A world of anticipation: Before the ball is bowled

This is not supposed to happen. KG Rabada is not a towering brute. But he has the second-highest release point of the South African bowling quartet. His bullets you expect to leap, not coil off the surface. Mayank Agarwal has a high backlift. You could drive a truck between the top of his front pad […]
A world of anticipation: Before the ball is bowled

This is not supposed to happen.

KG Rabada is not a towering brute. But he has the second-highest release point of the South African bowling quartet. His bullets you expect to leap, not coil off the surface.

Mayank Agarwal has a high backlift. You could drive a truck between the top of his front pad and his hands too if you tried. Provided similar bat speed, his willow must take longer to reach the ball, meaning he should set off his downswing early. That is not how you play seam.

Yet, when Rabada runs in for the 5th ball of the over with the sun’s glaze bouncing off his shaven head, stretching every muscle and sinew of his body like an elephant chasing an infringing safari guide, he doesn’t just make the ball leap; he makes it seam off the pitch. He makes it seam in from a fifth-stump line.

Mayank Agarwal bats with a middle-stump guard. To meet the ball in front of his eyes, his bat must take the longer route by coming around the body.

A world of anticipation: Before the ball is bowled

The downswing is already off. The ball has not yet pitched. Now, it’s going to deviate. It’s like that Friends episode where Chandler Bing pretends to move to Yemen to break up with his girlfriend. You don’t expect him to go through with it.

It makes a good physics lesson on distance and displacement for the ninth-grader. For the batter, it’s anguish.

But not for Mayank. His wrists flex, his elbow elevates, and a great force runs through his forearms. He tiptoes in the moment, his eyes now lighting up and his mouth staring at the point of incidence of the ball agape. The bat closes its angle, pushes towards mid-on, and thwarts the ball with so much force that the follow-through plunges his hands downwards.

His bat achieved what the Titanic couldn’t. It changed its course.

This isn’t supposed to happen because Mayank Agarwal is human. And humans take up to 230 milliseconds to perceive movement and 700 milliseconds to initiate a motor response.


Sports scientists have known for decades that cricketers use pre-release signals to predict the trajectory of the ball even before it is bowled. If Mitchell Starc’s hips flail to the right every time he bowls a yorker length delivery, the skilled batter would know. If Sophie Ecclestone’s bowling arm darts into the deck quicker a top-quality batter can tell it’s the quicker one.

These recognition softwares can be as simple as gauging the direction of swing using the bowler’s seam presentation to reading Obed McCoy’s back of the hand slower ball from the positioning of his non-bowling hand. And that’s not all, some cues may be common of all bowlers (an early release could be correlated with fuller lengths and a later release with a short one) while some may be unique (Tim Southee might need to point his non-bowling arm to fine leg to bowl an inswinger, others might not). And while some batters may be able to glean more off a certain part of a bowler’s body, others might garner less.

But there’s one thing that holds true of all high-skilled batters. International players pick pre-delivery cues earlier and from more proximal sources than the layperson. When Sachin Tendulkar plonks his front pad across the line to Shoaib Akhtar’s wheezing bolts before release, it’s because he anticipates that a leg-side half volley is on the way. Watching this live, spectators and commentators mistake this for “having an extra second”. No, he just picks the cues earlier. Not surprisingly, players who read the signals faster are earmarked for success – or in other words, they are the “highly skilled”.

It’s all understandable at the surface level. Bowlers in cricket need to bowl different deliveries. To bowl differently, or to cause different outcomes, the causative chain must change. This change can be natural – on higher altitudes the ball is expected to experience more dip for instance. Or they can be forced. To force a change, the way a ball is delivered must be altered. Since every ball is subjective, no two bowling actions of the same bowler is exactly similar. For every 1-meter change in length, it is said that you need to alter the release point by 8 degrees. For every 1-meter change in line you may need to transmute by 3 degrees. These are deviations from the mean, changes that happen before delivery. For the skilled player, they are flamboyant spreadsheets with ample predictive power.

But there’s a catch. A large body of the research underpinning this knowledge is flawed. For a start, many of these studies employ county and domestic players to constitute their “elite” subgroups. As a result, we find ourselves in moral uncertainty when extrapolating these results to international cricketers. Moreover, these studies traded off ecological validity for convenience of task design. In other words, they were conducted in environments far too different from what actually occurs in the cricket field – to the extent that a large body of them involve specialized batters verbally speculating length from frozen images showing various points of the bowler’s stride, perhaps holding an icecream stick in their hands.

Ever since the pioneering work of David Mann in the field of human performance and vision science, we know that the more specific the action the higher the anticipatory advantage of experts. While Meg Lanning and your next-door neighbor Lenny may be able to say with similar accuracy how to bat against different deliveries, Lanning will waltz over Lenny when shadow batting against the same deliveries and destroy him with helmet and pads on against pace. This automatically blots a large amount of research for they are organized at the verbal or shadow batting level; because we’re talking about facing KG Rabada on the fastest pitch in the world and that is a little different from shadow-batting against a county talent’s pies wearing giant occlusion spectacles like a Batman impersonator.

Yet, the wonder of it is that the significance they retain is surpassed only by that of power hitting research. There’s no doubt regarding the claims that batters use pre-delivery cues, and that high-skilled players are more adept at using them. The questions that emerge from this are boundless.

Can expert players isolate the impact of the pitch on the ball to use these bowling signals to their advantage? Can expert bowlers use the batter’s knowledge of their pre-delivery cues to confound the causal relation with an alternate, disparate set of cues? What is the nature of the batter’s knowledge of the pre-release cues and how is it formed? Can specific knowledge be acquired merely from a theoretical awareness of a bowler’s quirks or does it take attunement? How about adjusting trigger movements to match the expected trajectory of the ball? Similarly, can bowlers utilize pre-delivery cues from the batter?

But here’s the all-important question. We know that human beings can’t change an already initiated motor trajectory in the time it takes after most balls seam. We also know that seam is an unpredictable event and there can be no pre-release signals to glean because the direction of seam is seldom intended by the bowler. Yet we also know that international batters can play seam, often exceedingly well. Does this mean that the best cricketers in the world can anticipate lateral deviation based on something they pick up between delivery and pitching – say, perhaps the alignment of the seam at the instant before it bounces?

Welcome to the world of anticipation research.


There’s a curious thing about Snapchat.

Noticed the little bitmoji on the bottom left that rubs its chin mired in thought when the person at the other end of the phone is typing? It stops thinking the instant before you receive the message.

Pre-delivery cues are a little like that.

Day by day, message by message, you get an inch more attuned to the relationship between the bitmoji stopping thinking and the buzz heralding the arrival of a text message. Ultimately, a one-to-one relation is formed in your head. Every time the bitmoji stops thinking, you anticipate a message.

Some of these times your chattee has just stopped typing because there’s something in his/her nose that he/she needs to pick. Your subconscious prediction fails. But on average, you know for certain that a text will buzz your screen more often than not. That’s how pre-release cues work.

But Sean Müller and Bruce Abernathy were not satisfied. In philosophy, it is a practice among some writers to classify designative nouns into “types” and “tokens”. Types refer to a class of objects while tokens are specific objects within the classes. Take the example of cutlery: The term “cutlery” itself means the collection of spoons and forks and chopsticks altogether whereas tokens designate each one of these.

Müller and Abernathy, both behavioral scientists, knew that type-to-type relationships characterizing the link between pre-delivery cues and anticipation exist. In other words, yes, bowlers can give unintentional signs to the batter predating release that indicate the trajectory the next ball. They, however, wanted to uncover token-to-token relations. Which pre-release cue gives away most information about which attribute of the delivery – line, length, dip, lift or ball type? How much inter-player variability exists in these relationships? Do high skilled players exhibit more or less dependence on the proximal body cues they are more attuned to exploit? Above all, do singular segments of the body ooze grand dollops of information or must they come in sets to contribute significantly to the batter’s prediction? They brainstormed for a task design.

This was not going to be an easy task. For starters, objectivity is only a pretense. It was known conclusively since the work of Pollick et al in tennis that individuals within the same skill groups may use different cue sources to attain the same information, or the same cues to attain dissimilar information, masking any underlying trends in learning. What Müller and Abernathy were attempting to do was to explain subjective phenomena with objective terms without compensating too much for accuracy, much like CricViz’s expected statistics. The key is to hit the sweetspot, and that’s a long shot.

But they struck the jackpot straight up. In making batters of different skill levels anticipate ball trajectories of pacers and spin bowlers with certain parts of their bodies hidden – or “occluded” – and recording their prediction accuracies, Müller et al was able to establish which pre-release cue gave maximum info to the players. Their study is especially important because it employed a significant sample space of 57 cricketers and their high skilled subgroup was picked from Australian Test batters, among others.

The results made intuitive sense. Against spinners, in the case of occlusion of all other body parts except the bowling hand (excluding the arm) batters were seen to display prediction accuracies of ball type significantly above chance levels. With the bowling arm added to the image, prediction accuracies against pacers spiraled upward too. Perhaps, an explanation is as follows: For the slow bowler, spin is imparted through the wrist and fingers; the forearms do not come into play. For the pacer, it is the elegant flex of the wrists and the upper half of the forearm that makes the ball glide in to the right hander.

Contributions made by the lower body, trunk and non-bowling arm too were investigated. Though null results dominated, it was also found that the non-bowling arm when coupled with the other arm could be used for a very specific purpose: estimating the length of spinners. This could be a reflection of the fact that spin bowling is a less dynamic art than fast bowling; with more time in hand batters pick cues from more proximal parts of the bowler’s body.

Alternately, since spin bowling is largely a one-length skill, maybe spinners learn to bowl the floaty overpitched one and the deceptive shorter length only later in their careers. Subsequently, they imbibe it from scratch. As a result, they don’t always bother to point their non-bowling arms the same way they do for the stock delivery, spawning a novelty that to the high-skilled batter is a pre-delivery cue.

One obvious question to ask is what causes the batter to be receptive to these pre-release signals: practice, talent, or simply theoretical know-how?

An existing theory is called the constraint-attunement hypothesis: that high skilled batters are better at receiving these cues because they are more attuned by practice. Müller and Abernathy even go on to say: “Given that many of the constraints in the hitting action are biomechanical, and that expert-novice differences may be preserved when only kinematic display information is provided, there is some support for the notion that expertise in these activities is a direct consequence of superior attunement to the task-specific constraint.”

But more on that later.


Where should the modern batter look?

The capacity to extract pre-delivery cues faster and from more proximal sources is the key component that separates master batters from the apprentices. From what we have seen so far, we know that these pre-release cues are most commonly given off the bowling and non-bowling arms of the bowler.

But within these arms, there are infinite points one could focus on. You could focus on the bowler’s wrists, only before turning your attention to the ball at the last moment. You could focus on the bowler’s elbow. You could do something entirely Machiavellian and focus on a fixed point in space where the bowling hand is expected to materialize.

Fortunately, cricket writers have explored this topic before. In SB Tang’s The Cricket Monthly piece, the Australian notes with panache how Greg Chappell’s method of watching the ball differed from others. According to Chappell, fixing your vision on the cherry throughout the run-up implies that your eyes do a lot of work in following the ball along every bob and loll of the bowler’s body. Besides, most bowlers hide the ball in their hands. Instead, between the top of his mark and the stride of the bowler, Chappell’s concentration is what he calls “fine focus”, a state of meditative absorption intended at grasping early pre-delivery cues spread across the bowler’s body. This evanesces into “fierce focus” as the bowler leaps in his stride and prepares to dart the ball, the ultimate quantum of attention that must be used spuriously lest it fails you when most needed.

This is a routine espoused by other Australian players. For the purpose of their article, The Cricket Monthly interviewed six elite Australian male players. Barring the color-blind Brad Hodge, each of the other five admitted to using a similar regimen on their better days. In former Indian wicket-keeper Deep Dasgupta’s words, there are three phases in every ball that he looks out for: when the bowler is at the top of his mark, when the bowler is running in – phases where Deep watches the bowler, not the ball – and the delivery stride, where his eyes are bewitched by nothing but the ball.

But there’s a possibility this could be a suboptimal option. When German scientists subjected 14 healthy right-handed adults to an experiment in which they were supposed to zoom in and out of large English alphabets enclosing a huge number of smaller alphabets, they noticed that both speed and accuracy were compromised in comparison to when they were made to recognize the letters without zooming in and out successively. Though the sample space is small, it’s fathomable that there exist players for whom cricket’s favorite method of watching the ball does not work.

Other techniques do exist. “Tipping pitches” is the name ascribed to the folly of exuding pre-release cues in baseball. According to Arizona State University associate professor of human systems engineering Rob Gray, there are four strategies a hitter can use to scan the pitcher. One, he may choose to “visually scan the pitcher during the delivery (and) then move eyes to release point.” While this may offer the best chance of telling if the bowler is tipping pitches, it has a downside. The constant eye movement achieved by rapid motion of the pupils called “saccades” leaves you essentially blind, a phenomenon called saccadic suppression. In scientific terms, saccadic suppression hampers vision clarity by a factor of 3 to 10. To get an idea of this stand 50 centimeters away from a mirror, focus on the reflection of your left pupil, and shunt your vision from one eye to the other. When done right, it becomes impossible to tell that your pupils are in motion

A modicum of research exists which suggests that this is the strategy used by novice baseball players. What about the elites? One way to go is to use what Gray calls the “soft focus” – staring at nothing in particular prior to the ball’s being bowled and zooming in at breakneck speed to the ball just before delivery – the preferred modus operandi of the cricket players.

There’s also one more tactic called the “pivot point strategy”. Fifty centimeters away from the release point, loss of visual clarity is marginal: somewhere between 10% and 20%. A high skilled batter could use this to her advantage to focus her faculties on a point marginally distant from the expected point of release – say, the elbow of the bowler – to hit that sweet spot between zoning in on the ball at release and eavesdropping on the body for cues.

In baseball and basketball, a minority of research exists which shows that top-level players can use the pivot point strategy. Why, there’s a solid chance cricketers do so too. In Cameron Ponsonby’s recent ESPNcricinfo piece “Looks fast, feels faster”, the writer notes how South African batters developed and successfully exercised their bravura against spin wizard Muralidaran: “(Andrew) Hall explains that one of the cues the South Africans would look out for was where his right elbow would be pointing as he entered his delivery stride. If it was pointing out at 90 degrees with his hand by his ear lobe, that was the sign that Muralitharan was going to bowl his off-spinner. If his elbow was pointing down towards the batter, it was probably a doosra coming up.”

It is true that the more dynamic nature of bowling in cricket compared to pitching in baseball means extrapolation is a smelly task. However, though peripheral vision can account for gleaning the direction of a man’s elbow with eyes fixated at fifty centimetres afar, it is reasonable to assume in the absence of contradictory info that Gray’s pivot point strategy could well have been Hall’s knight in shining armour.


It is a conclusion that naturally follows from the contents discussed in this article that since pre-delivery cues determine the bulk of batting success great batters must have truly great eyes. Right?

Well, it’s complicated. The most basic measure of vision quality is called visual acuity. Visual acuity is, put simply, the clarity of your vision. It is this quantity that is said to decline when a healthy individual is afflicted with far-sightedness or near-sightedness. Study after study since the late 20th century has shown that vision acuity is not a necessary ingredient for sporting prosperity. About 10% of top-level athletes experience myopia, hypermetropia, or a similar vision problem – approximately the same rate found in the general population. As Tang observes in his piece, both Don Bradman and Barry Richards had less than 20/20 eyesight.

In fact, researchers in Australia in 2007 attempted to discern at what quantity of visual blur batting performance begins to deteriorate. When eleven club-level players were made to face bowling machines wearing contact lenses of dioptric over-refractions +1.00, +2.00 and +3.00, notable changes in performance were achieved only when the over-refraction was in the +3.00 state. In this condition, the effective visual acuities of the players were expected to diminish to 6/60. In Australia, UK, and the US, this visual acuity will classify you as legally blind. Forget batting, the next time you skedaddle to the nearby beach for a sunbath and Rowan Atkinson tries to get out of his clothes, you could be being tricked into shooting a remake of Mr Bean’s pilot episode.

These findings are somewhat at odds with other studies which noted a dip in performance in the +2.00 condition. However, check out what a blur simulation of +2.00 means on the Snellen’s chart here. If Virat Kohli’s ebbs and flows against mystery wrist spin can be reduced to declining eyesight, Kohli must also sell his lavish Audis and Bentleys because driving is not a blind man’s play.

The best in the world always find a way. According to research in tennis, when excess blur is presented high-skilled athletes shift their dependence from “fine featural information to more course figural information”. In cricket terms, this means that with declining eyesight batters tend to visualize opposing bowlers as a whole rather than a sum of specific attributes, a form of subconscious attentiveness resembling the “soft focus” model. Besides, higher the ball velocity greater is the effect of the blur. Virat Kohli may use reading glasses but a less than 20/20 eyesight likely does not impede his ability to pick the wrong ‘un.

Yet, how does vision training add substance to the hitting pedigree of hundreds of sportspersons?

Well, here’s how. Hand-eye coordination is exactly what the name sounds like: Where the eyes wish to go, the hands travel. In 2011, the head coach of the baseball team at the University of Cincinnati, Brian Clearly, decided that his team could do with enhanced vision performance in their offensive game. The nerds at Cincinnati worked closely with the coach not only to subject the athletes to six weeks of a regimented program but also to monitor the players’ statistics from the previous season in comparison to their 2011 returns to produce a post-hoc analysis of the effects of the vision training program.

The facilities they used were multi-pronged. The Dynavision is an eye-hand coordination device that lights up at controlled intervals prompting the user to press a switch when the stimulus comes on. Six one-minute sessions per week on the Dynavision were found to increase reaction times. Similarly, the Tachistoscope flashes numbers on a screen, typically starting with 1 and gradually adding more numbers with simple contrasts such as black on white to start with and darker green letters on light green backgrounds as the game goes on. The contrast sensitivity gained, it is hypothesised, helps the athletes to recognise patterns in their visual field faster. The Rotary is a vision pursuit device which has letters and numbers attached to it by Velcro. It rotates clockwise and counterclockwise for one minute each, challenging the subject to identify the attached symbols as the pace of rotation increases with time. Nor are they the only fixes. EyePromise, an international organisation, provides “vitamins, technology, and support to enhance and protect vision.” Tommy La Stella, the infielder of San Francisco Giants of the Major League Baseball, says that he does not know “how I’d go back to playing without it.” The resources sit in the labs waiting to be used. Such devices – the Brock String, Eyeport, Saccades, Strobe Glasses, and more – enhance the speed, accuracy, anticipatory, and adjustment skills of players. They stretch the eye muscles and squeeze the last ounce of batting genius out of them.

The batting averages of the Cincinnati players surged from 0.251 to 0.285 from the 2010 league stage to 2011. Cricketers’ could too.


This is not supposed to happen.

KG Rabada has the second-highest release point of the South African bowling quartet. His bullets you expect to leap, not coil off the surface. Mayank Agarwal has a high backlift. Given similar bat speed, his willow takes longer to reach the ball, meaning he must offset his downswing early. That is not how you play seam.

Yet, when Rabada runs in with the sun’s glaze bouncing off his shaven head, he doesn’t just make the ball leap. He makes it seam in from a fifth-stump line.

Mayank’s downswing is already off. The ball has not yet pitched. Now, it’s going to deviate. Agarwal has his task cut out. Mayank’s wrists flex, his elbow elevates, and a great force runs through his forearms. He tiptoes in the moment, his eyes now lighting up and mouth staring at the ball’s point of incidence agape. The bat closes its angle, pushes towards mid-on, and thwarts the ball with such force that the follow-through plunges his hands downwards.

His bat achieved what the countless bats of dreamy-eyed novice cricketers couldn’t. It changed its course.

In 1987, McLeod used high-speed cine-photography to record the trajectory of the bottom of the bat when cricket batters played a hook shot. No motor response was found at least 210 ms before the deviation. At 140 kmph, the ball passes through 8.4 metres in 210 ms. Essentially, seam movement is unplayable from any fuller than the short regions unless you’re the finest in the world.

This is best illustrated by the studies of David Mann and colleagues with professional cricketers in 2013. Mann et al compared the eye movements of elite cricketers with novices. The first thing that stood out when studying Justin Langer, an ex-international player far past his prime, was that Langer’s flair belied all previously existing knowledge. Most first-class and club cricketers are known to be able to watch the ball no longer than the first 300 ms of its flight. Yet here was Langer, pointing out precisely the points on his bat where the ball strikes and stating confidently that he was able to sight the ball up to and beyond contact.

Studies of his eye movements would later confirm this seeming humblebrag. Elite cricketers don’t just not lose the ball, they also stare ahead of the ball’s trajectory as if in omniscient awareness of its future coordinate positions. In the words of the authors, they seem to “park their gaze” and “lie in wait”. International cricketers are extraterrestrial organisms.

In a 2015 conversation with Sid Monga, Shoaib Akhtar swaggered in characteristic gait: “You need to be mad to be a fast bowler.”

To be the best cricket batter in the world, you need to predict future events with higher accuracy than tantrics, enact ungainly acts millions of times, possess the eyesight of fatigued eagles, and if presented with the opportunity alongside counterparts in academia, defy all previously existing scientific knowledge.

Mayank Agarwal is superhuman because he is an elite international batter.





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