A bold platoon of Australians is over in England's backyard right now, trying to win back the Ashes Urn and the praise of a grateful nation. The first Ashes test saw Australia lose thanks to a controversial umpiring decision that eventually came down to how well the technology on the pitch keeps track of the play. Join us at the crease as we face down the tech behind cricket broadcasting.
Image: Mike Hewitt/Getty
A swathe of technological advances have been made in the great game of bat-and-ball over the last 20 years to make calling the game fairer, more balanced and — with the advent of broadcast matches — more transparent to fans watching from home or the pub.
So-called instant-replay of sports footage is something we all take for granted these days, but there was a time when the dissection of a play via frame-by-frame playback was a futuristic concept.
In 1963, in a college football game between the American Army and Navy was played with a new invention bearing witness. A sports director from CBS invented a system that used a videotape player to instantly replay footage for fans watching at home. It weighed almost 600 kilograms and only worked once: replaying the winning touchdown. The audience was so confused by what they'd just seen that the commentator manning the broadcast had to iterate that the touchdown they were seeing wasn't happening in real-time. Broadcasters have made huge advances in the field of instant replay since then, but when did cricket officials start relying on the eye-in-the-sky to tell them what happened?
In 2008, the International Cricket Council (ICC) decided to introduce a trial of the so-called "third-umpire" to be used to oversee tricky calls involving run-outs, catches and stumpings. A system was introduced where players could ask for the third-umpire to oversee a call from the pitch, with the new rules allowing three requests per innings and allowed only seconds after a ball had become dead after a play. The on-field umpire then convenes with the third-umpire to figure out what the correct call is.
HotSpot is one of the newer innovations of the game, introduced first in the 2006 Australia v England Ashes test at The Gabba.
HotSpot relies on infrared technology which tracks heat and the changes in the physical environment as a ball impacts pads and/or bats. It was developed originally for tracking military vehicles like tanks and jets, but thankfully it has found a more civil purpose these days.
The system sees two infrared cameras placed at opposite sides of the ground, set to constantly record the play as it progresses. When a decision needs to be reviewed as per the above rules for third-umpire calls, HotSpot is called upon to see if the temperature around the edge of the bat or pads changed, indicating contact.
HotSpot was actually invented by an Australian firm, BBG Sports, who also invented our next innovation: the Snickometer.
Also colloquially known as "Snicko", this technology was accommodated to compliment HotSpot after its invention in 1990's, in figuring out whether or not the bat had actually made contact with the ball on its way through to an wicket-keeper's mits.
Snicko uses a fine microphone placed inside one of the stumps which is connected to an oscilloscope for measuring the sound wave. In conjunction with slow-motion photography, the third-umpire examines the waveform to determine weather or not the
The sound of a leather ball clipping a willow bat usually produces a "snick" like sound, hence the name.
Soundwave image via Shutterstock
It's one thing to be able to see the action happening, but what if you want to hear the action on the pitch, too?
Before the proliferation of microphones on the pitch, normally the only sounds you'd hear coming from inside the grass ring were the shouts between batsmen about whether or not to run after a hit, or the desperate appeal from a team of players to the umpire when someone needed calling "out".
Through the late 1990's and early 2000's, especially with the rising popularity of "personality" cricketers like Shane Warne and Brett Lee, broadcast networks decided to discretely mic-up the players to get their insights on a game as it progressed.
Players would talk to the match commentators about how the game was progressing, what the strategy would be going forward along with a bit of on-field japery.
Mics are also deployed on wickets to get a better sense of the sound on the field.
HawkEye is an invention that uses computer modelling to track the trajectory of a ball as it moves from player to player. In cricket, it's used to model where the ball would travel on the pitch if no interference were recorded from a batsman.
The HawkEye system relies on six cameras mounted around the stadium to analyse the ball from different angles. The video is then combined by a computer and mapped to create a 3D view of the ball's trajectory.
It's used to determine whether a ball would have hit the wickets in leg-before-wicket (LBW) decisions, and to analyse the bowling progress of players over-to-over.
HawkEye is a marvellous invention that has actually benefited more sports than just cricket. Tennis, snooker and many different football codes all now use the invention to track the trajectory of a ball in flight.
The HawkEye technology was first used by Channel 4 in England during the 2001 Test match between England and Pakistan
Even when on-field umpires have given Not Out decisions, commentators have gone back and analysed HawkEye footage to determine that the call actually should have been overturned.
What would it be like if you could see the ball coming at you on the pitch from the comfort of your own lounge room? That was the dream cricket broadcaster Channel 9 had in the 1980's after the introduction of microphones in the wickets.
Hot on the heels of RaceCam, TCN Channel 9 introduced Stump-cam in the early 1980s. An expensive camera was sheathed in the middle stump, and a microphone used to pick up snicks (unless Lillee and Chappell were losing their cool).
Stump-Cam revolutionised cricket broadcast in an era that famously also saw Kerry Packer take on Cricket Australia, experiment with white cricket balls, limited overs cricket and more. As the 90s rolled around, the BBC also started using stump cameras; one of which was spectacularly shattered by fast bowler Devon Malcolm the 1990-91 Ashes tour. Over time, stump cameras became standard, and new Channel 9 innovations mentioned in this article were introduced for backyard umpires to enjoy.
The popularity of Stump-Cam also gave way to Helmet-Cam: a camera mounted onto a player's helmet so that viewers could get a true first-person look at the action.