Purportedly November 28, 2013

The thing about speed guns

Does knowing how fast someone is bowling add to our experience of watching?

Would it be magical to be able to put a number to Thomson's pace? Adrian Murrell / © Getty Images

"That's FAST. That's SOMETHING."

When Mark Nicholas' enthusiasm levels in the Channel 9 commentary box crank up - up, up till there's a silken hint of metal splintering off metal in the microphone he's holding - it reminds us of the romance and lingering force in cricket of words like sinister, danger, violence, fear. How is it, one suddenly notices, that in these days of heads being helmeted so many crucial joints and appendages are still not encased in a hi-tech marshmallow foam, but are exposed, and these vulnerable body parts have vulnerable-sounding names, such as ribcage, and elbow, solar plexus, neck, breastbone, and all it takes is a speeding cricket ball to bump them and then can come stinging, bruising, blood, welts, numbness, breakage? Mitchell Johnson's next ball after the Nicholas-described ball was 1.4 kilometres per hour faster:

"Up he comes again, he bowls, Trott works him on the leg side…"

Jonathan Agnew said that, on radio. This is no commentary box adventure story of the taciturn Englishman and the overexcitable Englishman. Instead it's a disjuncture: between what the eyes see and what the speed gun tells us. The ball that Nicholas saw skidded, leapt, speared into Trott's gloves, set spectators howling, and prompted Johnson to stand wide-legged and leering over the top of his moustache. The Agnew ball, technically quicker, was flicked nonchalantly behind square for three runs.

The play was at the Gabba, England's first innings, Johnson's second spell. His third spell, from the Vulture Street End, whistled the wind through the middle order. Johnson ran in unusually straight. Balls did not bounce conventionally; they hit the ground, rose sharp, kept steepling, seemingly followed blokes. English batsman after batsman combated this with confused feet. Some jumped with the ball, a few stayed flatfooted and played with their feet far from the action, others' feet squirmed with scant enough conviction that when ball hit bat or flesh their whole bodies jerked. One delivery tore past Michael Carberry's nose - "That's a PROPER SNIFFER, that is," exclaimed Nicholas - as Carberry hooked and didn't connect and people moaned and the speed gun said only 142.6kph, and another ball missing Tremlett's off stump went unplayed at, and unremarked on, because it was not remarkable, despite coasting at 148.7.

"That HAS CANNONED into the bat stickers" - 142.3.

"OOOOH, good heat" - 141.9.

Are speed guns faulty? Probably, but a more interesting question is whether they add to or steal from our entertainment. We know, speed gun or no speed gun, that Johnson's third spell was thrilling. We know as well, thanks to the speed gun, and compared with the quick men scorching the turf in front of radars and photosonic cameras 38 summers ago, that Johnson on average has more zip than Englishmen Alan Ward and John Snow (aged 34) had and is slower than Jeff Thomson, Andy Roberts, Dennis Lillee, Michael Holding, Wayne Daniel and Bob Willis.

This is information we are entitled to, or else it's a case of too much information proving the truth to be drabber (a dozen or so kilometres drabber) than imagination, or probably it is both, which would make the speed gun a bad yet inexorable thing. Possibly it is gadgetry overload. Certainly it is addictive, and I like looking at it when the rhythm of a Test is escaping me, and I sit, watching the balls go down, watching the speedo, observing occasional rips, noticing how a bowler's readings mostly don't vary much, and then the rhythm's got me back, I forget about the speed gun, until some volcanic sweep of events has Mark Nicholas talking in capital letters again.

That is getting pseudo-psychoanalyst-like about the relationship between the speed gun and the audience. More purely, it's fun, and had furnace Adelaide Oval had a speed gun back when Larwood clattered Oldfield round the temples, all eyes would have gone first to the prostrate batsman, then to the speedo. And maybe captain Woodfull two nights earlier wouldn't have said what he said about one team's playing cricket and the other's up to something alien, would have just made a mental note to self to get a bat on those mid-140s lifters because they are never as fast as they look.

Without a speed gun, a million mythologies may flower. This is a familiar futile dilemma. A bowler's speed is now maths, batsmen's skulls are safe, hardly anyone in the world writes letters - and the speed gun, now that it is here, is no likelier to be outlawed than batting helmets or twitch-speed email. Perhaps it is close to the truth to say the speed gun makes watching cricket more entertaining, a little less enjoyable, magical. Magic lies in imagining Jeff Thomson knock over 6 for 4 and hospitalise one other Mosman chap at Bankstown Oval in December 1973. Were we to know mathematically and (purportedly) factually that Thommo was actually several klicks slower than Shoaib Akhtar popping one down to Nick Knight at 100mph (felt like "about 78", Knight told Mike Selvey) in Cape Town, well, that's useful information to have - but magic?

Christian Ryan is a writer based in Melbourne. He is the author of Golden Boy: Kim Hughes and the Bad Old Days of Australian Cricket and, most recently Australia: Story of a Cricket Country

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • mohan on December 3, 2013, 10:55 GMT

    http://www.espncricinfo.com/magazine/content/story/310747.html The above article explains about speed guns. Looking through it seems the speed displayed is that for the entire course from delivery to the hit and the immediate speed after bowling or the speed at which the batsman faces the ball

  • Daison on December 1, 2013, 10:51 GMT

    Speed at which the ball leave the hand combined with the bounce and nature of the pitch makes it lethal. Though Johnson proved handful to couple of India batsmen in the last ODI series between IND-AUS in Indian pitches, Johnson did go for runs he was nowhere unplayable to other batsmen. In the first test, combined with speed, bounce another contributing factor was the ACCURACY of his short balls that troubled the batsmen. The batsmen could not "ignore" the short balls; they had to "take some action". And when they were made to take action in a hurry to avoid "getting badged" they made error. And the expectation to get the "sniffer" made them play false shots to even relatively un-harmful deliveries - when they were expecting a killer of a delivery and receive a softer one in turn, the "release of pressure" gave away the wickets at times too. Its mainly conditions that makes a good bowler a lethel bowler.

  • Dummy4 on November 30, 2013, 22:42 GMT

    @ Shaggy76: Good point, I remember Jeff Thomson sending down balls that were slamming into Rod Marsh's gloves as he (Marsh) was leaping vertically into the air and he was only just able to reach them. And as you say they were still rising...

  • Doog on November 29, 2013, 8:27 GMT

    @Sudha Gopinath Sure, the speed gun measures the ball's at the bowlers hand. It uses the doppler affect, which can only allow it to detect the component of "speed" down the axis of the pitch.

  • Umair on November 29, 2013, 2:07 GMT

    Imagine Shoaib Akhter bowling at the gabba pitch at these english batsmen... Miss you shoaib

  • Dummy4 on November 28, 2013, 23:59 GMT

    When questioned about the accuracy of the speed guns used at international matches, the inventor apparently said "If I was arrested for speeding on the evidence of one, I wouldn't be happy". They're so inaccurate as to be effectively meaningless; their only purpose is to boost bowlers' egos - just as measuring the length of sixes does for batsmen. Many fans (and some commentators) tend to forget that you win a match by taking wickets, not just hurling the ball down as fast as possible. People forget that in the match in which Shoaib supposedly broke the 100mph barrier, he finished with 1/63 off 9 overs (although he did rather better with the bat) and Pakistan lost by miles.

  • Dummy4 on November 28, 2013, 23:23 GMT

    @Sailesh: That is all good but are you aware that it is the speed of the delivery at the point of release and not when it reaches the batsman. Did you seriously think batsmen would stand any chance of hitting something coming at them at 150kph?

  • Mark on November 28, 2013, 23:16 GMT

    We're often told that the speed gun measures the speed out of the bowler's hand. However, I concur with the other comments in this forum that it's not as simple as that. If the speed gun only used the speed out of the bowler's hand for its measurement, short deliveries would register a greater speed because the bowler has to put in more effort for those deliveries. However, because short deliveries often appear slower on the speed gun convinces me that the speed gun is more sensitive to velocity along the horizontal axis of the pitch. Short pitched balls have greater proportion of vertical velocity than horizontal velocity, hence they appear slower on the radar than full deliveries.

  • Graham on November 28, 2013, 22:30 GMT

    I'm a bit cynical about speed guns, Mcgrath at 135 used to smash the keepers gloves. Just look at the ball when it hits the keeper, with Johnson it is still rising and smashing the gloves - I think that is a better indication of true speed.

  • Anton on November 28, 2013, 21:04 GMT

    Speed is misleading. I think circumstance, player state of mind and conditions play a greater role in what a fast bowler does. For example, I recall Mitchell Mcclenaghan ripping through several teams in the last year - and seemingly doing it through pace.

    I remember sitting there watching on television after having heard he was the new quick to watch out for... and after a couple of balls thinking "he's only bowling 128, what are they talking about?" Then he proceeded to take 4 wickets for not many runs, causing all sorts of horror through pace and bounce, yet he was 20kmph slower than Morkel. He seemed to genuinely hurry up batsmen and looked to be doing it as a classic fast bowler - but the numbers didn't add up.

    All I can think is that he had the combination of 'just enough pace', good lines, good bounce and the right attitude... you can have all the pace in the world but if you bowl bad lines, or predictable lines, batters are going to work you out.