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Howzat! High-tech help for cricket

An umpire giving an LBW decision
The traditional way: The West Indies' Courtney Walsh judged out LBW  

LONDON -- It is the last ball of a series-deciding cricket test with the batting side's last man in.

The bowler trundles in, sends down a delivery that strikes the batsman on his pads and the fielding side unites in a chorus of appeal for leg before wicket (LBW).

Instead of instantly raising his finger to tell the batsman he is out, the umpire raises a device something like a pager, consults its trigonometric projections and dismisses the batsman along with a nation's hopes.

A military-inspired calculator has just decided the series.

Just not cricket? The creators of a new LBW predictor say it is poised to become central to the game's future.

The technology is called the Hawk-eye and is being developed in Britain by rocket scientists at the German company Siemens.

"It is a lot more accurate than the umpire," said Paul Hawkins, a Hawk-eye developer at Siemens.

"It can predict the trajectory of the ball down to a couple of millimetres."

Hawkins said the company was the world leader in "tracking things" after many years working with military missiles.

The company plans to apply the technology to a host of sports.

"It's ideal for baseball, for providing instant photo-finishes in horse racing or off-side decisions in football," Hawkins said.

Developing innovations to assist in rule judgements and to supplement broadcasts is rapidly becoming a hotly contested sport in itself.

Sunset + Vine, the company that produces sporting broadcasts including cricket for Britain's Channel 4 network, says the technology contest is akin to a "space race" in sport.

"There aren't many players but the competition is growing quite fierce," Gary Frances, Sunset + Vine's Executive Producer of cricket, said.

Channel 4 is planning to include the Hawk-eye in its cricket broadcasts from next summer.

No longer the sole domain of leather and willow, cricket has become a world of "red zones," "radar guns" and "stump cams."

The latest device to be introduced to viewers was last season's "snickometer" -- which seeks to show whether a batsman hit a ball before being caught by displaying the sound frequency pattern at the instant the ball passed the bat.

That technology was the brainchild of Alan Plaskett, who is also in the race with a new LBW predictor.

He is currently negotiating with an Australian broadcaster over his new creation after it was trialled during broadcasts of a recent series in India.

Plaskett's business used to only concern itself with electronic patents for medical devices, but the success of the "snickometer" has encouraged him to branch out.

"It has certainly paid for itself and has become the standard bearer for this type of technology," he said.

Despite criticisms that some of the new additions are televisual gimmicks, British, Australian and South African broadcasters continue to tussle over being the first to get the next innovation to air.

"It's important to keep improving the product and this technology is there. If we didn't use it someone else would," Frances said.

Umpiring by technology

For many sports fans, the more significant concern is the introduction of technology to umpiring decisions.

The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) said it had no plans to introduce the Hawk-eye to matches at the moment, but would rely on international authorities for a decision.

In recent years a third umpire has been introduced to cricket where camera technology assists an off-field official in adjudicating run-out and stumping decisions.

Hawk-eye's developers said failing to introduce their invention to cricket would be a contradiction.

But ECB spokesman Mark Hodgson said one concern with the technology would be ensuring there was no margin of error.

"You would want something that was one hundred percent right and as I understand this device, it seeks to predict the path of the ball," he said.

Hawkins is confident it would only be a matter of time before the innovation is embraced.

"Sceptics will change their mind once they have seen it work."

The company has just conducted tests involving 1,000 deliveries in which the prediction was later matched with a video recording of the ball.

"The technology didn't get one wrong," Hawkins said.

Ranking alongside any concerns over the accuracy of any new electronic wizardry are the fears of purists over the risk to the game's cherished traditions.

Frances said that is a real factor is deciding whether to use new broadcast techniques.

"We must stay faithful to the sport."

But he said change is all about judging what should remain the same: "As long as we show live each ball bowled and where it goes, the rest is enhancement."

And even that could soon seem staid.

Over the internet, Hawkins predicts that live net-casts will soon allow viewers to choose their own camera shots, graphic enhancements and special effects.

In the technology age nothing is sacred. Not even cricket.

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Channel 4 - The Snickometer
ECB - the Official home of English cricket
CricInfo - The Home of Cricket On The Internet

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