Sreshth Shah is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
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In the last 50 years, the simple cricket bat has seen numerous tweaks for strength and agility, but is it time they were made smarter too?
While the "shoulderless" Excalibur bat of the 1970s, popularised by Lance Cairns, lowered the position of the sweet spot, the hollowed-out rear of the GN100, made famous by the Chappell brothers, reduced the weight of the bat at the bottom, effectively broadening its sweet spot. The evolution of bat design has had a long history, and now a few tech startups are trying to go the "smart" way, transforming the bat from an instrument into a device - a batting wearable, some of which weigh no more than a credit card.
These wearables are either attached to the base of the handle, behind the bat's face, or on the top of the handle. Capturing over a thousand data points each time a batsman plays a shot, they then crunch the numbers to render a 360-degree 3D model of the stroke. Players can relive their sessions on a tablet or a phone, viewing vital stats like bat speed, speed of bat at impact, angle of bat, and quality of shot. That last metric is an analysis of how close the impact of the ball was to the bat's sweet spot.
Do batting wearables work? Former Australia captain Greg Chappell, who has coached across age levels and witnessed every change in cricket coaching for over half a century, thinks so.
"Earlier, there was no data available for batsmen, apart from camera recordings. But the data captured on these devices help the batsmen develop a baseline," Chappell said. "It allows coaches to therefore have conversations with batsmen - even those who are elite cricketers - on how to improve their game on the basis of evidence.
"One aspect of these gadgets that I like the most is that they tell you about the speed of the bat swing at its maximum. And then it tells you the speed of the bat swing during its impact [with the ball]. So, if the maximum bat swing speed is X and the bat swing speed at impact is X - 10, then as a batsman you know you have something to work towards improving."
RX Murali, the Bengaluru-based coach who Mayank Agarwal credits with turning his fortunes around, agrees with Chappell. Having used Str8bat, a gadget developed by Gagan Daga and Rahul Nagar, also from the city, at his academy for over two years now, Murali says that despite initial apprehension, he now sees the benefits.
"As a coach, my question to myself was, 'Can I tell the batsman exactly what was good about a shot?' instead of just saying, 'Wow, great shot'? Now we can say, 'Your bat speed was good', or 'Your impact speed was good'. If I can tell him, 'Your bat travelled in a straight line' with the help of these data points, then he'll believe in the coach more. It will improve the player-coach relationship and the transfer of knowledge becomes more seamless."
For younger cricketers, like former Australia Under-19 captain Jason Sangha, these wearables have provided a new perspective on their game by allowing them to access information that cannot be discerned by the eye alone. Sangha used Str8bat while working with Cricket Australia's National Cricket Centre in Brisbane, having got his hands on the gadget at a time when he was looking to make some major technical changes.
"I was trying to find a new backlift," Sangha said. "So with the technology, I found the optimum angle at which my bat can start. And with the video technology, the device helped me see the motion at which my bat comes down. It's something the naked eye can't see."
Some pros are learning how to unlock their wrists better. For others it's a way to lean into the bat's sweet spot. Depending on what batsmen wish to learn about their game, there is something for most to extract from the device.
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Take Rahmat Shah, the Afghanistan top-order batsman, who got an opportunity to play around with the product during the team's training camp before the series against Ireland earlier this year. "When I was driving, my straight shots were tending to go across to mid-on," Rahmat said. "But after using it, I have removed the mistakes from my game because I've been able to see which bat swing works for me."
The positive reports also convinced Amol Muzumdar, then the batting coach at Rajasthan Royals, to use Str8bat extensively in his IPL 2019 training camps. Cricket Australia continues to use the device across various coaching levels.
An area where batting wearables can perhaps make the most significant impact is women's cricket. The women's game has often been criticised for being low on power, and while there are big hitters like Alyssa Healy, Sophie Devine, Smriti Mandhana, Lizelle Lee and Harmanpreet Kaur, they are the exceptions. Between November 2017 and November 2019, nearly 24% of runs in men's T20Is came from sixes. The corresponding number for women's cricket is 5.5%.
Kaur has built her game around having a high boundary percentage - her 20 fours and seven sixes in the 115-ball 171 in the 2017 World Cup semi-final are testament. "T20 is widely known as a power game, but I sometimes believe 'power' is misconstrued," she says.
"There is a strong element of strength and fitness, yes, but every individual can be the better version of [themselves] if they nail the main principles of batting, which are a stable base, good impact points, and consistency.
"These devices help you train so that you can build your muscle memory and be a consistent hitter of the cricket ball. One thing that I have seen everywhere - girls are very keen to learn and take help to get better."
The muscle memory that Kaur talks about is the range hitting that is practiced by elite cricketers these days. Adopted from golf, range hitting helps a batter focus on hitting sixes by repetitively smashing balls from a particular length. Wearables can accurately track a batter's progress by measuring the quality of their shots across a time period.
Str8bat is not the only player in the market. Stance Beam, endorsed by Shikhar Dhawan, and Smart Cricket, who partnered with ICC during the 2017 Champions Trophy, are the other major companies in the space.
One of the earliest adopters of this technology was a former India captain: five years ago, Anil Kumble partnered with Microsoft to develop a sticker with sensors that did much of what the above products did. In fact, Spektacom, the company founded by Kumble, went one step further.
In 2018, they partnered with Star Sports and the Tamil Nadu Premier League to add another dimension to the TV broadcast. Having got permission to attach Spektacom stickers on the bats of some players, they provided real-time information to viewers about specific shots. Commentators used the new information to make the broadcast experience more immersive.
Last month, Fox Cricket, broadcast rights holders for the upcoming home summer in Australia, announced a new addition to their coverage called Smash Factor. Working in conjunction with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and US-based Divinio, their product will allow broadcasters to do what Spektacom did at the TNPL. Imagine experts in the commentators' box translating data insights from Steven Smith's unorthodox but effective drive through the covers.
Other start-ups in the ecosystem are going the mass-market route, like sports-tech company Z-Bat. They design custom bats, identifying the correct bat-weights for each batsman, and also use sensors to understand what kind of bat works best for a particular player. When a customer walks into their store, they face a set of deliveries from a bowling machine. The way they bat against those deliveries helps Z-Bat's algorithms recommend the ideal bat for the customer. Each bat is unique to each individual, or so the makers say.
As with all technology, especially with artificial intelligence coming into play, there is naturally a fear that human intelligence might be replaced altogether. There are murmurs in the coaching community in India that wearables haven't penetrated every sector yet because coaches are concerned that they might lose their students. Murali disagrees.
"Because no two batsmen have the same techniques and skills, a tool can never replace a coach," he said. "It's not a tool that will make you a good cricketer. It is up to a coach and up to an individual to know what they are looking to improve in their game, and then move forward from there."
Batting wearables are a trend that's caught on, though, and is likely to scale up. It's useful, by the sounds of it, but let's leave the last word to Chappell: "Wearables cannot turn a frog into a prince. For that to happen, you still need experienced coaches."