Cricket, a staid British-invented bat and ball game, is not deemed as an athletic sport. Whereas basketball or any football code make spectators slack-jawed through the superhero athleticism of its players, cricketers have a stereotype of being portly.
This was perhaps once somewhat true – google Australian cricketers from the 1980s – although the increased professionalism of international cricket combined with the introduction of shorter and sharper formats have ensured cricketers are now mostly impressive athletes.
Unlike other sports – the NBA looks almost unrecognizable from even five years ago – cricket hasn’t changed markedly although fielding has improved noticeably due to faster, wiry players able to conjure gravity defying catches.
It might not be as obviously awe inspiring, but perhaps cricket’s most impressive skill is a batter’s ability to counter bowlers within 20 yards. The ball can be delivered at velocities of up to 100mph and can deviate laterally or vertically off the pitch. A slower bowler attempts to deceive batters by sharply spinning the ball in different directions.
It means anticipation of the delivery at the elite level needs to be made primarily before the release of the ball. The most skilled batters are adept at reading bowlers’ patterns of movement and determining the point of release to judge deliveries.
Such the advancement of technology, there is a thirst to find new methods. In a nod to the fervor sweeping U.S. sports since Moneyball, analytics has infiltrated cricket and especially valued in the condensed frenzied format of Twenty20 cricket. CricViz, a British analytics firm, has become an authoritative figure in stats and predictive models.
There could be, however, inventive practice methods being underutilized. Perth-based Murdoch University, which has a partnership with the Western Australian Cricket Association, through its sports science research has conducted numerous studies, including refining actions of bowlers to reduce injury risk.
It has also studied improving batting anticipation. Murdoch head of exercise science Dr Sean Müller said an under explored area of batting training is embodied perception, where batters practice bowlers’ action to help read the bowling.
“Allowing your batsmen to practice bowling patterns can actually help to perceive it, which is a unique finding,” Müller tells me. “Practicing bowlers’ action resulted in greater improvement in anticipation for batsmen.”
Müller said testing with elite club batsmen was encouraging. “When the batsmen practiced the bowling pattern it helped improve their anticipation skill and transferred to help read different types of bowlers,” he says.
“Cricket is like baseball, where a batter is mismatched and tends not to overly have practiced pitching, but they are required to predict the pitching. So it’s a mismatched situation.”
Müller, who has previously conducted research for MLB team Tampa Bay Rays and was a keynote speaker at last year’s Sports Biometrics Conference in San Francisco, said it was a practice that could be translated into other sports.
In a presentation to coaches at the West Coast Eagles – the Australian Football League powerhouse club – he suggested forwards and defenders switch during practice to “learn the movement patterns” of the different roles to help their decision-making.
Sri Lanka coach Mickey Arthur told me that he “totally agreed” it should be explored but believed the best batsmen in the world were already rounded enough in their ability to pick cues from the bowlers in their run-up and delivery stride.
Former Australia left-arm spin bowler Brad Hogg said practicing bowling patters could help strengthen muscle memory of batters. “When I’m coaching, it’s good to always look for other ideas,” he says.
“If you watch video of a bowler you might pick up a cue and then to practice it might help the batter be on auto pilot when they are at the crease – instead of being reactionary, which is where a batter can get into trouble.”
Hogg, a two-time World Cup champion, said it might prove less successful for mastering spin. “I used to play with Beau Casson who was also a left-arm spinner but I always had trouble picking his deliveries,” he says. “I think spinners, especially leg-spinners, have too many tricks to really be able to mimic them.
“But for quick bowlers I certainly see merit.”
Müller’s team sought to further improve anticipation with video-simulation training called a point-light display.
“The batsman watches video of a bowler on a black background with white dots placed on the bowler’s body, with the video clip stopped at the point of ball release,” he says. “The batsman watches the point-light display and plays a shot. Immediately afterwards the batsman has to practice the bowling pattern they saw and embody that pattern.
“Incorporating this technology in training practices and practicing the bowling patterns is helping elite batters to better predict bowler behavior, read body language and plan shots, ultimately improving the development of batters.”
Whether the training practices catch on is an unknown but undoubtedly it signifies a growing appetite for experimentation. “There are a lot of quirky ideas thrown around, but it’s really important to expand coaching in an effort to improve cricketers,” said Hogg, who was an indefatigable cricketer for 25 years at the elite level.
“Anything that can give (a cricketer) a slight edge is worth a shot.”
Source: Forbes Business