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VR headsets could play a role in player training in the near future

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Facing virtual deliveries could soon become part of players' training and acclimatisation routines. An ominous beep shakes me back into full concentration. On cue, a slight chap starts to trundle in from the deserted Pavilion End. Despite his wispy build, the man's lumbering, unhurried gait somehow puts me in mind of Merv Hughes.

So too will the incongruous thunderbolt coming my way. I crouch my knees. I poise my bat. Can I make contact this time?

Yet another premature poke forward goes unrewarded. My flailing bat floats before my eyes. The hands that grasp it are nowhere to be seen. My bowler stands deadpan (he doesn't do glares), waiting for the next beep to transport him to the top of his run. A captain's dream, he could send down a five-Test series worth of overs in an afternoon, without stopping for tea.

I pause to take in my surrounds. This is the first time I've experienced Lord's from the middle. What happens if I do a 360? Well, there's the Mound Stand. Then the Edrich. The media centre rears up at the Nursery End. This is indubitably the Home of Cricket.

How very odd. Cricket bats floating in mid-air. Bouncers that don't make you flinch. The bowler who has nowhere else to be for the rest of time. And this is real. Well, kind of.

The disappointing truth is that I'm not actually at Lord's, nor even England. I'm in a sports hall in Belfast, and most of my reality right now is virtual, contained in an HTC Vive headset, as I try out an intriguing virtual reality system being developed by the Movement Innovation Lab (MIL) at Queen's University Belfast. It's providing a ruthless reminder of the virtues of playing late. And right now, the absence of those virtues in my case is being exposed to an interested audience of sports scientists and proper cricketers.

When I do manage to hit the virtual ball, a green dot appears on the pitch, showing exactly how far down the wicket I "made contact"

There's a sensory reward when the system determines you've struck the ball. A distant thunderclap and a sharp vibration that reverberates from the bat. For me, this treat is as rare as an Alastair Cook five-for. I'm usually left glaring at my blade as it hovers drunkenly at the point where I've finished my stroke. How on earth does my attempted cover drive finish up with the face pointing to square leg? Is this my game in real life, too?

But it's terribly exciting, too, to experience a new tool for improving my cricket. When I do manage to hit the virtual ball, a green dot appears on the pitch, showing exactly how far down the wicket I "made contact". My grouping is right on the crease - a graphical illustration of the under-the-eyes approach that my successful strikes have in common. There's a stab of pride on each rare occasion that I add to my collection of green dots.

The plays and misses haven't all been my fault. In my defence, my expressionless bowler has also sent an odious stream of limited-overs wides down the leg side. I can't get anything on those. I try a slog-sweep but abandon that approach, as I almost pirouette the headset's cable out of its socket. And miss the ball, of course.

My flailings aside, the MIL system appears to be the best current example of virtual reality's potential as a cricket coaching and preparation tool. Unlike a bowling machine-and-video combo like ProBatter, everything coming at a batsman here belongs to a single integrated virtual environment. And unlike certain VR systems, where sportspeople are asked post factum what they would have done, here they need to provide a real-time response to an input, and receive sensory feedback - in this case the sound and bat vibration - if they make that response successfully.

James McCollum faces up to a virtual adversary © Richard Asher

The latter features are a critical step in VR technology becoming a practical training tool. Any expert on the split-second psychology of sport will tell you that responding in the moment (as in a game) and receiving sensory signals are essential if you're going to make useful progress developing decision-making skills. That's how the brain practises effectively.

Another important factor that's taking VR beyond the realm of gaming and into that of serious training is that both inputs and responses are measurable. Today only my bat and head movement has been tracked, but MIL can set things up to dig much deeper. Using motion-capture technology from Qualisys, they can collect all the minutiae of batting, from trigger movements and footwork to charting shot selection and reaction times.

All this would be of little value without relating it to the inputs, of course. But that's all part of the offering, says MIL's Dr Alan Cummins, who is controlling my experience by laptop. "As everything is recreated in a digital environment, all points of information recorded can be used in analysis. So there's data for bowler movements, ball trajectory, release point, ball speed, ball bounce points, ball contact points, ball endpoint (hit or missed) and so on. So the system gives you a time series of data points for the complete batting experience, from bowler run-up to batting action and post-hit."

The system was originally the brainchild of Dr Aishwar Dhawan, a former QUB PhD student who went to the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) in 2011 to film eight elite pace bowlers with a plethora of specialist cameras and sensors, including in the ball itself. Today I'm facing a mix of those bowlers' actual bowling actions and corresponding deliveries, although at this stage they're all expressed through a single avatar or "mannequin". There's a variety of around 18 lengths and lines on offer at the click of a mouse - and yes, some can swing too.

During Dhawan's time, the Ireland squad tried the system out under Phil Simmons. After more years of tweaking by the MIL team (Dhawan now works as senior biomechanist at the National Sports Council of Malaysia, though his research following the initial filming at the AIS is still ongoing), this new-age batting aid has been developed to the point that it is being taken seriously by that somewhat more established Test nation across the Irish Sea. The ECB is coming to Belfast for its second look at the end of August. Could it be less time than we think before we see waiting batsmen sporting headsets on the balcony at Lord's?

Any expert on the split-second psychology of sport will tell you that responding in the moment (as in a game) and receiving sensory signals are essential if you're going to make useful progress developing decision-making skills

Reluctantly - for this is addictive - I hand over the bat and headset to cricketers with substantially better resumé highlights than a spell with the Shipton-under-Wychwood Fourths.

James McCollum plays first-class cricket for the Northern Knights, the Ulster provincial side, and is also part of the Cricket Ireland Academy. Maharashtra's Avdhoot Dandekar, meanwhile, is overseas pro at Lurgan Cricket Club. Both are here to give the latest iteration of the system a second round of feedback.

First up, it's pleasing to hear that the professionals also found it harder to get the ball away than they do in real life.

"I barely hit one the first time I tried it!" says McCollum. "But once you get the hang of the pace, it does come. It actually forces you to really wait on the ball, and I'm backing myself to hit 60% of them now!"

Still, I can't put my finger on why it's harder to make contact in the VR environment. But McCollum can.

"It's not quite real life," he explains. "You have significantly less stimuli to react to. You don't get the dimensions of the bowler and how the ball comes out of the hand, which is probably why we're missing more balls than we would in reality."

The detail of the avatar, then, isn't quite doing the job for him yet. That will surely improve if and when the individual bowling actions are tied to avatars representing the original player and his build, something Cummins says would be "relatively easy".

Not quite as terrifying as facing Mitchell Johnson, is it? © Movement Innovation Lab

McCollum believes the front-foot deliveries are satisfyingly life-like, but doesn't like the way bouncers jump up from too full a length. And while he rates the replication of a fast bowler, he thinks it's going to be harder to recreate the flight and dip of a spinner. But even without 100% realism - and time will take us closer to that - VR already has distinct advantages over existing options.

"Bowling machines are nowhere near 100% realistic, yet nearly every batsman uses them," he says. "With a machine you know roughly where it's going to pitch. Here the usefulness is that you don't know where the ball is going, and you do have to react. Regardless of whether you're hitting it or not, you can still work on your movements. You struggle to replicate that on a bowling machine."

Apart from the above, McCollum is keen to see post-bounce trajectory approaching something like HawkEye levels for an infinite number of deliveries, which would be a logical next layer on the cake. At this stage, the number of available trajectories is closely tied to the actual recordings made in Australia.

But he's hoping these fixes are just a matter of time. "I'm surprised how realistic the technology they've got is. They know the adjustments they need to make and once they do that, I think it will genuinely be very useful."

He echoes the cricket world's consensus when he says he wouldn't straight-swap net training for a VR session any time soon. Yet headsets may have their place on rainy days, for dressing-room visualisation, for injured players to stay sharp, and for those times when your net bowlers cry enough. But training and analysing decision-making through "mental reps" is the No. 1 intrigue.

"So much in cricket coaching relies on decision-making," says Will Kitchen, who heads the ICC Cricket Academy in Dubai. "So any tool that enables us to examine it and improve its quality is of benefit. Video and technology holds the answer, I just haven't seen it applied yet in cricket. But we're keen to talk to anyone developing this type of tech."

Could it be less time than we think before we see waiting batsmen sporting headsets on the balcony at Lord's?

Kitchen says Australia's approach when working in Dubai ahead of their 2017 India tour shows how limited VR's foothold remains. "Video analysis and recognition was used primarily to familiarise people with things, but in terms of developing skill, we were still asked to bring in human beings."

Of course, it would have been a different story if there was a VR system that could model, say, R Ashwin. The tech to recreate every twirl of his fingers might not be far off, but who will pay for it is a big question. And even if the money was found, gathering accurate data on high-profile bowlers could call for cricketing espionage on an unseen level.

"We had a demo from Strivr [a US-based company working in the space] last year," says Rian Crowther, lead sports science officer at the National Cricket Centre in Brisbane. "But it was just a virtual bowling machine. We wanted to get our opposition bowlers up there, as you can imagine. They said they'd need to get James Anderson in front of a green screen. I don't think he'd agree to that somehow!"

What I tried in Belfast belongs firmly to the world of animated avatars. Modelling the intricacies of the bowler's wrist, and making the whole thing look more like a TV image and less like a cartoon, is a juicy longer-term challenge for VR technicians.

"If you could study guys like Rashid Khan in VR, it would be amazing technology," enthuses Dandekar. "But of course it needs to be very clear - you'd need to really see the hand..."

But even if demystifying hard-to-pick Afghan spinners through sneaky VR practice virtually isn't quite with us yet, the likes of England are right to be nosing around such tech. That list of use cases is already long enough to justify serious consideration.

A VR technician pores over the data © Richard Asher

"I don't think the top-level players would [use] this for hours on end because they certainly hit enough cricket balls," says Crowther. "But for familiarising with an opposition player, or to mentally prepare, I can see VR playing a role.

"For developing cricketers, we could set up an environment where the ball might swing or turn a lot. You could potentially transport someone who hasn't been to India onto a dusty pitch. They could try new things, fail, and try again. Which is what skills development is all about."

"There's a little bit of reticence in cricket, because that's the traditional cricket thing to do," adds Richard Done, the ICC's high-performance manager. "We've been very good at execution-type training, but not particularly good at looking at the skill of anticipation; the decision-making process.

"I'd see VR as having incredible potential in batting, particularly in something like learning how to play short-pitched bowling or in conditions you couldn't get to."

Indeed. Being able to take on a stream of Mitchell Johnson bouncers without any injury risk is an exciting development for the coaching world. It would have to be mixed up with practice against a real cricket ball, lest complacency creep in, but it could have its place in overcoming initial barriers. And with Johnson not typically available as an England net bowler, facing him virtually might be better than nothing.

The recorded data from that "complete batting experience" represents a huge step in individualised game analysis too. The Unity software that MIL uses can show much of this right after the ball is played, but the biggest benefit will likely come from plotting patterns in large sample sizes. Patterns the human eye might never notice, especially over a long period of time. Is a batsman consistently pulling from a couple of centimetres too wide of off stump, for example? Not every player (nor his coach) knows his game well enough to take shots out of his armoury a la Sachin. Or, conversely, add ones he thought he couldn't play.

"It's not quite real life. You don't get the dimensions of the bowler and how the ball comes out of the hand, which is probably why we're missing more balls than we would in reality"

JAMES MCCOLLUM ON MIL'S VR TECHNOLOGY

"There might be an ideal shot you want to play, but you don't play it because you're not confident you can pull it off," says Professor Cathy Craig, leader of the MIL. "Decisions and confidence are very much interrelated: you know what you're capable of and that impacts on what you do and when you do it.

Derek Panchuk, Lead of skills acquisition at the AIS, believes in VR's potential after some early experiments that featured basketball players making decisions in a virtual environment.

"We found that the players that were using the VR stuff for training actually started to score higher," he says. "Augmenting normal training with a bit of exposure to immersive scenarios, where people can view different plays, actually started to help improve some of the decision-making in the game itself."

Batting careers live and die on split-second decisions. If virtual reality can help train the eyes and the brain to get those right more often, like it did for Panchuk's basketballers, then it must surely find its place in cricket. Because even at the top level you may not have a limitless supply of net bowlers. Especially if it's halfway through a Test match and you've just woken up at 3am fretting about your cut shot. Or, indeed, if it's a rainy day in Belfast.

Richard Asher is a South African sports journalist based in Austria, and currently bats in the middle order for Vienna Cricket Club

Source: http://www.espncricinfo.com/ 

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