The haze of the unknown is perhaps the greatest weapon a bowler can brandish against a batsman. Tales abound of mystery spinners taking unaccustomed batting line ups to the cleaners; of Saqlain Mushtaq confounding clueless counties with his ‘doosra’; of teams doing their utmost to replicate alien conditions and bowling attacks in preparation for key tours.
England’s cricketers, who are in India for a revenge four-Test series, have been honing their skills against the ProBatter system – an evolution of the humble bowling machine that promises to dispel at least some of the murkiness that shrouds opposition bowlers.
Pro Batter in action
Pro Batter bowling simulator
The ProBatter merges the standard practice of using a contraption to chuck projectiles at high speed with an immersive cinematic experience. What happens is this: On a big screen facing the batsman is projected footage of a bowler running in to bowl. At the last point of the delivery stride – when the bowler has apparently delivered the ball – an actual leather sphere emerges from a hole in the screen imitating exactly the same delivery that the action on screen would have represented.
What the technology does is merge the images of the bowling action to the actual emission of the ball from the hole. This means that the hole in the wall is analogous to the bowlers hand and can be commanded by the attached computer to synchronise the moving pictures to the type of delivery shot out. Thus, the software can be reengineered to decide whether it is an out-swinger that will emanate from Dale Steyn’s hand, or an equally destructive in-dipper.
The same principle works for spinners as well – the type of delivery can be chosen and appended to suitable footage – and such has been the welcome accorded to the new device that Jonny Bairstow recently spent over an hour facing off against Zaheer Khan’s flickering image in the nets.
The advantages that ProBatter offers are obvious. It is perhaps the only technology that allows batsmen to study a bowler’s action from front-on, at will. The kind of programming it allows for (the machine can recreate and deliver all four of R. Ashwin’s confounding variations) would be the perfect way to demystify the unknown bowler, one whose allegedly terrifying turn or pace and practical anonymity is the biggest deterrent to touring batsmen. Unless one is out in the middle and facing the music, ProBatter would provide the closest simulation of a bowler chugging in to deliver.
Bowling machines do not require breaks, but preferring them to real bowlers as a means of regular practice has its own drawbacks. It should be realized that the processes of bowling and batting are a series of interlinked events. The events begin with the delivery stride, involve a fair bit of anticipation on either part – a synchronicity of the feet, body and bat swing – and culminate with, hopefully, willow meeting leather, a perfect closure to events as if divinely ordained.
Nothing like the real thing
But it’s not all hunky dory. After a few sessions, batsmen facing ProBatter realise instinctively that the easier approach is to watch the hole (which is stationary) rather than the bowler (who is likely to be all over the place). Since the hole doesn’t move, and since the ball comes unfailingly out of the same infernal spot, over-reliance on the ProBatter – or on any bowling device, for that matter – may foster premeditation and leaden footedness, key elements of avoidance for batsmen. As much as it is a vital part of pre-tour preparations the ProBatter should not – and cannot – replace facing a flesh and blood bowler at an old-fashioned nets session.