April 15, 2003

Dynamics approach could hold key to New Zealand's future

Imagine three or four Shane Bonds competing for the right to take the new ball for New Zealand into a Test match.

Unlikely, improbable, impossible, could never happen?

As they say in Porgy and Bess, "It Ain't Necessarily So."

Hamilton-based Rene Ferdinands is doing a PhD study into bowling actions.

It is a study that is breaking new ground.

He has already done 10 years study into a qualitative biomechanical analysis of batting technique based on thousands of hours of video footage, and the specified methods of Sir Garfield Sobers. This study has resulted in a practical set of optimal batting techniques which will be the subject of further biomechanical testing soon.

One of the findings already made is the answer to a long-standing question for cricket players: What is the difference between a good batsmen and an elite batsmen?

Ferdinands' study showed that it may be due to a difference in contact point of about six inches.

The optimal batting stance is used by the world's greatest players and Ferdinands has found that even average batsmen can significantly improve their batting ability by using this stance, which often involves just a slight change in posture and a small redistribution of body weight.

The prospective benefits for New Zealand cricket from having research work of this type done here are inestimable but will be dependent on his being able to secure employment here once his studies are completed.

But it is bowling techniques that have captured his attention at the moment.

The 33-year-old Sri Lankan-born academic, who made a first-class appearance for Northern Districts after living in Australia for 20 years, said the primary objective of his study was to get a biomechanics position in New Zealand to work with bowlers and batsmen in this country and to help develop New Zealand cricketers to be the best in the world.

His research is ground-breaking as no-one else in the world has done dynamic analysis of bowling actions. There have been other types of studies in other aspects but not in the area Ferdinands is working in.

He earned a Bachelor of Engineering in Australia and then did a Masters in biomechanics and his PhD involved developing a model through mathematics and dynamics to allow him to study bowling actions.

At the core of his study has been dynamics, which is the analysis of a moving system using forces and torques. Forces accelerate a body in a straight line, whereas torques cause a body to rotate faster.

One of the first accepted norms that he has had to dispose of is the notion of bowlers having to "bend their back" to get extra speed.

The torque on the lower back acts to resist the rate of flexion. This means that the lower back is flexed passively, resulting from the motion of other body segments.

"If you want to bowl a ball fast, you don't have to make a conscious effort to bend the lower back," he said.

Pace is actively generated from other parts of the action, hip rotation or arm action being two aspects.

Ferdinands said one of the major problems facing cricket in New Zealand is over-coaching of bowlers.

"A lot of established beliefs about how a bowler generates power don't seem to stand up under dynamic analysis.

"There are too many theories which have not been substantiated and which in fact compromise the bowling actions."

Slowly, by his progressive research, Ferdinands is getting to the position of being able to address these issues.

He doesn't believe there is a perfect action but there are definitely some that are more optimal than others.

Any bowler who bowled faster than 140km/h had a good action and in New Zealand he placed Richard Hadlee, Bond and Ian Butler in this category.

The reason was that bowlers of this pace either tended to have developed naturally without a lot of changes being made to their actions or developed efficient techniques that suited their natural characteristics. Though their actions may look quite different, all other things being equal, the fastest bowlers generally use more efficient actions.

"Malcolm Marshall and Curtly Ambrose had different actions but they were efficient.

"A lot of fast bowling has got to do with natural ability and the issue for coaches is to know when to let a bowler deliver the ball naturally, and when to intervene and make a judicious technical adjustment," he said.

Other aspects were important in developing speed, such as how to brace the front leg.

"Coaches will tell you to brace the front leg, but not how."

"How to use the front arm is another thing."

Ferdinands said it was his experience that New Zealand was more guilty of over-coaching its bowlers than most other countries. England and New Zealand were similar in this, he said.

"If you look at Pakistan, they let their bowlers just come in and bowl, and the West Indies in the 1980s had no coaches to change their bowlers' actions for the worse," he said.

While Ferdinands has been working on a special programme with New Zealand Cricket and its bowlers, through an arrangement with the University of Auckland, he was finding that there was more interest from overseas in what he was doing than there was in New Zealand.

He hopes that doesn't always remain the case as the whole objective of his work is to use his expertise to help develop New Zealand's batsmen and bowlers of the future.

"There is an opportunity to make a significant improvement in the bowlers in the future. We could have three or four Bonds rather than one," he said.

There would be short-term benefits from his work, but the real benefits would be 10 years into the future.

New Zealand Cricket's sports science co-ordinator Warren Frost said Ferdinands' work was essential to further develop New Zealand's player pool.

The valuable point in his work was the modelling he was doing.

It allowed an assessment to be made of the effects of possible changes to a player's action before they were implemented.

"There is a lot of exciting potential in his work but the question is whether we will be capable of keeping him in New Zealand.

"Hopefully we can. What he is doing is at the sharp end of being at the edge which is where we always want to be," Frost said.

Because of his interest in cricket, Ferdinands was bringing mathematics to bear to go alongside the work of bio-mechanists and that was where he was unique.

"It is not often you get a mathematician who is interested in sport," Frost said.