Cricket has long shed its conservatism and embraced gadgetry. The tech-palette of ultra-edge, Hawkeye, Hotspot, stump microphones and ball-tracking have become de rigueur in the game. The next leap in the sport’s technological evolution could be the smart-ball, which Australian ball manufacturer Kookaburra is working on, after the concept was floated by a firm helmed by former Australia pacer Michael Kasprowicz.
The science: The ball comes with a micro-chip fitted in the innermost layer. The chip is wired into a round socket and fitted into what the ball-makers call the quilt of the ball, a small, spherical object the size of a quail’s egg made of rubber and cork. Layers of leather and rubber are then wrapped over it, like any other cricket ball, before the different pieces of the balls are assembled and stitched. So the ball looks, and the manufactures assert, would feel and move like a normal cricket ball.
The Kookaburra SmartBall is here.
It looks, feels and moves the same way as a regular Kookaburra cricket ball, but collects and communicates instant statistical data on revolutions, speed.
— Kookaburra Cricket (@KookaburraCkt) August 12, 2019
The benefits: The chip inside the core transmits information from the ball back to a smartwatch, phone or tablet app. So a bowler will be able to derive a lot of information about the delivery as soon as the ball is bowled. It promises to give not only fundamental information like the speed or degree of turn but minute details like the revvs the bowler has imparted (in case he is a spinner), besides speed at the time of release, when it’s pitching and after it has pitched. As of now, the speed-guns can only measure the speed at which the ball lands and not the momentum it gains or losses after it has bounced. The smart-ball would, according to the makers, give the exact degree of bounce, drift, swing, and dip. Currently, there is one speed and revolution figure that is used when a ball is bowled — and that comes from a fixed stationary radar that sees a speed reading recorded at the same point regardless of the height of the bowler or their delivery plane. Such details would considerably help data analytics and coaching, besides enhancing the viewer experience.
Umpire’s aid: The manufacturers believe that it could benefit the umpires as it could register even the faintest of nicks. Though Snicko and Hotspot are commonly used, there have been instances of the Snicko not registering any spike despite apparent deviation and vice versa. Another contentious issue pertains to low catches, where even the ultra-magnifier can’t definitively clarify whether the catcher had his fingers wrapped under the balls or has grassed it. But the smart-ball could give an accurate output. But first, the accuracy factor ha s to be ascertained.
The challenges: As of now, they are still testing the ball, and it would take at least a year before real-time trials. The primary concern would be the longevity issue, that is how long the ball would last. Of late, there has been rising concern of Kookaburra’s durability in all forms of cricket. Moreover, the manufacturers have to ensure that not only are their new products sustainable but also do not adversely affect the quality of the game. The pink balls were initially criticized for swinging too much under the lights, while the conventional red balls were changed twice or thrice before the 80th over. Hence, several Test bowlers had chorused for standardizing the Duke ball for five-day cricket. The white-ball also had a tendency to wear out all too soon.
An equally vexing concern is whether it could stand the continuous pounding of batsmen, especially in the T20s. The leather often gets abrade and consistent hitting could damage a sophisticated, pill-sized micro-chip. Another product gone awry could stall their business. Another concern understandably is the cost. Micro-chips could come at a prize, and hence the balls could turn out to be expensive. Would it be cost-effective for net practice?
The target audience: Kookaburra is targetting the next edition of the Big Bash League. It would be to T20 leagues world over that the smart-ball, gimmicky as it sounds now, would primarily cater to. It looks unfeasible in Test cricket, with different brands being used in different parts of the world, like the Duke’s in England and SG in India. At a time when there is more clamour for diversity in the game, it’s less likely that the ICC would standardize cricket balls. With a minimum of four balls used across two innings in a single ODI match, it has to be seen whether the micro-chip ball could be financially viable. Another possibility is that it could end up as nets-only tool, providing bowlers and coaches instant access to the manifold data that concerns them.