Sitting by my Dad’s hospital bed, I recognise a familiar sense of distraction. A monitor, displaying live graphs of my father’s vitals, keeps drawing my attention away from the man himself. What it reminds me of is watching cricket on television. The Sky (or other local) production, sets its image on a platform of game data. My eye is drawn repeatedly away from the match image to the game data to note, in particular, the speed recorded of the delivery just bowled.
(My Dad is recovering well from a surgical procedure known as the Whipple – a name waiting for an improvised T20 shot to be attached to it – although he has put some more distance beyond his days of taking the first nine wickets in an innings or even sharing a century opening stand with me.)
This afternoon, one of the monitoring machines started bleating. It displayed a message: ‘air in tube’. I went to get a nurse who reset the machine, squeezed a tube, and explained, “there was air in a tube.” We nodded and remembered the story of my Mum being pre-opped for some minor surgery. The nurse tried to take her pulse, but the machine’s read out was stubbornly off-kilter and so the nurse shoved it away to be sent for repair. Several weeks after the surgery, my Mum’s doctor took her pulse, trusted his reading and had her booked in for a pace-maker that month.
Do we trust the machines that interpret the cricket we watch, or do we prefer to trust what we think we know?
In recent days, my cricket viewing has been distracted by the speed-gun’s read-out for the world’s finest fast bowler and a young English all-rounder. Dale Steyn’s profile invariably features the descriptor RF. Chris Woakes is generally understood to lack the pace to hold his own in Test cricket and will tend to have his F qualified with a preceding, not succeeding, M.
Steyn was bowling South Africa to a strong position in the second innings of the second Test against Pakistan. He was keeping to a tight off-stump line, registering 132-136kph. Woakes was bowling some economical middle-inning overs against New Zealand in the first one day international. His range was 130-137kph. Neither set of commentators mentioned that the bowler was operating at a pace unusual for themselves. Steyn remained RF and Woakes RMF.
This disjuncture between a bowler’s reputation and their recorded speed is fairly regular. Courtney Walsh continued to be called a fast bowler when delivering at a Trott-like 128kph. In the eyes of English cricket commentators, Sri Lanka (Malinga excepted) and Bangladesh only ever have medium pacers. These commentators find the on-screen data less distracting then I do, because I notice the numbers indicating that they tend to bowl at around the same pace as England’s quick bowlers.
How reliable are the ‘speed gun’ results? To be comparable, bowler by bowler, match by match, ground by ground, the camera must record the velocity of the ball at the point of release from the bowler’s hand – the point of maximum speed. Mohammed Irfan (left arm over, 7’1” tall), Tim Bresnan (right arm over, wide on the crease, 6′ tall) and Fidel Edwards (right arm over, slingy action, 5’8” tall) have very different release points. I can imagine technology capable of capturing all three accurately, but I don’t know if that’s what we have in place at every international cricket fixture.
Watching Steyn, I pondered a) for the thousandth time how speed in a bowler is over-rated, that control and movement must be the key to effectiveness; and b) whether his narrow features and niggling moustache make him look more like a hill-billy car mechanic or a 1940s black-marketeer.
Younis Khan was subjected to verbals from the niggling moustache and, very much more impressively, an old-fashioned working-over, peaking with a bouncer clocked at 149kph. Not long after, he played on, trying to force a fast, short delivery through the off-side. We didn’t need the speed-gun to tell that Steyn had upped his velocity. If we didn’t feel we could trust our own eyes, we only had to look at Steyn’s.