The accepted wisdom that bowlers trying to eradicate the costly indulgence of no balls should focus on where they land their feet at training has been challenged by researchers who believe they might be better off looking at how they set up their practice environment.
So concerned did Australia become about fast bowlers habitually over-stepping in the practice nets leading into the recent Test series in New Zealand they trialled a prototype of electronic-eye technology that would notionally sound an alarm every time a front foot landed beyond the popping crease.
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But not only did the man behind the experiment, Cricket Australia’s Executive General Manager of Team Performance Pat Howard, acknowledge its success depended largely on it being deployed on a dead-flat practice surface, he also noted it was a cumbersome device to lug around the world in its present form.
However, a team of researchers based in Australia and the UK have recently published a paper in the European Journal of Sports Science that finds the most useful tool to ensure a bowler most readily replicates their practice run-up in a match is to have an umpire in position at the bowler’s end.
Not just a casual onlooker, but someone acting in the adjudicatory role of a bone fide umpire.
Standing in the same position and creating the same physical and visual presence as found in competition, and with a full set of stumps hammered in to complete the simulation.
That’s because the researchers have found it’s a bowler’s capacity to pick up and process visual cues as to where the front line is drawn from very early in their run-up that enables them to make crucial minor subconscious adjustments with each foot fall as they approach the landing zone.
And given that fast bowlers habitually start making those subconscious alterations to their strides from as far as 14 steps from their delivery point, having an umpire in sight to provide a standard visual reference as to where they need to land is vital if training is to mirror match situations.
The researchers, including Daniel Greenwood who is a Senior Skill Acquisition Specialist with the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra, also found that the physical presence of an umpire produces small but crucial changes to a bowler’s gait as they prepare to release the ball.
“We use vertical objects in the environment to gauge distance, especially as we move towards something,” Greenwood told cricket.com.au about the research he conducted along with Keith Davids (Sheffield Hallam’s Centre for Sports Engineering in the UK) and Ian Renshaw (Queensland University of Technology).
“You can picture it as you drive down a street, the traffic signs become bigger as they come towards you, as you walk towards a door it gets bigger and you use that ‘looming’ effect to gauge distance.
“So one of the key messages from our research is that bowlers’ run-ups, although we try to believe they are the same every time, are in fact different every time they do it.
“One of your steps is slightly longer or slightly shorter, or you’re a bit little more tired, or the grass is a bit longer, you’re running up the hill at Headingley or you want to put in a bit more effort – it means that every time you do it there’s a slight variation.
“Therefore athletes’ training really has to reflect these variations, and what it’s really about is learning to use information from the environment to get to where you need to at the right speed.
“So you can use the umpire at the very start of the run-up to gauge distance, and as you get closer you’ll start to pick up the crease lines and whatever else.
“Basically, the more of those relevant information sources that we have around the area (to which the bowler is headed) then the better we’ve learned to use them to judge distance.
“Through practice, bowlers can become quite good at noticing small changes in information sources and use them to regulate their run-ups”
The cost of having bowlers who overstep the front line in matches was clearly underscored during the recent series in NZ that Australia won 2-0.
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Fast bowler James Pattinson, who was deprived of two Test wickets earlier in the summer when found on video replay to have overstepped and who was part of Howard’s trial at Wellington, had Black Caps skipper Brendon McCullum brilliantly caught for 39 on day one of the second Test in Christchurch.
But Pattinson knew almost immediately that it was an illegal delivery, a fear subsequently confirmed by television scrutiny and McCullum celebrated the reprieve by clubbing the fastest century (in terms of balls faced) recorded in 139 years of Test cricket.
Prior to that match, Pattinson was asked about the front-foot issue that had dogged him during last year’s Boxing Day Test in Melbourne and he claimed he was confident he had overcome it due to the hard work he had undertaken at training.
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But Greenwood believes that while the introduction of a ‘hawk-eye’ style machine that calls out no-balls delivered in the nets has some value as a feedback tool, the re-creation of a match day environment for bowlers at training would likely deliver greater benefit.
“Certainly from a skill learning point of view, having consequences for doing the wrong things is one way to change behaviour,” he said.
“But in reality, during training they’ve got to learn to use the information that’s present in a game so they can apply it in a match situation.
“So if we design a training scenario without that key visual information then really we’re just setting people up for failure.
“And the other important element is if that you learn to do it at training without the umpire in place, you’ll learn to use the stumps (as a visual cue) instead.
“Then all of a sudden you get to a match and there’s an umpire in the way of the stumps, or the umpire stands in a slightly different position to what you’ve become used to, and suddenly you don’t know how to deal with that extra information.
“You hear a lot of cricketers say that if the umpire doesn’t stand exactly where they want him to, or if he stands too far back or if he happens to be a bit further back on one ball compared to others, then they’ll lose their run-up and potentially no-ball.
“That’s because they (the bowlers) haven’t learned to use that information in multiple ways to get it done.
“So even having the umpire shuffle forwards and backwards, we’ve shown that we can use that to throw people off who haven’t trained in the right environment.”
The presence of an umpire, particularly one as imposing as former Australia fast bowler Paul Wilson who now officiates at domestic and international level, can also bring about subtle but substantial changes to a bowler’s body position at delivery.
Greenwood said bowlers who practice without anybody standing in the umpire’s position often tend to run and deliver the ball in a straight line, only to find themselves changing the angle of their feet, their body and – as a consequence – their delivery in a match.
Even though a bowler consciously knows they are not going to make contact with an umpire as they reach the pitch, the sub-conscious signals being transmitted to the brain leads the body to inadvertently react accordingly.
“It just messes with you because you spend your whole training time in the nets bowling with a stump, or maybe a witch’s hat, or maybe nothing at all in position at the non-striker’s end,” Greenwood said.
“Then all of a sudden come game day you’ve got a 6-foot, 80-kilogram person that you’re running towards at full speed and it makes logical sense that it’s going to change the way you run-up.
“And when you’re about to deliver the ball, you’re within half a metre of this big object that you’re racing past, so it’s bound to change your perceptions of the environment that you’re competing in.
“We tend to find that if we tell people to focus on something they’re not used to dealing with, or to concentrate on a specific object or where their feet are going then the whole thing breaks down quite quickly.”
The trials conducted to complete the research were conducted over two days with a group of 10 bowlers of first-class or elite representative squad standard (from the myFootDr Queensland Bulls and from the UK) who bowled in partnership to deliver spells of four overs.
Two with an umpire in place and two without.
The official was clad in umpire’s uniform and stood the mandated four metres behind the stumps at the bowler’s end, with a batsman also in place to replicate match conditions and with none of the participants aware of the nature of the study being undertaken.
The placement of each footstep across all 240 deliveries was recorded and then extrapolated into two-dimensional co-ordinate data and plotted to work out the heel-to-crease distance of each step.
Thereby enabling the research team to pinpoint how and when bowlers made small adjustments to their stride throughout the run-up in order to land behind the line.
Greenwood said perhaps the most surprising element of the research, which identified the 14th step (ie 14 strides prior to delivery) as the point where bowlers began regulating their stride based on available visual cues, was how early in the run-up that visual information became crucial.
And he added that it was a hallmark of elite athletes, having undertaken similar research with Olympic-standard track and field athletes including long jumpers who face a similar requirement to not overstep, to be able to use that information to make those adjustments very quickly.
“We certainly knew that people used vertical information (such as an umpire or stumps) but I didn’t think it would happen quite so early on in the run-up,” Greenwood said of the research published last month.
“And we’re just publishing some work in track and field as well that shows the most elite athletes are the ones that make all their adjustments in even the first four or five strides – that includes long jumpers who can start their run-up 45m from the take-off board.
“I was quite surprised as to how early on people could almost get themselves in the right position and then get on with their run-up and then get on with what they’re trying to do – jump as far as they can, bowl as quick as they can or whatever it is.
“If you think about that from a concentration perspective it means you need to have your eyes up very early on in your run-up, and it also means that you almost have to be switched on from the top of your run-up.
“In cricket, I think there is sometimes a habit of almost building into a run-up, or getting a feel for the run-up as they go but really those first few steps are absolutely crucial.
“Being good to go right from the very start of the run-up seems to be hugely, hugely important.”