Monday, September 29, 2008

"Ultra Cricket"

For those of you who don't know what Ultra Cricket is, you don't know what you're missing.
For those of you who do know Ultra Cricket, you're surely, sorely missing it!

Ultra Cricket, better known as UC to its friends, is a play-by-email cricket game -- the kind where you send in a set of game-play commands (or "orders") by email, play against others doing the same, and get the game results back by email.  But that doesn't even begin to describe the allure of UC, so let me try and expand on it in this article.

Cricket, unsurprisingly, is very amenable to such play-by-email games -- all of us cricket fans after all think we can "manage" or "coach" teams better than the Gary Kirstens and Greg Chappells of the world!  We surely think we'd do a much better job of team selection than the "bunch of jokers" that abound!  We play our teams in Fantasy Cricket leagues, such as the one on CricInfo and try to prove that.  But somehow, fantasy cricket isn't terribly satisfying - your performance depends entirely on that of the players you select.  And you have no control over how they bat, bowl or field during the game.  What gets really interesting is when you have the ability to simulate a cricket game, acting as the selector, coach and captain (of one side, mind you) all rolled into one!

However, cricket as a game is fiendishly difficult to simulate.  To faithfully simulate it requires a complex model that recreates what happens on every single delivery.  How well it is bowled, how it behaves in the air and off the pitch, how well the batsman plays it, where it goes, whether it's fielded or not, how many runs result, wickets, run-outs, changing pitch conditions... it's just mind-boggling.  That's probably why there are very few good cricket simulations out there.  The best of the lot, by far, is Ultra Cricket.

Ultra Cricket has been developed over many years by Tim Astley, an Aussie from the land of David Boon and Ricky Ponting, who somehow managed to do all the modelling and programming while also doing a Ph.D. and post-doc in chemistry, and raising three kids!  The name is derived from the "game" of Brockian Ultra Cricket, which is featured in Douglas Adams' memorable Hitchhiker's Guide series of books.

You start off by forming your own squad - not a team of 11, but a squad of 25 players!  You are allotted a fixed number of draft points, which you use to "create" 25 players.  Players have a set of skills:
  1. batting ability
  2. aggression
  3. bowling ability
  4. economy (bowling)
  5. fielding ability
For each player in your squad, and for each of the skills above, you assign a skill level ranging from bad to poor to average to good to great to superb.  Each step up in skill has a cost in terms of draft points (DPs).  Since your DPs are limited, you have to optimally use them to create a useful pool of players of all types -- batsmen, bowlers, allrounders and wicketkeepers.

That's not all.  Each player also has an age, and your squad must be balanced, with players ranging from age 0 to age 4.  In "real" terms, an age-0 is probably a 16-year-old, and only the rare Sachin Tendulkar will be good enough to play for the team at that age.  An age-4 player is probably around 30, and is at his/her peak in terms of skills.  As time progresses (i.e., as we play the UC leagues), these players actually get older, and that affects their skills in interesting ways!  Initially, players' skills improve with age, but beyond a certain point, they start diminishing, as you'd expect in real life.

Drafting a squad is just the first challenge of UC.  What happens next is that your team gets placed into a league with say 7 other teams.  A "season" of Ultra Cricket follows - 14 or 15 weeks of high-octane cricket action!  Each "week" in UC, your team plays a 5-day Test and two ODIs.  Now you don the hat of selector, and get to pick the 11-member teams that play in each of these three games.  What's more, wearing the hat of "captain", you now specify the batting order, who will keep wickets, etc.   You get to decide who will bowl when, how long their spells will be, how aggressive or defensive the field setting will be in different situations, etc.  All this is done up front, by creating a set of "orders" - a simple text file in a pre-defined format.  This set of orders is sent by email to the ultra cricket daemon, each week.  Your opponents each week (for the Test and ODIs) will do the same for their teams.

When Tim runs the games each week, UC simulates each game, faithfully following the orders emailed in by the participants.  This is where the magic occurs - Tim's simulator code decides what happens on each and every delivery, using a complex set of formluae.  The outcome depends on the batsman and bowler's skill levels (batting, bowling, economy, etc.), the help the bowler is getting from the pitch (which in turn depends on whether he's a seam bowler, a swing bowler or a spinner), the form the batsman is in, etc.!  The runs scored, if any, also depend on the field setting at that time (controlled by your orders), as well as the fielding skills of those fielders.  After all this simulation, the outcome may be as simple as a "dot ball", or it could be as dramatic as a wicket.  Whatever it is, UC faithfully records it all.

When the games are all done, UC emails out to each of us a full, ball-by-ball account of each of those three games.  That's when the fun (and nail-biting tension) begins for all of us UC players!  It's amazing to go through the games, following the ups and downs of your team's fortunes.  The simulation is very realistic - which means that you hardly ever get ridiculous scores like 500 in a 50-over match, or 25 all out in a Test innings.  The numbers on your scorecards and statistics look very believable.  What's more, the statistics are nicely correlated to the skill levels of your players, and yet random enough to keep things unpredictable!  Sometimes, your "great" and "superb" players go through bad patches, even entire bad seasons with abominable averages.  But in the long term, the numbers seem to work out just fine.

To make things even more interesting, UC lets you play the role of a coach as well!  Each team has a fixed number of training points (TPs) per week.  You can decide which players will be given how much training, in each of the five main skills - but subject to a constraint of 8 TPs per player.  Coaching helps improve the players' skills - the more the TPs you allocate to a specific skill, the more the improvement in that ability.  Given the cap of 8 TPs per player, as well as the total TPs your team has earned, you have another balancing act here - how to improve your squad (of 25 players, remember), ensuring bench strength, getting youngsters ready for prime-time, etc.  These training orders are also sent in along with each week's orders, and you get back a "formguide" showing the current skills levels of each player in your squad.  Thus, managing your squad and keeping it competitive over multiple UC seasons is a challenge in itself.

Believe me, this game is addictive.  You get so attached to your team, your players, their progress over time, their performances, statistics, results...  I've been playing UC probably since at least 12 years ago, and the magic still hasn't worn off.

Now having raved so much about UC, here comes the bad news.  UC is currently shut down (only suspended, we hope), because Tim is no longer able to run it in his free time.  That's why I started this article by saying how sorely we fans are missing UC.  It's been a labour of love for him, and it's always been free, so he's hardly been compensated for his efforts other than the occasional donations.  But Tim assures us it'll be back some time, perhaps with a new, spiffier interface.  In the meanwhile, I'm glad I have years and years of weekly results to pore over!

Thanks Tim, for all the memories, the fun, the challenge, the tension of close-fought matches and the close-run leagues... for creating a virtual world in which cricket fanatics can play all those roles we'd never get to play otherwise!

Monday, September 22, 2008

Chuck de India

Bishen Singh Bedi goes ballistic every few months. Whenever Murali goes past yet another record, or Harbhajan is in the news (for his bowling that is), Bedi has something to say, with words like "javelin-throwing" or "shot-put" sprinkled about liberally. Bedi believes that these bowlers, and several others in international cricket, are "chuckers" and should not be allowed to bowl.

This is of course a very controversial topic. The ICC has gone about addressing this issue in a very gingerly fashion, testing bowlers for "degrees of flexion", setting an upper limit of 15 degrees, recommending remedial clinics, etc. In earlier times, it was entirely up to the officiating umpires to rule on the legality of a delivery, and call "no ball" if they suspected it was a chuck. Even at the highest (Test) level, this has been done, resulting in abrupt endings to some promising careers. In the modern professional age though, this is seen as harsh (and just asking for legal challenges), and so bowlers are given the opportunity to correct their action and resume their careers after a re-test.

My interest here is to analyse what forms of chucking should be penalized and what shouldn't. It should be obvious that we're trying to prevent the bowler from getting an unfair advantage. The Laws make it clear that it's not a bent arm per se that gives you the unfair advantage. It's the straightening of the elbow during delivery. This straightening can lead to a pace bowler being able to bowl more quickly, and a spinner being able to extract more turn off the pitch, than would otherwise be possible.

Now the ICC discovered using video footage and biomechanical tests that some straightening of the arm always occurs, even in a normal legal bowling action. They came up with this 15-degree limit based on the assumption (ok, maybe fact) that beyond this figure, a "chuck" would be visually obvious to the umpires.

However, the point being missed is whether this 15-degree straightening gives an unfair advantage. In some cases, the straightening occurs well before the release of the ball. Brett Lee, who was accused of chucking early in his career, is an example of this. However, if you consider the arc made by his bowling arm, from the point where it is vertical to the point of release, the arm seems to be quite straight. In other words, the straightening is complete before the arm becomes vertical, and thus, even if that straightening is more than 15 degrees, it shouldn't provide him any unfair advantage.

For a different example, consider Muralitharan. In his case, replays and biomechanical tests have shown that his arm in fact doesn't straighten significantly. And in his case, spin is imparted primarily by that whiplash action of the wrist. The wrist certainly "straightens" far more than 15 degrees, but that is expressly allowed by the Laws.

I personally find Harbhajan's case rather touch-and-go. Even after his remodelling efforts, I get the feeling that his action involves a straightening of the arm at the business-end of the bowling action, which enables him to get extra revs on the ball. Even if that straightening is less than the 15 degrees permitted by the Law, in my mind it constitutes an unfair advantage. Shoaib Akhtar is another perennial "offender" in this category. Again, tests seem to have shown that he's within the prescribed limits. However, it again seems unfair that he gets to ratchet up his pace a few notches, just because of that arbitrary 15-degree limit.

Ideally, players with such dubious actions should never make it to the international / professional levels. Umpires and selectors at lower levels should step in and privately make it clear to the bowler that they need to change their action if they want to step up to higher grades of cricket. And this does happen in some cases...

I remember following Indian domestic cricket for many years in the 1990s, wondering why Baroda's Tushar Arothe never seemed to get a chance for India. In fact he never even seemed to make it to India-A, or Rest-of-India, or any of those stepping-stone teams. This despite being a very consistent all-round performer for Baroda. He was a competent left-handed batsman in the middle order, and an off-spinner. Then one day I got to watch him in action for the first time... I think it was a Ranji or Duleep trophy game at the Wankhede Stadium. Arothe was bowling his offies. And in a minute it was obvious - he was chucking.

In a way, it was quite nice of the selectors and officials at that level - they let Arothe have his career as a Ranji professional, without ever exposing him to the international level where his action would immediately have been questioned. They seemed to have learnt from the case of Rajesh Chauhan, the Madhya Pradesh off-spinner, who had a similar problem. He was pushed into the Indian team, and played with some success. But there was always the suspicion of chucking, and opponents filed their complaints regularly until he was unceremoniously dropped. All this was of course before the ICC stepped in with their new procedures and rules.

My own childhood idol, Karsan Ghavri, was suspected of chucking when he bowled his bouncer. I refused to belive that, of course :-) Another Indian pace bowler in that category was Chetan Sharma. And so was Manoj Prabhakar, although in his case I always got the impression that he used his wrists well, rather than straightening his arm.

All in all, I get the feeling that the game would be better served with a modified Law to deal with chucking. Most people would agree that there are bowlers in international cricket today who get an unfair advantage despite being under the ICC's prescribed limits. That could possibly be fixed by looking at the bowling arm after it reaches its highest point in the delivery action. Beyond the vertical, there should be no further straightening or bending allowed, period. That's really the business end of the bowling action, and it ought to be regulated more strictly. Currently, the flexion is checked once the arm goes above shoulder-level.

Handling of violators is still a tricky issue, because of all the emotions and weird notions of national pride associated with such cases! So the ICC's process of reporting the bowler, testing him, etc. may continue. But maybe, just maybe we'll get to hear less often from Bishen Bedi! :-)

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Nothing underhand about it...

One fine day back in 1981, underhand (or underarm) bowling acquired a particularly bad name.  In a one-dayer between Australia and New Zealand, the Kiwis needed six to win off the last ball of the match.  Australia's captain Greg Chappell asked the bowler - his brother Trevor - to bowl underhand, keeping the ball very close to the pitch.  This made it practically impossible for the batsman to hit a six, and Australia duly won the game.

Technically, underhand bowling was allowed by the Laws of Cricket at that time.  But it was considered unsportsmanlike well before the incident happened.  After all, cricket had evolved from underarm to round-arm to over-arm bowling in the 19th century itself - more than 100 years before the Chappell incident.  Soon, the Laws were modified to explicitly disallow it.

It may be unsportsmanlike to bowl underhanded in Tests or first-class cricket in general.  But it does make for some interesting street cricket!  And it seems quite natural in fact.  Kids learn to throw things (not just balls) either underhanded, or over-arm with a bent elbow - not a legal bowling action either!  Nobody naturally throws things in the proper cricket bowling action.

In Mumbai, much of street cricket involves underhand bowling.  This may be partly because of space constraints - there usually isn't enough space for a run-up and follow-through, and pitches are well short of 22 yards too.  So we used to play underarm cricket with those red rubber balls.  Taped tennis balls were an alternative, but those were much more expensive, and spun less than the rubber ball.  You could really give the rubber ball a rip and make it spin right across the batsman in either direction!  Or you could make it dip nicely with topspin.  There was also the underhand equivalent of the googly.  And when there was enough space for a longish pitch, we'd permit "fast" underhand bowling.  This usually involved a 3-4 step run-up followed by a rapid circular action of the bowling arm, culminating in underhand release.  Although the stock delivery would be fast, full in length, and cutting into the right-handed batsman, the expert underarm bowlers were able to even bowl 'bouncers', with great shock value!

The batsman generally had very limited reaction time against such fast bowling, and a high backlift was out of the question.  Most of the strokeplay had to be in the vee, because the bowling was generally full anyway, and there was no time for the horizontal-bat shots.  The bulk of the dismissals were bowled.  LBWs were hotly contested, because there were no umpires of course.  It was up to the non-striker and bowler to settle the issue, with the help of the keeper.

Of course, we lefties had the advantage of naturally bowling away-going deliveries (leg-cutters) to the right-handed batsman.  But even if we managed to get a snick, it was usually impossible to catch; it wouldn't carry to the keeper or slips.  So we had to hope for the perfect jaffa, bowling over the wicket, pitching on the leg stump and hitting off.  Of course all this changed if the "one-bounce rule" was in effect, that is, a catch taken on the bounce is considered legal.  We called it "one-tup out" or "ek-tappi out", and it forced the batsman to try and place the ball between the fielders.

The strokeplay in general was fast and furious in such games - no scope for delicate glances and flicks.  The rubber ball does fly nicely off the bat, which helps.  But there's also a lot of furious running between the wickets.  We usually played one-innings matches, without over limits; they weren't necessary because teams were small (5-6 players to each side) and wickets fell regularly.  Great fun, and nothing underhand about it!