What started off as a university project has evolved into a fully-fledged startup called CricFlex.
Designed for cricketers, CricFlex is a wearable sleeve, like a compression sleeve worn by basketballers or baseballers, but is embedded with sensors to make it smarter. The purpose was initially designed to test an illegal bowling action but has now grown into a wearable that is for all bowlers to work on their action and technique.
Abdullah Ahmed is originally from Islamabad, Pakistan, and of course cricket crazy, but is now based in the Bay Area and we had an in-depth conversation with him about his company’s journey and the development of his product.
You pitched your tech at SXSW, it’s quite early on in your business journey to be pitching at such an event.
Abdullah Ahmed: “It was a wonderful experience to pitch at SXSW alongside a lot of cool sports tech companies. Coming to the US it’s always interesting to meet people that don’t normally get cricket! You explain it with respect to baseball, instead of a pitcher it’s a bowler (laughs)!”
The type of sleeve you’re developing, have you been getting interest or queries about the potential of the sleeve for baseball?
AA: “Oh yes of course, the first reactions when we’ve explained what we’re doing with cricket is, ‘how can we use this in baseball or basketball, even golf or tennis?’
“What we’re doing is measuring your arm motion and in any other sport which there’s arm motion – which most sports have – we could move into other sports if we tweaked the feature set a little bit, things like the terminology. The phrasing and terminology specific to each sport is obviously different but the core technology remains the same.”
Tell me about the validation process for the sleeve in the last 18 months?
AA: “We started off as a university project in 2015 because Saeed Ajmal, who used to be the top ranked bowler in the world, was banned for having an illegal bowling action. We knew the rule and how it worked but we didn’t know the finer details of it. I was disheartened that Pakistan’s top bowler was getting banned for an illegal action so I started looking into the problem.
“The problem for the umpire is it’s difficult for them to tell whether a bowler is bowling within that 15-degree allowance. With your eyes you can’t tell or elaborate if it’s 14, 15 or 16 degrees. If it is deemed you have an illegal action the International Cricket Council (ICC) will get a bowler to go to a biomechanics lab and there’s only five in the world, a person would have to fly to England or Australia to get their action tested. The thing is the bowler would be tweaking their action a little bit and could get away with it. It’s difficult to show what the bowler was doing on the field will be the same in the lab as well.
“We started with the legality issue then we saw a bigger opportunity. If a bowler bowled illegally there would be no value-add for them to use the sleeve, we need to provide value for bowlers who are bowling legally so they can use it too. That’s where we saw the best opportunity in sports performance and performance analysis and we came up with different features like arm speed, arm force, how much is the arm twisting, action time, run up speed versus run up distance.
“The validation process was when we started off we wrote a research paper on the technology which got accepted at an MIT conference. In 2015 I went to MIT and presented our research, the purpose of publishing that research was to prove the accuracy of the system, this is a system which is accurate within plus or negative one degrees. The testing we did at that time wasn’t in a biomechanics lab but we were able to set up a similar system with multiple cameras, a bowler bowling and recorded that and do some post processing to get some angles from that footage and compare it to results from our sleeve as well. We did some calibration testing and tested the sensors that were being used on the sleeve and published those results. After presenting at MIT we got some exposure in the US and when we returned to Pakistan we won some local startup competitions, got some traction from there and when I graduated in 2016 that’s when we thought it would be a good idea to pursue it as a fully-fledged startup.
“The biggest challenge we faced was of product design, we were techies so had the hardware and software part figured out but the product design was really tough because if a bowler is going to wear it for three to four hours, they sweat, if a bowler bowls with a lot of force the sleeve would slip. So we had to make the sleeve seamless and comfortable but sturdy enough to stay in place. Then we were able to put in design considerations such as washability, breathability.”
You are doing some work with the Pakistani Cricket Board (PCB)?
AA: “The PCB were able to set up a biomechanics lab in partnership with a university in Lahore. We got to learn how that lab worked and do some initial, dry test runs as well. The initial test runs that we did have been really promising.
“We’ve been working with a lot of coaches as well. I’m from Islamabad and my local team is the Islamabad Leopards, one of their coaches has helped us in terms of informing what a coach wants to see in the product.”
What range of bowlers have you been able to test the sleeve with? Wouldn’t you need a cross-section of bowlers from grassroots, to club cricket up to the national level to benchmark?
AA: “Yes, we’ve been doing a lot of testing with players at the grassroots level such as local clubs and academies.
“The PCB doesn’t give freedom to the bowlers to use technology such as this on their own. A bowler who is contracted to PCB would need to have approval to test it which is a challenge that we’ve been facing.
“At the grassroots level at the clubs and academies we’ve been working extensively with many different bowling types – leg and off spinners, fast and medium pacers – a range and variety of bowlers.
“A brief example is someone like me, I’m a fast bowler and I thought I was a fast bowler until I wore the sleeve as a test on myself I found out the maximum force that I could hit was 1200 newtons. When we went to a club and tested it on a normal fast bowler they were able to get up to 3000 newtons! Nearly three times as much as me!”
Have you had conversations or feedback from any of cricket’s major governing bodies, such as the PCB, about your wearable tech?
AA: “Yes we have. We’ve met with Mudassar Nazar, Head of NCA (National Cricket Academy) from the PCB, he now heads the national cricket academy in Lahore. We’ve gotten the chance to meet him to demo the product, he wore the sleeve himself and he was really keen on the product. What they’re interested in is the PCB runs a lot of trials at junior level and what they would do is go out to assorted areas around Pakistan to scout the best talent around but it’s quite difficult to do because it requires a lot of people to travel around the country. Potentially with the sleeve players in remote areas could be bowling better than players in Lahore and the PCB would be able to see online that there is a potential cricketer out there to bring in and test out.”
The sleeve not just helps detect an illegal bowling action but bowling technique. Tell me about the potential of the sleeve as a training tool to improve technique?
AA: “We’re doing a lot of work in terms of bowling analytics.
“We can tell you about your release angles, your starting off bowling action and the angle throughout the action. If you look at the legality issue with the bowling action it’s not just about the arm angle, that’s a common misconception in cricket and something we’ve faced is that a lot of coaches don’t understand the rule properly. What they think is if someone is bending their arm at greater than 15 degrees is an illegal action, that is actually not the case.
“If you dig down into the ICC’s rules is says that your arm extension cannot be greater than 15 degrees and what that means is that the ICC defines is that once you’re in your bowling stride and your upper arm aligns with the ground that’s known as the start of your bowling action. Once you’ve released the ball, that is the release point or the ending of your bowling action. This is the window in which you would want to monitor that your arm extension hasn’t exceeded greater than 15 degrees. Let’s say at the start of my bowling action my arm is bent at 40 degrees and when I release the ball my arm is still bent at 40 degrees so that would mean my action is completely legal because I’ve made no extension in the arm, it’s remained at 40 degrees throughout.”
The product has been tested and iterated for over four years, tell me about the difficulty of getting accurate data based on the positioning of the sensors on the sleeve?
AA: “We’ve faced challenges because product design is a key part of the sleeve because that contributes to the sensors maintaining their position. A slight difference in the sensor positions doesn’t make a big difference. Of course when the sleeve slipped down a bowler’s arm that was a big problem and that would mess up the sensor readings. We were able to figure it out with our product design and working with different vendors.”
What’s next in terms of company growth and developing the product. What’s next on the horizon for CricFlex?
AA: “We got the opportunity to meet with Shoaib Akhtar who is of course was one of the fastest bowler in the world – if not the fastest ever! He got to see the product himself because if you recall he had legality issues with his arm and bowling action. Interestingly the thing with his arm is that – mine or your arm if we straightened it would be zero degrees, whereas Shoaib’s arm could go backwards, so negative degrees, which is essentially a hyperextension.”
He had a catapult like whipping action but I couldn’t remember him being pulled up for an illegal action.
AA: “There was some controversy around it because they saw that he had a medical defect in his arm which allowed his arm to go backwards and that’s allowed by the ICC. With Muttiah Muralitharan he had the opposite problem he had an angle in his arm and he couldn’t straighten it, it was already bent at a certain degree and when he bowled it gave the illusion that he was chucking or throwing the ball. Essentially he had a mechanical defect.
“In terms of growth of the company. We’re looking to raise funds to help fulfil the pre-orders that we’ve already got. We have orders from 13 different cricket playing nations and some county clubs in England.
“The next phase is we’re working on a complete platform for clubs that if you have say 50 bowlers in your club, and you’re a coach, with that platform you can see each bowler’s performance – improvement, effort, force – and we can deliver bowling analytics for each bowler within a club.”