 25 grams.
What does it record?
Six pieces of data — the time between back-lift and impact with the ball, the speed of the bat at point of impact, the maximum bat speed across the whole swing, the angles from vertical of the bat at: the final follow-through point, the tip of the back-lift and the point of impact.
How does it transmit?
Through Bluetooth to a mobile phone and the data is stored on cloud. Say a coach is sitting in England, he can be added through the app, and he will get access to all the data. He can annotate, pointing out what’s right and what’s wrong. This is the perfect hand-holding of a player to become an excellent player.
How is the whole process triggered?
The trigger is from the device. Hence it can be used by a player even while practising alone, without having to seek help from someone to record it on the phone.
How does one switch it on and off?
Starts automatically the moment you mount it. Switches off if you don’t use it for 20 minutes. Has a battery life of six hours, making it a viable option for even Test cricket if a batsman bats all day.