Tuesday 6 January 2009

Schrodinger II: The Eyes of Bob Woolmer

Having unilaterally anointed Bob Woolmer's The Art and Science of Cricket as the Book of the Year, I felt sure he would have considered the notion of good and bad deliveries, and how a batsman perceives them.

He had of course, in a fiercely practical way. In fact, he devoted an entire chapter to it, titled Vision And Batting. 

Like those crazy quantum theorists, Woolmer looked at the evidence and came up with a remarkable conclusion. At the start of the 80s, at the University of Cape Town, a researcher called Tim Noakes conducted a series of experiments into a batsman's perception. Gary Kirsten, then one of the best players of quick bowling around, was his guinea pig.

The first thing Noakes discovered was that Kirsten couldn't hit the ball when it was delivered at a speed of 130kph by a bowling machine, even though he could play bowling of almost 150kph in Test cricket. In other words, Kirsten was relying heavily on visual information gained from the bowler's run-up and delivery when facing genuine pace.

Then Noakes rigged the bowling machine up to the lights, switching them off the moment the ball left the machine. Kirsten was able to accurately predict the course of the ball, and hit it, seven times out of 10, despite having seen it for as little as 100-200 milliseconds - about a quarter of its flight (Noakes also experimented on some provincial players, who ran out of the net...).

Noakes established that the best batsmen had no better eyesight than anyone else: they were simply better at processing advance clues about the bowler and the delivery. Even Kirsten could only defend balls after the lights went out; he needed more information in order to attack. As the amount of information increased, so did the number of batsmen who could cope. 

Woolmer was able to conclude that 'the fundamental difference between elite batters and those with average ability is the ability of the elite to know where the ball is going even before it is delivered'. 

Experiments in 2005 by Land and McLeod uncovered something else: batsmen don't always watch the ball. Instead they undertake a 'saccade' about 140 milliseconds after delivery, and look at the spot where they expect the ball to pitch. They also don't watch the ball for the last 100 milliseconds (as super slo mo often shows). In all, an elite batter might actually be watching the ball for around 52 per cent of its flight. 

So Woolmer's answer is that, physiologically at least, a ball is good or bad before it's delivered. Philosophically, you'd have to say that whether a ball is good or bad is down to the batsman who's looking at it - except that sounds like the kind of thing Jeremy Snape would come up with.



Anonymous said...

Interesting stuff OB (as always). I think this is why Mitch Johnson seems to get so many wickets with what looks like trash. He has that slight sling to his action that makes him harder to pick up, batsmen are never quite in position, and he gets edges instead of thumpings.

But that doesn't make them good balls. To me, a good ball combines David Barry's comment on the last post, that it maximizes the wickets, and minimizes the runs, with deception and guile. Deception because the best ball has a batsman playing it as something it is not. Guile because it is a game (as in the theory, not just the sport) between batsman and bowler, and the odds on a delivery being good shift as the game progresses.

Anonymous said...

Ooo - I enjoyed that OB - as I did yesterday's Cat piece - but this time I understood what you were saying and didn't have to have a nice lie down afterwards.

Particularly liked the bit about the batsman not looking at the ball - remember seeing on some Sky sports classic match Botham hooking the ball, sans helmet, with his eyes shut

Anonymous said...

From practical experience, i have observed that the closer you watch the ball reach your bat, the chances of getting out increases. It is not watching the ball onto the bat (or till 52% of its flight) that seperates good from great batsman. It is actually getting into the right position to play the ball.

The batsman uses visual information in addition to general knowledge (like a shorter ball hit for four is usually followed by a fuller one due to compensation in length) and the bounce in the pitch before committing on to a shot.

That explains why the eyes close when a hook or a pull i attempted for the line and the direction of the ball is already picked.

The Old Batsman said...

The hook's an interesting one - Woolmer quotes Lara as saying he knew Chris Lewis was going to bowl short on the ball that took him past Sobers' 365. The clues probably come earlier in delivery - I remember the Botham one, I think it was '81 at Old Trafford. I don't know if he even bothered looking at it at all...

Russ, the point about slingers is very interesting. I was thinking that maybe their visual clues are different and harder to see, because of their comparative rarity. I think this could also explain the 'heavy ball' phenomenon. Maybe they come from bowlers who give slightly deceptive visual clues, and are thus slightly faster, and who pitch slightly shorter, than expected.