There is a seductive myth about Australia’s remarkable sporting prowess: that it’s simply a triumph of fine weather, abundant space and a sporting culture that allows talent to flourish. What this notion conceals is the role of the Australian Institute for Sport in making Australia world leaders in sports science and technology. The golden age for Australia in the Olympic Games, from 1996-2012, was also the golden age for the Australian Institute for Sport.
Sports-science technology has underpinned Australia’s cricket success too. Over the last 25 years, Australia have been the most successful team across all international cricket – a period in which their technology has consistently been at the cutting edge of the world game.
The journey began with John Buchanan and Queensland in the 1990s. Buchanan, who led Queensland to their inaugural Sheffield Shield title, was the first coach to use the Fair Play “Cricket Analyst” match vision and statistics capture system – at the time, the most advanced technology that had ever been used by a cricket team.
In 2006, Cricket Australia and Fair Play worked in conjunction to build the first online Cricket Athlete Management system, covering every facet of a player’s performance and preparation. Today the system stores everything from captured match vision of players to the results of fitness tests, strength tests, profiling data and GPS data.
The Fair Play system is now used all the way down through national Under-15 boys and girls championships. Australia believe that embracing this technology from a young age gives cricketers the best opportunity to improve – and gives the wider system the best chance of learning from successes and failures, and thereby improving.
Telling players what to aspire to
Using technology can be a way of illuminating what the next generation needs to aim for, and how to get there. For instance, England have found that a typical ODI hundred involves covering ten miles of ground over two hours, while completing over 100 sprints. No matter how skilful a player, if they do not have the physical capabilities to achieve these levels, they will not be able to enjoy a successful ODI career.
“Wearables” – devices attached to players’ bodies or clothing – are a reality of elite international cricket. They enable, for instance, the speed of players’ movements and pace while sprinting in the field to be measured and analysed, thereby driving greater accountability and improvement.
Producing fast bowlers is one thing; ensuring they are fit when most needed is quite another. Catapult, a company that grew – appropriately enough – out of a partnership with the Australian Institute for Sport in 2006, aims to prevent injuries to cricketers, especially quick bowlers, and works with teams including Australia, England, and Rajasthan Royals in the IPL. The technology was used by Australia before the last home summer, as Cricket Australia attempted to manage their fast bowlers’ workloads and enable them to peak during the Ashes.
At every England game and training session, players wear micro-sensors on the top of their backs. Algorithms developed by Catapult and the ECB can automatically quantify the number of deliveries that a bowler delivers, as well as gauge the speed of rotation, the run-up velocity and the force at play during the front-foot contact. These are especially useful in managing a player’s return from injury in such a way that minimises the prospects of them being injured again, because it enables the intensity of training to be adjusted accordingly. Such a tool also enables continuous learning: if, for instance, bowlers of a similar type become more susceptible to injury when they bowl a particular number of overs over a certain period, other bowlers can then be prevented from putting themselves at greater risk.
Last summer, the ECB conducted a study of 91 county cricketers to track players both before and after they suffered back injuries, using wearable sensors to analyse variables – among them players’ posture, joint mobility, muscle flexibility, and even sleeping patterns. Doing the study gave the ECB a better idea of what causes back injury. This, in turn, will mean that the ECB should be better able to manage its best cricketers and prevent them from getting injured.
Identifying illegal actions
For many spin bowlers, the greatest benefit of technology is not in injury prevention but instead in ensuring their actions fall within the ICC’s permitted 15-degree limit. Bowlers suspected of illicit actions, who were at one point humiliatingly no-balled during matches, by umpires whose decisions were based on the fallible eye test, as opposed to scientific measurement, are now tested at ICC-accredited testing centres, and the verdicts determined by science.
Technology can help prevent bowlers from ever needing to visit an accredited testing centre. For instance, CricFlex, an arm sleeve embedded with sensors, is worn by bowlers, and instantaneously determines the legality of a bowler’s action, displaying the degree of flex on a smartphone. The idea, then, is that bowlers can self-monitor either their entire repertoire of deliveries or a specific ball – like a doosra – which might be at risk of contravening the 15-degree limit, thereby avoiding the disruption and ordeal of being reported.
Using such technology also holds out the promise of being able to improve on-field performance. And because it measures a bowler’s arm force, action time and arm spin, “coaches will be able to compare players on the basis of this data, and emerging players will be able to compare themselves to the likes of Mohammad Amir and Mitchell Starc,” says Abdullah Ahmed, the chief executive of CricFlex.
The growth of technology affects the role of selectors and coaches too. Every ball of every county match is filmed, logged, and the footage stored in a central database. This means that domestic players need not rely on impressing the right selector during a specific match that the selector happens to attend. Together with the wider data revolution in cricket, this should herald an overall move towards selection that is based more on merit and less on luck. There is copious footage, as well as statistical analysis, on every player in the English professional game. England’s coaches can also use the Hawk-Eye system to compile intelligence packages on the opposition.
In matches themselves, all sports are increasingly embracing technology to assist with decisions: even football is using video assistant referees for the first time in this year’s World Cup. Cricket has used the Decision Review System since 2008. In that decade, the system has been tweaked and improved. While it is standard in the men’s World Cup and World T20, it is not yet standard in other events – the Women’s World Cup only used the DRS in its televised matches last year; controversially, the men’s World Cup Qualifiers this yesar did not even use DRS for its televised matches, sparking anger from Scotland after they were denied a World Cup berth largely because of a terrible umpiring decision in their match against West Indies.
Using the DRS costs in the region of US$10,000 a day, though the specific costs vary from country to country, meaning that more penurious boards still often refrain from using it during home games. In the years ahead, the costs of using DRS are likely to be reduced, leading it to be used more widely both in ICC events and bilateral matches. The ICC’s new Test and ODI leagues, launching from 2020, will hasten the adoption of the technology as standard, which seems conceivable in subsequent cycles, depending on costs. All the while, the DRS technology will be improved.
So it is for the teams themselves, as the sophistication of technology increases with every year. And thus, whether it is spotting flaws in opponents or keeping a team’s own bowlers fit, technology can be more than just another marginal gain. If the circumstances are right, and it is used appropriately, technology can make a decisive difference to how a team performs on the cricket field.