Photo feature

Tech it and go

Cricket is back in our lives and on our screens and we have a century of technological innovations to thank for it

Deepti Unni  |  

In the first game after the Covid-19 hiatus, roving robot cameras were used for the toss and to conduct player interviews

In the first game after the Covid-19 hiatus, roving robot cameras were used for the toss and to conduct player interviews © Getty Images

It's not a bad time to be a sports fan, all things considered, even in the pits of the apocalyptic year that has been 2020. Despite a raging pandemic and lockdowns around the world, live cricket is now being beamed into our homes after a short hiatus. And it has taken a lot of technology to gets us here, from remote-controlled robot cameras to biosecure venues and even faux crowd noise. How long a way have we come? Let us tech you through the ages.

What would cricket's most iconic moments have been without cameras to capture it? Early sports photography camera systems were lumbering beasts, from the massive Graflex Naturalist, to the Big Bertha - a 120-pound telephoto lens strapped to a Graflex Speed Grafic body - and the Long Tom, which was more cannon than camera. And photographers today complain about having to lug a 400mm lens around...

Fox Photos photographers use a long-focus lens mounted on a Graflex camera to capture the fifth Ashes Test at The Oval in 1938

Fox Photos photographers use a long-focus lens mounted on a Graflex camera to capture the fifth Ashes Test at The Oval in 1938 © Getty Images

Could those same sports photographers have envisioned the Spidercam? This floating camera, suspended above the field with a winch-and-cable system, can move horizontally, zooming in close to a batsman to capture his anguish in the moment of dismissal, or be winched up high vertically for a bird's eye view of the entire match.

Who watches the watcher: Spidercam trains its eye on umpire Asad Rauf

Who watches the watcher: Spidercam trains its eye on umpire Asad Rauf © Getty Images

No other sport has integrated weather conditions like cricket has, with provisions for rain, like the DLS method, written in. And though washouts are still a regular occurrence in cricket, games can now bounce back faster from a wet spell, thanks in no small part to water removal devices. There have been all sorts - from mops and buckets and hair-dryers, to towels, blankets and coats donated by the crowd during one eventful Ashes Test. Foam rollers have long been used to dry the pitch and the outfield, as the picture below shows, but it was the Super Sopper, invented by amateur golfer Gordon Withnall, that brought about a revolution. The device's giant foam roller mopped up water, then squeezed it through a perforated cylinder into a large holding tank, making it possible to dry large areas in one go, as it did at the MCG for the first time in 1979. It is still used by every major cricket ground the world over.

A groundsman demonstrates a revolutionary new device to dry the cricket pitch, 1953

A groundsman demonstrates a revolutionary new device to dry the cricket pitch, 1953 © Getty Images

In the void left by the absence of live cricket, numerous platforms and websites stepped in with fantasy cricket and match simulations, but as a concept those are hardly new. In fact, the first "Computer Test", called the Test of the Century, was played in 1971, between England and Australia, with teams picked by Gubby Allen and Sir Don Bradman. Player stats and ball-by-ball data from every Ashes Test since 1921 were analysed and fed into National Cash Register Century 200 computers, and probability data tables were drawn up for each player. Some of the biggest names in cricket played again, virtually, from Jack Hobbs and Len Hutton to Arthur Morris and Bill Ponsford. Incidentally, Bradman was out for 22 in the first innings, but would come back to make 222 in the second, taking Australia to a 165-run win over England.

Cricket enthusiasts gather at NCR House in Sydney to watch a small TV set as it flashes the results of the Computer Test of the Century between Australia and England

Cricket enthusiasts gather at NCR House in Sydney to watch a small TV set as it flashes the results of the Computer Test of the Century between Australia and England © Getty Images

The first time floodlights were ever used in a cricket match was in 1952, at a benefit match between Middlesex and Arsenal Football Club at their former home, Arsenal Stadium, in London. The match was well publicised and televised by the BBC and drew millions of viewers, and the 7000 spectators in the ground were advised to keep their eyes on the ball, should it come whizzing at unwary heads. Though the match was a success, the experiment was generally thought of as unviable. The Times weighed in with this editorial: "What is to prevent non-stop Test matches where the last wicket falls as the milkman arrives." Floodlights wouldn't make their appearance again till 1978, when Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket came to the SCG.

The lights come on at the SCG for the first day-night match, between Australia and West Indies, in November 1978

The lights come on at the SCG for the first day-night match, between Australia and West Indies, in November 1978 © Getty Images

Perhaps the most polarising bit of tech in cricket has been the Decision Review System. Consisting of three components - Hawk-Eye, the Snickometer/UltraEdge, and Hot Spot, along with television replays - it uses cameras, infrared imaging and directional microphones to detect faint edges and follow the ball's trajectory to aid or overthrow the umpire's decision. Hawk-Eye uses six or seven cameras mounted along the roof of the stadium that are able to track the ball from several different angles and combine their results to get a 3D simulation of the ball's trajectory and extrapolate the path of the ball even after it makes contact with the batsman, accurate to within 3.6mm.

An operator sets up the Hawk-Eye system, calibrating it to the pitch in Guwahati, for the fifth ODI between India and England in 2006

An operator sets up the Hawk-Eye system, calibrating it to the pitch in Guwahati, for the fifth ODI between India and England in 2006 © Getty Images

Has it reduced the margin of error in umpiring decisions? Perhaps. Has it replaced the umpire as has long been feared? Not yet. Will we continue to debate the extent of technology's intrusion in cricket for the next hundred years? Almost certainly.

Deepti Unni is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

 

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