June 8, 2015

A bat with less of an edge, to give batsmen an edge

A group of Indian technology students have produced a bat that has the potential to change the caught-behind as we know it

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Mirik Gogri talks about the Gladius bat

It is an issue big enough for the ICC's technical committee to discuss. During the recently concluded World Cup - the most lopsided towards the bat so far - it made Ian Chappell worry about the safety of the bowler and the umpire. Rahul Dravid is not sure how net bowlers have managed to avoid injuries.

The steady increase in the thickness (but not weight) of bats has altered the balance between bat and ball. The ball is being hit harder than it has ever been, and edges are travelling farther than they ever did. Yet the latest innovation in bat-making to fall foul of the traditionalists might just be one that actually takes wood off the blade, making some parts of it thinner. It should be welcome, except that this new bat primarily intends to make sure edges don't carry - or at least not as far as they do now. And the increased bat speed, a by-product of the innovation, might just end up sending the ball even further when it is middled.

When Mirik Gogri, Ayush Jain and some of their friends at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay - students when they began, entrepreneurs in their mid-20s now - began work on this bat, called Gladius, which they have since trademarked, during India's horror run in away Tests in 2011 and 2012, they wanted to come up with a tool that could reduce the number of wickets that India lost to catches behind the wicket. In the process they might have stumbled upon an aerodynamically enhanced overall design.

The edges first. Imagine a damp pitch on an overcast morning in England. The openers have to see out the first session, in the course of which the moisture will dissipate, as the sun comes out. You need to survive this session to accumulate through the rest of the day. Enter the Gladius bat.

In layman's terms, Gogri and Co. have tapered the edges. Under MCC laws, a bat face cannot be wider than 10.8cm. Now imagine if the back of the bat remained at its maximum width of 10.8cm and the front was made narrower by 0.75cm on either side. If the ball now hits the slanted edge, it won't travel as far back as it would off a normal bat edge.

This new bat primarily intends to make sure edges don't carry as far as they do now. And the increased bat speed, a by-product, might just end up sending the ball even further when it is middled

The simplicity of the idea is astonishing. It makes you wonder why nobody thought of it before - including the lawmakers. The MCC can't find a flaw with the bat under the laws as they stand, but this innovation has forced it to tighten the law. It is now considering a stipulation that the face of the bat not be narrower than 8.8cm, which means the slant cannot be more than 1cm on either side.

The bat offers more than just a smaller face. Its developers first produced a bat with sawtooth edges, which they used during their intra-university matches. They found the serrated edges made the bat too unpredictable, so they continued refining it - including trying to have sawteeth only on the outside edge, because that's the problem area - until they zeroed in on the tapered-edges design (on both sides, because shaving off only the outside edge took away the bat's balance).

In more scientific terms, in the words of Gogri, this is how the bat works: "When an edge hits a normal bat, the only direction a force acts on it is perpendicular. In this case [with the tapered edge] that force is slightly forward and slightly downward. This is not a huge directional change, mind you, but it can be the difference between the ball carrying and not carrying."

He and his colleagues have performed various tests on the bat in simulated environments, but the results may not match those in actual play, where no two deliveries can be identical and hit the edge on the same spot and with identical bounce and pace. Science, though, says that overall the tapered sides ought to make outside edges weaker but give leading edges more legs.

It's the weight of a bat that defines how much a ball travels, not the thickness, but big hitters are still attached to their big bats © Getty Images

A better balance, claims Gogri, was a pleasant offshoot of the tapering, as a result of improved airflow. "When the air hits a normal bat it flows in a turbulent fashion," he says. "With our bat obviously there is turbulence, but it eases through." In fact, the players who have used the bats in local and domestic cricket - Bhavin Thakkar, who has played Ranji Trophy for Mumbai and Himachal Pradesh, and Shashank Singh, who has played Under-23 cricket for Mumbai - are talking mainly of the improved bat speed.

The bat has been handed out to a few coaches, including Praveen Amre and Sanjay Bangar. While coaches find it to be better aerodynamically, the bat has - as expected - hit a stonewall that has to do with perception. Every bat-maker in the world talks of a batsman's psychology. Gray-Nicolls, the sports-equipment manufacturer, has done tests that prove the thickness of a bat has little to do with how much the ball travels, weight does, but some of the biggest hitters in cricket today like to use chunky bats. Just the sight of a big bat empowers batsmen, bat-makers feel, and most are fairly set in their ways in terms of what they want. And here is a bunch of kids asking them to reduce the width of the face of the bat. The nerve.

In the process of trying to convince batsmen, Gogri and friends have discovered that hardly anyone uses a bat that is 10.8cm wide anyway. Most bats are about 10.4cm wide. They are now looking at procuring bats - using the same willow - that are 10.8cm wide so that they can do their thing on it and see how players respond. However, it has been difficult to convince big bat companies to create wider bats for the makers of Gladius to experiment with.

If this bat is to succeed, there will eventually have to be a psychological trade-off between the confidence derived from looking at a full-faced bat and one with softer edges - to be used when the conditions demand more circumspection, when scoring runs is not the prime objective. The simplicity of the idea means there is no need for a bat to be specially manufactured: existing bats can be modified for the purpose. On the face of it neither the developers of the bat nor the batsmen who might want to experiment with it have much to lose, but the bowlers might have a thing or three to say.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo