More than three years ago I wrote an article about where T20 might - and should - go next. That piece spoke about batsmen using batting cages just before going out to bat in a match, and about them turning down singles when they had good match-ups. Since then, the Brisbane Heat have tried batting cages, but players turning down singles to keep match-ups in their favour is still infrequent in T20s.
At that point the article was theoretical. Since then, I've worked for franchises around the world, as analyst, general manager and consultant. I've written reports, plans and advice for how teams, players and coaches could get better in T20. This piece, a kind of sequel to that 2017 one on what T20 teams can do to get better, has developed from those reports.
Use high-resolution cameras to zoom in on bowling actions
Watch this 822-frames-per-second video of a knuckleball on loop, from baseball. The ball doesn't rotate at all, which is incredible to watch on its own. But the footage is so clear: you can see exactly where the fingers are, what they do, and how the ball is released.
The reason this clip is so hypnotic is the clarity and detail of it. Edgertronic cameras were invented to film fast-moving creatures like hummingbirds and bees for nature documentaries. But baseball coaches quickly worked out how useful they could be, and there's no reason they couldn't work for cricket. If teams haven't been buying them yet, they're not far away from doing so.
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In baseball these cameras are used to create new kinds of pitches (deliveries) because they allow you to see every movement of the hands. The Edgertronic allows pitchers to work out how to put more revs on a ball, or less; what happens when they move the seam; and whether any given pitch is pushed out from the fingers or released from lower down in the hand. Cricket has more deliveries than baseball - with slower balls alone, there are so many more waiting to be created - and these cameras would be a great tool for bowling attacks.
They also work for batsmen, allowing coaches a vast amount of detail for small technical problems that normal cameras can't quite pick up. They would also be a fantastic tool for teaching batsmen how to read bowlers better. And of course, a team with "relaxed" morals could leave a camera strategically placed in nets when the opposition is gearing up to practise, in the hopes of capturing useful intel.
Another technology that could help bowlers is the Rapsodo Pitching 2.0, a mobile device that assesses deliveries on various parameters using optical tracking technology. It is a little like Hawk-Eye, only cheaper, and provides information on release points and angles, velocity and spin rates (revs), spin axis (the angling of the seam), and spin efficiency (how much rip is given, for example, to a topspinner compared to a legbreak). It could provide data on loop and drift too. Rapsodo said a year ago that they were developing ways the device could be made to work for cricket.
Keep an eye on the skills of the opposition
Another way to gain an advantage is by scouting your next opponent. Apps like SportsAlways allow players and coaches to filter balls by length, line, movement, shot, runs, wicket, and a number of other categories, and then view them. So, for example, it would let you view every outswinger Bhuvneshwar Kumar has bowled in the powerplay in the last three years.
Though viewing footage of opposition players this way is helpful, there are elements - such as field placement and tactics - that are not evident from such analysis. And almost all the footage is taken from behind the bowler - the normal TV angle - and players can only learn so much from that. You may notice if a wrong'un is quicker or slower, but without the front-on angle, it's hard to unlock many secrets.
Still, cricket teams don't much use scouts to watch an opposition before they play them. If you're in a league playing the same opposition again and again, one way to get an advantage is to shoot all the bowlers you face from the front. TV companies can't always share the footage they have, and more often they don't record the right thing. The Edgertronic may sound fancy, but it only costs US$ 5000-10,000 (a long-lens high-quality camera would be significantly more).
There may be difficulties in filming action on the ground relating to broadcast rights and the like, but such filming is commonplace in other sports. And it has happened at least once before, in 1999, when Dav Whatmore, the Sri Lanka coach, filmed Muttiah Muralitharan bowling. Whatmore, though, wasn't scouting. He was filming evidence in defence of Murali's action.
Focus pre-game routines on match-play
In baseball, players go out on the field, work on their specific routines and then disappear into the locker room. Cricket seems to rush through individual warm-ups so that more team stuff can be included - including football matches, which don't always end well. Teams are not terrible at pre-game preparation but a brief warm-up and skills-based practice should be enough - especially in warmer weather. Do teams need to be out on the ground as long as they are?
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The more significant problems occur in the days before a match, in the nets. That form of practice is not terrible for red-ball cricket, where you are trying to get into a groove, but it's awful preparation for a T20 match. You want batsmen to explore 360 degrees and get a feel for how they are hitting the ball by watching it clunk into a few empty seats. And you want bowlers to deliver each ball for a specific situation. Now in some leagues and tournaments net practice is all you can do, and there are practical reasons around the world for it to still be the most common form of training, but simulated match situations would be ideal pre-game practice. Centre wicket, with your top three batting facing a new ball from your powerplay bowlers; your middle order with the older ball against your middle overs bowlers; and your death bowlers coming in against your hitters. Essentially create a quick-paced cricket scrimmage that can be over in 90 minutes, which helps your fielders, batsmen and bowlers practise the game skills they need.
I've seen teams do variants of this - Bob Woolmer used to replicate ODI match situations with Pakistan in the mid-2000s - but they almost always go back to the nets. And there is plenty that works well in the nets, like honing a new delivery or shot, or just finding some rhythm. But ultimately your No. 7 really needs to know what it feels like to come out and face eight balls with the fielders out, since that is their role and they don't get to do it every match.
Upgrade skills day in, day out
South Australia opener Jake Weatherald spoke to the Cricket Australia website recently about how legendary guitarist Tom Morello helped change his game. Morello has an eight-hours-a-day routine to get better at the guitar: he spends two hours on technique, practising chords and so on; two hours playing songs; two hours playing his own material, and so on.
Weatherald broke down his day working on his batting in a similar way: some time on technique, some on tactics, some on match simulation. For most people, eight hours is a normal working - or school - day, but Weatherald's revelation comes across as almost radical. Most cricketers don't spend enough time working on their skills. Of course, given cricket calendars, it's tough for a lot of players to find time for this kind of self-improvement, but the practice Weatherald is talking about is what American professional athletes do in their off seasons. Cricket just hasn't developed that kind of mentality.
It is widely believed that 20 hours of practice is what you need to learn a skill, which is two-and a half days for someone with Weatherald's work ethic. Let's say you're a middle-order T20 batsman and you can clear the leg side a lot, but teams have loaded up there and on bigger grounds you're getting caught in the deep. Having a reverse sweep changes everything. You don't need to become one of the best in the world at that shot - it just needs to be serviceable. Two reverse sweeps can change the tactics and field of the opposition.
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Even for fast bowlers, for whom it's not practical to do this amount of training, there are other ways to improve your game. Those eight hours a day could be used on two hours of mastering new deliveries, perhaps another two hours on specialist fielding skills, and two hours of hitting. Being able to hit a six every ten balls doesn't make you a batsman, but it might get you picked at an auction over a bowler who can't.
Some disciplined cricketers already do these kinds of things, but not enough of them do. And not many practise in such specific ways. Overall, not enough is made of improving player skills or of setting up these kind of work plans.
Create skills databases
There are a couple of reasons why it would be useful for teams if they kept detailed databases of every skill that all pro-level players, top club players and representative juniors use in games.
One, scouting has never been cricket's strength; it's an almost alien concept. We have seen bowlers like Ajantha Mendis and Benny Howell break through, but Howell is the kind of player no one would have taken a risk on because he appears to be standard medium pace. But if you correlated his club numbers with how many different slower balls he says he can bowl, you might be more willing to bring him down and look at him.
As we learned in The Mighty Ducks 2 when Russ comes on to use his knucklepuck, a hyper-specialist with a unique skill is tough to handle. They might only play one game, but it could have a tremendous impact.
Two, what this database would also do is improve the players in your system. Knowing what skills your top players have, or are developing, is such an important thing. These days coaches can't provide a list of what deliveries their bowlers have, or tell you which of their players has the reverse sweep as a back-up shot. Such a database would allow them to select players with more knowledge, and also help players grow the skills they lack. It's not that the coaches don't know in every case. But when things aren't noted down, or if there is no record, they often get missed. Knowing that a player is developing a new shot or delivery might be the difference between winning or losing a match.
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Player improvement is why most coaches get into the game, but it needs structure, feedback, supervision, and a database. I'm biased because I believe a system like this will lead to what I really want: for every spinner in the world to be trying the knuckleball. What is the point of having big hands and not using them?
Measure how far batsmen can hit the ball on average
The question I'm asked most by players - other than for intel they can use to get a bigger contract - is how far they hit.
Which players have the ten longest hits in cricket? Is there a ground, like the Wanderers, where the ball travels further because of the altitude? During the last World Cup I contacted production crews, cricket boards and TV channels to ask if they would share their data on this. No one had ever collated it, as far as I could tell.
Considering cricket is a hitting-the-ball sport, it's lagging behind on information about actually hitting the ball. It was only a few years ago that the MCC did a test on cricket bats and realised that for all the talk of powerful modern bats, a skinny two-pound-eight bat from 100 years ago hit the ball just as far when it struck the middle of the bat. It was that the size of the middle had increased.
For a while now, analysts, coaches and batsmen have brought their own golf range-finders and measuring wheels to measure boundary sizes. But there seems to be less focus on how far each batsman can hit. It's not an easy thing to measure, and you would need to science it a little, to rule out mishits, and have a rating for each contact to come up with an average for good connects and for out-of-the-screws hits. If you need a six, and a boundary rider is 65 metres away, and you know your average good-contact hit is 75 metres, you can back yourself to hit to your strength, rather than try to play a shot you don't often hit.
Golfers - and we're talking amateurs as much as pros - have access to gadgets to tell them about their play. Tennis players too. But in cricket, until Smart Cricket and Stancebeam got into the bat-sensor field, we had very little. Data on bat angles, swing speed and 3D representation of batting is something you assume would help cricketers, and will eventually become normal.
Put more effort into team-building
There is now a lot more work done on picking your squad than there was in the Tyron Henderson days, but it's clearly not perfect.
Typically, players and staff in T20 leagues all turn up over the course of a week or two before the tournament starts, in dribs and drabs, and hope for the best. Already you have an ideal situation for little cliques and factions before you've even gotten on the ground. These are not teams, they are a collection of cricketers.
And cricket is a weird team sport as it is. It is a sport of individual athletes who combine for the odd bit of fielding or in pairs for batting partnerships. And in a T20 set-up, where people are sometimes brought together for the first time just days before they go out to play, it seems reasonable that most players will think about themselves first. One coach told me that in certain leagues, many overseas players prefer not to make the finals because that means they get paid the same for less work.
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All of that is hard to overcome by merely bringing a corporate team-builder in to get people to play a memory game for a few hours. You have to really plan how to make it feel like a team. You want the senior players guiding younger ones, players having meals together, looking out for each other after a bad game. And in the match, you want your overseas pro to run around from deep midwicket to give your 20-year-old prospect a tip.
At the moment, at the first sign of adversity, one or two people check out, and then it all slides quick. In a three-week tournament, or even a ten-week one, you can't have an emotional slide. And while cricket may not be ready for team builders coming in and getting players to do woodwork projects with blindfolds on, you could perhaps have assigned seating at meetings and in other contexts to ensure that players and coaches are outside their friendship groups. Or do something as simple as saying to the senior left-arm seamer: "We have two young left-arm seamers here, can you take them out for lunch twice this week?"
Knowing your team-mates better might just mean you are more likely to reach out with some advice for a young player that could pay off for years to come. Team-building can happen naturally, but if you're spending millions, you might want to invest some time and money in making sure it happens every time.