For many people, cricket evokes idyllic scenes of the sport being played on a village green by players dressed in white, stopping for a break to grab some tea and a sandwich, but such traditional scenes betray the game’s more recent relationship with technology both on and off the pitch.
Video replays have been used to help umpires decide on run outs for some time, but many broadcast technologies like hotspot, snicko and hawk-eye are now used in matches as part of the Decision Review System (DRS).
India has been a notable opponent of DRS, but most fans, players and observers accept that technology has changed the sport for the better. For the International Cricket Council (ICC), innovations mean that more correct decisions are being made than ever before.
More accurate umpiring
“We’ve had DRS in place for a couple of years and its steadily improving every year. We want to get a position where it’s standardised across the world and get India on board,” said ICC CEO David Richardson in Melbourne during the 2015 Cricket World Cup. “We don’t want to take away from the on-field umpires but just check when they make a mistake. We’re up to 98 percent accuracy now.”
“For very international match, the broadcast is beamed into ICC offices where two analysts record every match and edit every appeal made in a match. Then we have umpire assessors who see if it was the correct decision. It’s a way of training and assessing.”
Every umpire can than access the findings using an intranet and see how many decisions they got right. Richardson is confident that although there should be a balance between old and new methods, the ICC is getting as close as possible to 100 percent accuracy.
For the first time at this year’s world cup, the audio stream of the ‘third umpire’ was made available to broadcasters so fans could hear how a decision was reached. This, along with improved accuracy, should settle a number of bar room arguments.
“If the umpire makes a mistake, people can hear how they’ve come to this decision and people can accept it,” Richardson explained. “In cricket, many good decisions are ruined by poor explanations. We’ve been a bit nervous and the umpires are nervous, but [South Africa v Sri Lanka] was the first time we used it and it went pretty well.”
Such reliance on technology might ruffle the feathers of those who still think the contest of bat and ball should take place in white kits and with red balls, but former Australian wicketkeeper Adam Gilchrist (above right) is not one of them, saying players and supporters are the beneficiaries.
“As a general rule the players are embracing it, they’ve got to,” he said. “As a spectator, these decisions are intriguing. Do you refer or don’t you? It’s adding to the game but the consistency has to be there. Every nation must engage in it and players will have greater confidence in getting things right. That’s what everyone wants.”
DRS is one of the ways the ICC wants to better engage with fans. After all, cricket competes in a crowded marketplace with the likes of football, rugby and others for sports fans’ attention.
Broadcasting innovations such as illuminous wickets, social media, mobile applications and a new official website are just some of the ways that cricket’s governing body is looking to maintain interest.
A partnership with SAP has seen 40 years’ worth of Cricket World Cup data converted into useful insights for fans and commentators, while a HANA-powered match centre analyses each ball in real time.
Statistics are also being used by teams and players to gain an edge over opponents. The use of ‘Moneyball’ style analytics is now used in many sports. Former England batsmen Kevin Pietersen is a fan, arguing that the use of computer and video analysis helped to visualise what he was going to expect from an opponent.
Former England captain Andrew Strauss and ex-England coach Andy Flower both recognised that England were behind the times when it came to the use of statistics when they assumed their respective roles in 2009.
For example, teams can see the optimum bowling and batting strategies against a certain opponent or for a certain kind of wicket, or when the most effective time to make more aggressive shots is.
However it has now been suggested that England’s reliance on stats has stifled all flair and quick thinking from their players and contributed to the team’s abysmal performance in Australia and New Zealand.
After England’s exit, current coach Peter Moore’s comment “We thought 275 was chaseable, we will have to look at the data” was widely ridiculed. Strauss said in his Sunday Times column that during his tenure he mainly used big data to back up his own intuition.
“As captain, it was helpful to have the information at hand, but 99 percent of the time, it merely served to back up my own instinctive feel on opponents,” he said. “When the data undermines a gut instinct, it’s worth pausing for a few minutes to work out why.”
Backing up intuition
Richardson and Gilchrist accept that there are limitations, but maintain stats can be an effective tool.
“It’s essential to know the data. For example, if South Africa is preparing to face Sri Lanka and they know Kumar Sangakkara has got out five times outside the off stump in the first ten overs – you need to know that,” said Richardson. “Despite the fact that you know that, you still have to have the skills to implement your plan. I think to rely solely on a presentation from an analyst – that’s a big mistake.”
“Spending more time working on your skills in the nets, making sure you are prepared and can do what you need to do – that’s the crux of it and will remain the case.”
“I entirely support that. John Buchanan (former Australia coach), who was seen globally as one of the early users of statistics and analysts, he had a very balanced point of view. The stats were there if you wanted and you injected the stats where they were appropriate, but you balanced that out,” added Gilchrist.
“You turn up to the ground and you don’t know what the conditions are going to be. If it’s overcast [the ball] might swing a bit with the first ball in a place where it never swings. So that’s why it’s great to have fast software that can make those adjustments.
“In modern cricket, part of the skill of coaching is knowing what’s relevant and when to inject that into the team and when to keep your players away from that. What works for one person might not work for another.”
What next for cricket tech?
SAP, which hopes to use its partnership with the ICC and Cricket World Cup to demonstrate its analytical capabilities, also agrees. It works with a number of sports organisations, including the National Basketball Association (NBA) and Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) and says that in any business, including professional sport, people are the most important asset.
“We find we’re backing up a lot of the intuition,” said Jenni Lewis, global sponsorships technology lead. “We work very closely with coaches to find the right time to introduce the statistics. More information isn’t necessarily helpful, but more information with insight is.”
But where next for cricketing technology? Some have suggested that smart bats and smart balls could be used to record each match rather than video, but even for a technophile like Pietersen, this might be too much.
“I’m happy with the bats and balls we use,” he told The Guardian. “I’m afraid that’s a bit too 22nd century for me.”