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Gujarat batsman Priyank Panchal has been knocking on the doors of the Indian Test team by piling up runs in domestic cricket. Last year, he drew attention with a century for India A in New Zealand, batting at No. 3 in the same match in which Shubman Gill got a double century and earned a place in the Test team. Now, Panchal has come a step closer, as he has been named among the standbys for the England series starting this week.

Panchal prides himself on his ability to play a long innings, as in the 167-run partnership with Gill to help India A force a draw in Christchurch. With Prithvi Shaw’s technical frailties exposed after a dream debut on a flat track, Panchal has come into the frame as a reserve opener.

An opener’s technique can be gauged by how often he middles the ball, when he’s not leaving it alone. Here, some new-age tech has come to Panchal’s aid. It’s an IoT (internet of things) device from Bengaluru startup Spektacom, founded by Anil Kumble, former captain of India.

Sensors in a lightweight sticker attached to the back of the bat capture various parameters of a shot, including the point of impact. Panchal has been using it in practice sessions to improve his shots.

Numbers game

“Earlier, after a 90-minute batting session, I would have a feeling about whether I was middling the ball or not. But now, at the end of the practice, I can get exact feedback on how many times the ball hit the middle of my bat or its bottom or the edges," says Panchal. He can correlate that with video of his batting to see how to improve his percentages for middling the ball.

The sensors on the sticker are connected via Bluetooth to a mobile app where shots can be analysed during or after a practice session. Apart from impact location, accelerometers and gyroscopes calculate the speed of the bat swing, its angle, and even how much it twists in the hand while hitting the ball, which is an underrated parameter affecting the power of a shot.

Weightages for all these parameters go into Spektacom’s algorithm that calculates the power. From a tech point of view, the hardest one to capture accurately is the impact location on the bat face, which is vital for assessing how close it is to the “sweet spot" to produce the ‘thok’ sound that tells seasoned commentators when a shot is well-timed.

“Every time the ball hits the bat, you have to understand the patterns that come out of the data from the sensors. The surface of the bat, what kind of wood is used, the speed of the ball, they all make a difference in getting the impact location within a couple of millimetres of the actual point of contact," says Abhishek Binaykia, chief product officer of Spektacom, who worked with global tech companies in the US before taking up IoT projects in India.

Impact location accuracy requires tons of training data for the algorithm. This involves both an automated setup and a manual process. The automated way is to hit the bat at specific locations, with controlled parameters such as ball and bat speeds, and see if those match the algorithm’s output. Then there are manual field tests with balls dipped in colour that leave impressions on the bat to be compared with the app’s sensor-based impact location.

Feedback from players currently testing the product, such as Panchal and Smriti Mandhana, who opens the batting for the Indian women’s team, also goes into training the algorithm.

New use cases arise in the course of trials by players. “Earlier, the tech inputs we got were from videos, which show your head position and all that. But with this chip on the bat, it’s very different," says Panchal, whose focus is on being in the reckoning for a Test cap, which will require batting for long periods. “After two hours of batting, if you get numbers to show if the speed of your bat swing and power you are generating are dropping towards the end of the session, it helps you tweak your training."

Tech validation

Performance analytics for players and their coaches at different levels of cricket is the B2C (business-to-consumer) play of Spektacom. The aim is to eventually reach school and club cricket level where it becomes a fun element in casual competition. But a lot has to fall in place before that, including validation of the technology and adoption by top-level players, which will show trust in the ‘black box’ spewing out performance numbers.

Binaykia says the startup is ready to launch its B2C product in a few months, having achieved over 90% accuracy on key parameters. He didn’t disclose the price, other than saying the aim is to make it affordable for casual players as well.

There’s also a B2B (business-to-business) play. For example, broadcasters can use this as a tool for fan engagement. Viewers have got used to seeing the speed at which a ball is bowled and its trajectory. But most of it is centred around bowling or umpiring. When it comes to aspects of batting, like the speed of Rishabh Pant’s bat swing, it is left to the descriptive prowess of a commentator. The numerical power of a shot could be a useful addition to our viewing experience if IoT comes into bats.

Spektacom has run a few pilots to demonstrate this aspect of its device. An early version made its debut in the 2018 Tamil Nadu Premier League. The Board of Control for Cricket in India tried it out in a Ranji Trophy game. And around the last Indian Premier League, there was a “power shot challenge". No prizes for guessing the winner—Andre Russell.

Some added complications come into deploying the tech in live matches. Mobile phones have been restricted on grounds ever since match-fixing reared its head. So, Spektacom has a receiver that can go into the pit behind the stumps. This is wired underground to the broadcast control room, just like the wires from the stump mike and LED bails. “Fans can be presented with live batting benchmarks to enjoy, compare and debate," says Gaurav Manchanda, co-founder and investor in Spektacom.

It’s a process of trial and error to get the hardware and software right in uncharted territory. On the software side, it’s about the parameters available and weightages given in defining the power of the shot for the algorithm, which keeps on learning with more and more data. “From the hardware perspective, you have to make the choice of the right sensors and also the battery, which is charged wirelessly. If a (Cheteshwar) Pujara is going to bat and bat and bat, you don’t want the battery dying on you," says Binaykia, tongue in cheek.

From fitness bands to smart jackets, we are getting used to having sensors connected to mobile apps in our everyday lives. Perhaps, this is the year when IoT comes into the cricket field. And not just with bats, because Kookaburra is reported to be experimenting with a cricket ball embedded with an IoT chip that will tell us a lot more than a speed gun.

Sumit Chakraberty is a Consulting Editor with Mint. Write to him at chakraberty@gmail.com

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