How Big Data Is Becoming Cricket’s 13th Man

This is what happens when you take a million dollar Hawk-Eye camera and shrink it down to a $200 sensor in a bat.

Big data is revolutionising modern sport, from digital scouting in football to virtual caddies in golf. The same is true of cricket, a game long defined by batting and bowling averages. But these core statistics only scratch the surface of what’s now possible with today’s technology.

Using advanced data capture techniques and powerful analytics platforms, coaches and broadcasters can now dig deeper into the mechanics of every shot, catch and run, potentially unearthing new insights into what it takes to win.

The 2017 ICC Champions Trophy was arguably one of the most high-tech cricket tournaments ever staged. Alongside existing Hawk-Eye technology (which tracks ball trajectory, bowling speed, pitch and bounce), infrared HotSpot imaging and Snick-o-Meter microphones hidden in the stumps, an Intel-powered Speculur bat sensor[1] was deployed to track key elements of a batter’s swing.

“As broadcasters, how often have we spoken about 'fast hands' or ‘great bat speed’,” said former England captain Nasser Hussain[2]. “But what do they actually mean? We’ve never quantified it.” Until now. Twenty-seven players used the sensor during the tournament, including Australia’s David Warner, England’s Jason Roy and Pakistan’s Azhar Ali.

Video analysis systems are only one part of the data gathering challenge in cricket.

The bat sensor itself, which uses an Intel® Curie™ compute module, is designed to measure back lift angle, follow-through angle, impact angle, maximum bat speed, bat speed at impact, time to impact, 3D swing and plane path. During the ICC Champions Trophy, this data was used to enhance broadcast coverage and deliver additional insights for teams.

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“For example, say a four or six was hit,” explains Narayan Sundararajan, Principal Engineer & Director at the Intel New Technology Group. “We could provide ‘bat speed’ data so that the commentators had a clear and quantitative idea on how fast the batsmen’s hands were going. By combining multiple metrics, like bat speed and swing, we could calculate Shot Timing Efficiency numbers for each batsman and compare them using data analytics in real-time.”

We’re adding another tool that increases the amount of data teams have access to.

The tournament also featured aerial pitch inspections using an Intel® Falcon™ 8 Drone, equipped with HD and infrared cameras[3]. Working with Sports Technology Solutions, a map of the pitch could be constructed, showing the coverage of the grass across the playing surface, plus any variations in grass health or pitch topography. It provided even more data points for broadcasters to draw upon.

“Grass coverage has a lot more impact in test matches when they play over five days and the grass changes over the course of a match,” says Sundararajan. “Using historical data [for certain grounds], we were able to predict whether a pitch was going to be seam or spinner friendly based on its moisture content.”

Cricket is already a high-tech sport and bat sensors are providing a rich source of data for analysis.

The same technology was used in the recent 2017-2018 Ashes series.

While the bat sensor and the drone pitch scans were predominantly used to enhance TV coverage, several teams competing in the 2017 ICC Champions Trophy expressed an interest in using the data for training.

“Cricket is a complex sport,” says Narayan Sundararajan. “[It] has twelve different strokes and each player has their own style, so there’s a huge number of variables. What we can do is coordinate metrics such as backlift angle and swing, then correlate that with Hawk-Eye data to show how effective the shot is and how it might be improved.

“During the Champions Trophy match between India and Pakistan, Mohammad Amir was bowling brilliantly. So when India’s Virat Kohli came into bat, he adjusted his bat backlift to cope with Amir’s 145mph deliveries, bringing it down to counter them. That’s the sort of subtle adjustment that teams are looking for. Right now, they are doing it with video analysis. What we’re doing is adding another tool that increases the amount of data teams have access to. Using that data, we can come out with clear and actionable conclusions that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.”

By tracking hundreds of data points, analysis can potentially predict future performance.

That’s the power of big data. Given enough raw information and a powerful analytics platform, it’s possible to identify problems that are holding back performance or opportunities that can improve it.

Cricket is uniquely positioned to take advantage of the plethora of data. It’s already a numbers game. At international level, data is helping selectors pick teams, formulate game strategies and find faults in post-match reviews. The Winning and Score predictor (WASP) and Cricmetric systems, meanwhile, can often predict which team might win a match based on pitch conditions and historical performance.

The Speculur bat sensor (on sale in January 2018) points the way towards a smart future where there are sensors incorporated into helmets, shoes, pads and balls, recording and measuring every aspect of the game. The more data teams collect, the greater the potential for insight and success.

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