Andrew McGlashan is assistant editor of Cricinfo
In recent years England batsmen have become far more adept at playing spin and a large of part of that improvement is put down to a machine called 'Merlyn'. Invented by Henry Pryor, it recreates spin bowling in a way no other device has been able to do and now the ECB are investing in providing one to each of the 18 first-class counties.
The new enhanced Merlyn is a joint project between Pryor and a company called Stuart & Williams, the world's leading manufacturer of BOLA bowling machines, and the result is a machine that is almost as good as facing Muttiah Muralitharan or Shane Warne in the flesh according to ECB coaching staff.
"We can probably get the ball to spin more than a spinner so we can overload the training which means batsmen will face tougher conditions than they would face in a match," David Parsons, the ECB's performance director, told Cricinfo. "The only thing with a machine is you don't get the cue that a bowler gives you in terms of watching it from the hand, which can actually make playing the machine more difficult which is no bad thing."
Fifteen of the first-class counties already have the machines with the roll-out due to be completed early in the New Year while two will be permanently based at the National Performance Centre (NPC) at Loughborough.
"We've only had very limited use of it over the last few years because until recently there has only been one such machine," Parsons said. "But those who have worked on it have found it beneficial so the ECB has invested to get one machine out to every county.
"The feedback from both the wicketkeepers and the batsmen has been fantastic because it releases the ball with a high number of revolutions on it. Historically we haven't been very good a playing the spinning ball and this gives them a chance to practice their skills in a training environment before facing the real thing."
Unlike the original model, the latest version is much more transportable - the ECB have flown one out to Pretoria for the Performance Programme's training camp - while it is also possible to add data from any particular bowling spell which Merlyn will then replicate.
"It's very user-friendly as a coach and it's very easy to programme what sort of delivery you want spat out," Parsons added. "I'm pretty confident that we will see an improvement in the way batsmen play spin, especially if the last four or five weeks here in Pretoria are anything to go by."