In this antiseptic, sanitised world, the bowlers are cold, sterile hyperintelligent machines. The metal contraptions spit out endless variations of dimpled polyurethane balls at helmeted batsmen, who react with practised ease, unleashing a dazzling array of strokes. Until, that is, the machine — live-linked to an array of data about the batsman’s reaction times, technical weaknesses, training regimes — unleashes its probability coding and bends the rules.
The batsman, more a one-man performing circus than a competitor, knew it was coming but is totally caught unawares. His stumps are shattered. He exits, snarling. Somewhere thousands of miles away, a die-hard fan removes his VR headset and smiles. He has been so looking forward to this. It is time for the players to stand in their coded circles for a moment’s silence, to commemorate the centenary of the novel coronavirus. The one that they say changed it all…
Scared yet? You better be, for this scenario was enough to shock even Nye Williams, the managing director of BOLA Manufacturing, which makes bowling machines in the United Kingdom. Isn’t a cricketing world chock-full of intelligent bowling machines his idea of the perfect future? Far from it, as it turns out.
“Even as a machine manufacturer I hope we don’t see this,” Nye told TOI. “It will sacrifice too many of the elements of what people recognize as cricket… like the very intense mental combat between batsman and bowler. However good the machines are, I don’t think they should take the place of bowlers or anybody else in game environments at any level.”
Nye, however, is aware that ballsanitization and social-distancing rules mean more schools, academies and coaching centres will order bowling-machines now. “The machines are an easy route to socially-distanced batting practices,” he said. “If one coach picks up the balls it should be possible to use a machine through a whole session without the batsmen contacting the ball with anything other than their bats. The set of balls will need to be disinfected regularly.”
Such dreary practices are likely to become commonplace soon, but luckily, there are two sides to every story: while artificial intelligence and machines will keep evolving, the near-destruction of global economies and rapidlyshrinking pockets mean less and less academies will order hi-tech gear.
“In baseball in the US they have used pitching machines in game environments because of the poor standard of pitchers in the little leagues. There could be a justification for doing a similar thing in cricket,” Nye said.
“The professional game will look to use more and more machines while the recreational game will aspire to do so. In the short-term there will be an increase in demand, but it will be more than negated by the downturn in the sports economy. The knock-on effect for national cricket governing bodies, apart from the BCCI, is unavoidable.”
What might save cricket’s organic nature then, at least in the short term, is the shrinking pocket, not an aversion to technology.
There is, interestingly, a paradox at the heart of this situation. Cost-cutting measures and mass sackings could spur richer clubs and big teams to invest more in artificial intelligence, fundamentally altering how data is gathered, how players train and the game is coached.
“A lot of people in cricket are doing the menial task of coding the minutiae of pitches, strokes, deliveries, etc through computer software. At some point AI will be ready to automate this with a high degree of accuracy, which will turn people’s jobs into the more valuable work of interpretation, insight and application with the coaches,” said biomechanist Marc Portus, who has worked with the ICC and also the Australian Institute of Sport, which was during his time investing heavily in AI to better revolutionize performance analysis in Olympic sport.
In essence, along with its economy, the whole science of cricket coaching may change. If coding every delivery detail can be automated, human jobs will shift to interpreting data patterns, events and trends of play in real time to keep coaches informed, or even offer them different perspectives.
No doubt, the future will test the sport’s powers of innovation and creativity. It is imperative that some ‘onfield’ competition is started, in any way possible, before the sky-high value of present broadcast deals start getting eroded. Cost bases may need to be trimmed. New revenue sources will have to be unearthed.
All this will impact high-performance setups and training regimes too. Physios, dieticians and psychologists may only be available virtually. Online cricket analysis services may thrive. In-house staff may become ‘generalists’, with broad skill sets to manage multiple departments.
“AI will lead to more evolved coaching in a lot of sports, including cricket. AI technologies and applications will be integrated with cricket through broadcasters and media channels, rather than through R&D investments by governing bodies,” Portus said.
It is what cricket does in the here and now to survive in a post-pandemic world that will define its shape in the far future, when watching and playing cricket could be a fundamentally different experience.
There’s one small mercy, though: this sport practices social distancing better than most others! Fine leg to long off, anyone?