Automating the Ashes

6 Sep , 2019  

What would W.G. Grace think of the technological advances in today’s cricket? Given that he was himself a great innovator particularly where batting technique is concerned, and that he is considered to be the father of the modern game, he most likely would have taken a great interest in these developments. Steps forward, which have served to enhance the game where umpire decisions are concerned, drawn in audiences, and drag the game into the modern era.

Unlike football, cricket has for some years been receptive to high-tech innovation. It seems odd that this game of leather and willow, with its connotations of Edwardian genteelness and long, languid Sunday afternoons spent in crisp cricket-whites on the village greens of England, should so outstrip football in this respect. But this it has done. The football world has endured a lengthy discussion about the use of VAR (Video Assistant Refereeing), resulting in its finally being used in the 2018 World Cup for the first time, and in some FA Cup matches.

automation in cricket games

But such was opposition to it that Premier League clubs voted against it being used in the 2018-19 season. Many people said it would interrupt the flow of the game. Only now, in the 2019-20 season, are we seeing its presence in Premier League games.

Automation in Cricket!

So little to say about technology in football. Not so with cricket! Let’s have a look at how a game steeped in tradition has lurched into the 21st century. To understand the use of technology, we first need to look at the critical areas in the game, where decision-making is tricky. Although cricket is renowned as being a complex game (how many people actually know in what positions a Silly Mid Off or a Backward Square Leg play?) the decisions which umpires make are in fact incredibly simple. Here are the main ones:

  • Did the ball actually hit the bat when the batsman was caught out?
  • Did the ball hit the ground after hitting the bat when the batsman was caught out?
  • Did the ball hit the batsman’s leg on its way to hitting the stumps (Leg Before Wicket – LBW).

Easy decisions, we might think, except that the ball will more often than not have been delivered at a speed of over 90mph, before a baying crowd of partisan supporters, in a match where the stakes both in terms of national pride, and prize money, are high. We’re not talking about village cricket here. We are talking about the modern game at the international level.

Whereas VAR in football is more or less self-explanatory (incidents are reviewed on a video screen, and referees’ decisions are upheld or overruled) the DRS (Decision Review System) in cricket, overseen by the Third Umpire, who is not actually on the pitch… and may not even be at the match… takes us to another level of technology. Let’s have a look at the main components:

  • Television replays, including slow motion, as with VAR. Not used by the Third Umpire.
  • Hawk-Eye, Eagle Eye, or Virtual Eye: ball-tracking technology that plots the flight of a ball that has been clipped by the batsman, bat or shin-pad, and can predict whether it would have hit the stumps.
  • Snicko, or Ultra-Edge technology: microphones used to detect small sounds made as the ball hits the bat or pad.
  • Hot Spot: Infra-red imaging system that shows where the ball has been in contact with the bat or pad.

Now let’s look in more detail at some of this technology, and see how it works.

Hawk-Eye. Originally used in brain surgery and missile tracking, Hawk-Eye is a system involving 6 or more high performance cameras positioned at various points around the stadium, so as to get a multi-angled view of the crease. They are used to triangulate the position of the ball. Calculating how far the ball has travelled, how quickly, and at what angle, enables the system’s software to predict where it would go had it not, for example, struck a shin-pad. It is reputedly accurate to about 5mm. When an appeal for LBW is made by the bowler and the field umpire refers it to the Third Umpire, the visual representation of the ball’s predicted trajectory assists the Third Umpire in making his decision. It has been used in cricket since 2001. There have been suggestions that its predictions are not accurate, but it is generally accepted in first class cricket.


Snickometer, or Snicko has been around since the start of the millennium. It is essentially sound-based, involving the simple device of a stump microphone listening out to hear if a passing ball ‘snicks’, is nicked by, the bat. There’s a bit more to it than just a simple microphone, insofar as the mic picks up the live sound, filters it, and the sound waves are then traced by an oscilloscope. If the ball is suspected as having hit the bat, the sound graph will confirm this. A single spike on the graph will confirm ball-bat contact. If it touches the shin-pad, a flatter impact will be evident on the graph. Ultra-Edge is basically a more technologically advanced version of Snicko, where the sound pattern is matched with a slow-motion replay of the event, to enable the third umpire to make his final decision. Only used by broadcasters, and not the Third Umpire.

Finally, we have Hot Spot. Developed from military technology used for tracking tanks and fighter jets, it focuses on the less-threatening shin-pad, to detect LBW, and the bat. It’s a tracking system comprising infrared cameras that measure heat from friction caused by the ball’s impact, which produces an infra-red image showing the precise point of contact of the ball. It has been at the centre of some controversy where claims have been made that it has not detected ‘edges’ (the slightest contact with the bat) from fast bowlers.

This surveillance technology is used to review (by commentators) or influence (by the Third Umpire) what is happening on the pitch. But technology has advanced even further into cricket. It has got among the spectators. And we are not talking about a new tea-urn in the pavilion, or, perish the thought, a bean-to-cup coffee machine. We are talking about international cricket in great stadiums, where through Hawk-Eye’s SmartVote system, fans….let’s not call them spectators… are directly involved, as they have the chance to be a virtual Third Umpire – to cast their votes… Was he in?….Was he out?… and see the result of their vote on the big screen. Though they can’t change the course of the game, they must make the real umpires think.  Fan involvement of this sort is very akin to what happens in an interactive computer game. You can’t get much more state-of-the-art than that. And, of course, it is a great draw for younger fans.So, what would W.G. would have thought of these developments. I have a sneaking suspicion he would have approved, knowing his own apparent devotion to popularizing and improving the game.

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