Please note: Images in this article were taken before current COVID-19 safety measures were in place.
Proudly Victorian-made, an innovative microchipped cricket ball has made its world debut at the holy grail of cricket, Lord’s in London.
Kookaburra, a 120-year-old family company in Moorabbin with 200 staff, is the first in the world to launch a game changer: embedding a microchip in a cricket ball with an eight-hour rechargeable battery. It sends real-time data to players, coaches, broadcasters and viewers on whether a ball has hit the bat, pad or ground. A bowler will be able to release a delivery and then immediately look to their smartwatch to check the speed or degree of turn, giving improved insights into ball delivery – measurements with more accuracy than ever before.
In development for the past two years with technology partner SportCor, the Kookaburra SmartBall design was revealed to the cricket world at a special launch in London in August. While still in its testing phase, the design is being touted as a production first.
How did Kookaburra beat the global competition to launch? Kookaburra spokesperson, Shannon Gill, says it comes down to the sports equipment brand’s history. Established in 1890, today Kookaburra is the official red ball supplier to seven test playing nations and is the supplier for all white ball international cricket and the major domestic Twenty20 competitions.
"While the concept of having a tech element to a cricket ball has been around for a while, there was never a real match ball option until Kookaburra got involved," says Shannon. Still an Australian-owned and operated business, the Thompson family, who own Kookaburra, pride themselves on innovation. Producing over 500,000 cricket balls per year and being able to manufacture locally has meant "ideas and innovation can happen in minutes."
To great effect. The recent unveiling at the acknowledged home of world cricket, Lord’s, was a 'pinch me' moment for all involved. "We introduced it to the media first," says Shannon. "International cricketers Jos Buttler from England and Marnus Labuschagne from Australia were there, and it all went to plan with the tech giving us all sorts of data on bowling speeds and revolutions. The media had a go and we couldn’t get the ball out of their hands. They, like us, found using the SmartBall quite addictive."
SmartBall’s main point of difference is that currently, speed and revolution when a ball is bowled comes from a stationary radar, which means speed is recorded at the same point regardless of the height of the bowler or their delivery plane. This has limits, the most obvious one being that it results in a speed bias to the bowler with the lower release point (either through height or action). By contrast, Kookaburra’s SmartBall allows the ball to 'talk'. It tells speed and revolutions objectively. Release speed or post-bounce speed can also be measured to give a true comparison between bowlers, and the difficulty batters might have. In the future, the SmartBall could also reveal whether the bat has nicked a ball, or whether the ball has hit the grass on low catches.
The biggest snag pre-launch was finding a way to replicate the cork inner nucleus of the turf ball used in international cricket for weight, size and bounce with something that could also protect the chip and battery and resist impact of more than 150 kilometres per hour. "Once that was achieved, we knew we were on to something," explains Shannon.
As it is still going through testing, the ball is not yet available for retail sale or wider distribution. In the next year Kookaburra hope to be in a position to offer the SmartBall to the International Cricket Council (ICC) as a ball that could be tested and used at international level. It’s also likely to be trialled in a major Twenty20 league.
Grassroots cricket also stands to benefit. "Feedback from coaches is that the SmartBall will be a valuable coaching aid for players of all levels, from test stars right down to aspiring local junior cricketers who want to improve their bowling," says Shannon. "The simplicity of the ball connecting to an app means it can be used in training by any player and we expect there to be a training ball made available to the public soon."
It’s been quite a ride for the company so far, and the future looks equally bright. "Ten years ago, we didn’t realise the impact Twenty20 cricket would have, and we hadn’t had the great growth in the women’s game," says Shannon. This means women’s cricket is certainly on the radar, but at the moment, the core weight of the SmartBall can’t be reduced. The standard women’s cricket ball has a weight of 142 grams; the specifications for a men’s cricket ball can come in at over 10 grams heavier. And as Kookaburra is also a world leader in hockey ball production, Hockey Australia is interested to see what they can come up with in terms of applying the technology to their game. Says Shannon, "So who knows what we could be doing in ten years’ time!"