The latest import to cricket from American baseball is a bowling simulator. This machine can be programmed to produce the kind of deliveries that some of the world’s leading bowlers use to get wickets.
Named ProBatter, it has been working overtime lately, pretending to be Pragyan Ojha and Ravichandran Ashwin for the benefit of English batsmen who stopped en route in Dubai to have a full workout with the machine at the ICC’s indoor facility there.
It’s unlikely the robot bowler can replicate Ashwin’s carrom ball, and it will obviously not quite be like the real thing. Still, isn’t it better to have this tool at hand than to just go through the motions against net bowlers who dish out stuff that is very different from the tweaks of the Indian spinners?
This England squad, unlike earlier touring sides, already had in its ranks a good off-spinner in Graeme Swann, and a passable left-arm spinner Monty Panesar, who can give their batsmen a bit of a workout at the outdoor nets too. But that’s nothing like the hours of practice you can have with a bowling machine to rectify chinks in your armour or just get used to an unfamiliar bowling style. What’s more, the Dubai facility can also replicate to some extent the different pitch conditions around the world, and that is an invaluable aid to batsmen who grow up playing on surfaces with a certain pace, bounce and grip.
It remains to be seen if the English have gained substantially from all this, or whether they will again come out sweeping left and right to perish against the spinners, as they did in their 0-3 loss to Pakistan earlier this year. But you have to give the England & Wales Cricket Board (ECB) full marks for the preparation that has gone into the India tour.
This is a far cry from the way our cricketers were more or less left to their own devices ahead of their last tours to England and Australia, where they lost all their matches on pitches that were prepared to suit the home sides. Why can’t we have ProBatter or some other equally good bowling simulator installed at a few venues around the country? Why can’t we create facilities where our top cricketers can practice on surfaces they are likely to encounter abroad? Surely our cricket board makes enough money from both international fixtures and the IPL to be able to afford this.
Not just our board, cricket itself has been a laggard in innovative modes of preparation. Before ProBatter, which has been in use in American baseball for a decade now, we had the Australians hiring a baseball coach to learn new fielding drills; many of the moves we have got used to seeing now, such as the sliding pickup, are baseball imports. But, more importantly, baseball has been way ahead of cricket in the use of technology in training. The former South Africa and Pakistan coach, Bob Woolmer, was credited with introducing systematic computerised video footage analysis of strengths and weaknesses, but this too was largely borrowed from baseball. The New York Yankees, in fact, hired the world’s leading data mining firm — which was also helping the CIA track terrorists — to figure out how to get the better of the main threats in their rival teams.
It’s quite likely therefore that a cricket board that invests in technology might just gain an edge, at least until other teams copy the tactics. Will it be the Indian board that takes the lead in this? High hopes.