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Anil Kumble holds a cricket bat in middle of field

Why Anil Kumble wants AI to bat for cricket fans

It’s a breezy Friday morning in Bengaluru and word of his arrival spreads like wildfire at the M. Chinnaswamy Stadium. A group of school children dressed in all-whites crowd around him as he happily poses for selfies and signs autographs. He even bowls a few balls for them, much to the thrill of the budding cricketers who dream of emulating him one day.

“I was just like them – one of the 1,500 kids who’d come to the selection camp to get a shot at playing for the state’s under-15 team,” he says, as we walk around the ground where he started his professional cricketing career.

Meet Anil Kumble – one of the greatest bowlers the game has ever seen. The third-highest wicket taker of all time in Test cricket, he’s one of the only two bowlers in the history of the game to have dismissed all 10 batsmen in an inning. If that isn’t enough, he’s scored a century too!

“Cricket is a batsman’s game. People come to watch the batsmen play. Even though I played and retired as a bowler, many people still remember me for that one century”- Anil Kumble

Given this background, it’s as ironic as it is apt that his latest foray, Spektacom, is using technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Internet of Things (IoT) to unravel the science behind the art of batting.

Twelfth man: Technology

An engineer by education, Kumble began experimenting with technology pretty early in his career. In 1996, inspired by South Africa’s coach Bob Woolmer, he created a software package for the Indian cricket team – an extension of the scoring sheet to gather data for analysis – he says. “That was probably the first time a computer walked into the Indian dressing room,” he adds with a hint of pride in his eyes.

Since then, the game has adopted technology rapidly, starting in 1999 with the speed gun that calculates the speed of the ball as it is bowled. While the game itself continues to be simple, the push from broadcasters to find new avenues to engage fans has led to wider adoption of technology, Kumble feels.

Thanks to multi-angle camera setups, a difference of a millimetre can decide whether a batsman is out or safe, adding to the thrill of the game. Today experts, teams, and even fans can see whether a ball would’ve hit the wickets and even analyse every ball bowled during a game.

Quite ironically then, despite it being a batsman’s game, there is very little technology that can analyse every shot as it is played. And Kumble wants to change that with Spektacom.    

As the day progresses, we shift base to Microsoft’s ScaleUp office in central Bengaluru where Spektacom’s team is currently incubated. We grab a quick lunch at the cafeteria as we discuss why technology hasn’t touched batsmen.

Anil Kumble explains concept to someone with hands raised

“We’ve always heard experts talk about how a batsman is more powerful than the others. How he’s middling the ball and hitting the sweet spot consistently. But what does all of that really mean in numbers?” he asks.

This question dogged Kumble for many years and eventually led him to explore every edge of the cricket bat to unravel the science behind every shot. Unlike bowlers, who don’t have a say in the ball they’re given to bowl, batsmen get their bats made to order, obsessing over every extra ounce of weight or millimetre of thickness. They are wary of adding anything that might change the bat and affect their game, Kumble explains. ‘

“At Spektacom, we were focused on building non-intrusive technology. The form-factor was critical, especially when it comes to professional players,” he adds.

Anil Kumble swings a cricket bat

Bringing an “intelligent edge” to batting

The team developed an IoT-based sensor sticker the size of a credit card that weighs just 5 grams. The sensor sticker captures details such as the bat speed, the twist of the bat at the time of the impact with the ball, quality of the shot (proximity of the impact of the ball to the sweet spot) and the power of the shot. All this information is analysed to get the power of the shot, which the team calls the ‘Power Spek’ score.

The unique sticker sticks to the rear blade of the bat under a regular sponsor sticker, achieving the aim of being non-intrusive. What’s more, the sensor works on any cricket bat and instruments itself using machine learning that enables players to use it with their bespoke bats.

With the sensor in place, the next challenge was to figure out how to make this all work in real-time in a professional match. The sensor not only had to capture the data but also transmit it to the cloud for analysis and spew out the results for broadcasters as soon as the ball hit the bat. If that wasn’t complicated enough, the team found out during testing that cricket grounds didn’t have the most reliable wireless connectivity for the data to be uploaded to the cloud.

The solution came in the form of Microsoft’s Azure offerings. Using Bluetooth Low Energy, the sensor connects with an edge device called Stump Box that is buried behind the wicket. The data from the stump box is transferred and analysed in Azure and shot characteristics are provided to broadcasters in real-time. Given that cricket stadiums have wireless access restrictions and stringent security requirements, to ensure secure communication between bat, edge device and Azure, the Stump Box has been powered by Microsoft Azure Sphere based hardware platform.

Fan engagement

Spektacom is already testing the ‘Power Bat’ with Star Sports in local cricket leagues. For the first time ever, a broadcaster is able to provide data behind any shot played in a game for experts to comment and analyse.

Technologies like AI and IoT have the potential to usher in a new era for sports, unlocking data-driven insights for players and coaches and creating more immersive fan experiences,” says Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft. “Together with Spektacom and Star Sports, we are bringing the power of Azure and Azure Sphere to one of the world’s most celebrated games – cricket –  transforming how it’s played, coached and watched.”

“Technology is re-defining the way fans engage with sports. We, at Star India are at the forefront of delivering new-age fan experiences across our TV & digital platforms. Spektacom’s Power Bat will create new streams of performance analytics that can power data-rich storytelling in cricket. We believe this partnership between Microsoft, Star India and Spektacom can also revolutionise the world of sports beyond cricket,” says Uday Shankar, President – 21CF Asia & Chairman, Star India.

“As a player, I think we are all who we are because of the fans,” Kumble adds. He envisions Spektacom’s technology will change the way the game is experienced by people who watch it on television, on mobile platforms, and even those sitting in the stadium.

But that’s just the beginning. Eventually, Spektacom plans to market this sensor sticker, which, along with a smartphone app, will enable cricketers from the amateur to the expert level to enhance the skills of the game. In this case, the AI models developed in Azure are transferred to the sensor itself giving players and coaches instant feedback on the app.   

“I can see amateur players comparing their Power Spek scores among themselves and even their favorite cricketers. Coaches too will be able to get better insights and be able to do away with guesswork and a selector’s ‘gut feeling’ to spot new talent”- Anil Kumble

The day has almost come to an end and we’re now sitting in the basement of his house tucked away in one of the older parts of the city. The focal point of the room is a work in progress installation where he intends to feature balls that signify major milestones in his cricketing career. His hectic travel schedule has kept him away from getting it completed.

There are trophies he’s won over the years placed liberally throughout the room. And then on one wall is a solitary frame which displays the bat off which came his only Test century.  

“I wonder what my Power Spek score would have been for that innings,” Kumble muses.