Cricket: Robo-bowler delivers the Waqar factor

Technology-free for much of its 250-year-old history, cricket has nevertheless embraced bowling machines for the last 50 years. Our Cricket Correspondent disturbs the mothballs and dons his old batting gear to take on Merlin - the latest gizmo that attemp
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Low on practice and high on foolhardiness, it was with some trepidation that I went to face Merlin in the indoor nets at the Middlesex Cricket Academy in Finchley. If the name does not strike quite the same chord of fear as Michael Holding or Malcolm Marshall, its connections with sorcery and a reputed top speed of 114mph still made my blood run cool.

If this seems a tad melodramatic, let me explain. The last time I faced a bowling machine, in Adelaide some 15 years ago, it nearly broke my arm. But that was not exactly the machine's fault: the England coach, Norman Gifford, in trying to simulate the collective ire of Dennis Lillee, Jeff Thomson and Geoff Lawson, had set it to bowl bouncers around 100 mph, and one simply didn't get up as much as I'd expected. I've had something of an aversion to them ever since.

Naturally, with technology overtaking itself every few weeks or so, improvements are bound to have been made, even in the field of bowling machines. Mind you, it was not so long ago that such machines were based on those crude catapults once used to sack walled cities in medieval times, and several batsmen came close to decapitation.

Of course, Merlin, despite being in the prototype stage, is not nearly so gauche. Imagine, then, a fairly mobile - the production model will be lighter - 8ft tall fridge- freezer on wheels, with a large porthole cut into the uppermost quarter of one side.

It is from this porthole that the ball, a hard dimpled plastic one, suddenly appears, sped on its 22-yard voyage towards the batsman by four rapidly rotating polythene wheels. According to its inventor, Henry Pryor, it is this four-wheel head that gives Merlin its clear superiority over the current manual two-wheel machines which came to cricket via baseball.

Housed beneath the porthole are the guts of the beast, a complex system of motors, hydraulics and computer modules that can drive and alter the speeds of the four wheels in relation to one another. This allows subtle as well as large variations in speed, length and type of delivery simply at the touch of a button. If only talented hotheads like Dominic Cork were as easy to handle.

But if Cork's forte a few seasons ago was to swing the ball by using the shine and the angle of the seam, Merlin's achieves movement through the air by means of swerve. This is caused by side spin, much like a hooked or sliced golf shot. Given that it can also cut and spin the ball at will, too, Merlin is clearly something of an uberbowler.

The science bit over, it is on to the man versus machine contest that most of the 30-or-so-strong crowd - mainly coaches - have come to see. Occupying main billing is that Middlesex and England stalwart, Mike Gatting. First, though, your correspondent has, by dint of turning up early, the fortune to have a bat before the artificial surface and balls warm up and become less predictable.

With an amber light to tell you that the ball is loaded, and a green light to warn you it is on its way in one second's time, an early sighting is impossible and even a gentle 50mph delivery seems to be upon you before you can move.

Anticipating your opponent's actions is a vital part of every sport, and this is where the machine falls down in its bid to be human. Against Merlin, it is difficult to select a shot unless the operator tells you what the ball is about to do, which rather defeats the object of most practice.

That aside, the machine is impressively consistent and metronomically accurate. Indeed it is so mean-spirited, that the entrepreneurs behind it, Amar Sharma and John Hardy of Vanmatic, a company that produces automatic gearbox parts, should have contemplated calling it "Curtly" or even "Hadlee".

However, once I had got used to priming my bat and feet to move on the green light, Merlin became playable. Mind you, runs were extremely hard to come by and after 60 balls faced without the merest sniff of a long hop or half volley, I was about 20-1, the wicket falling to a magnificent leg-cutter that bounced steeply and took the glove.

It proved a happier outing than the one experienced by Gatting, who apart from taking several painful blows to the famous bread basket, was Waqar- ed at least three times by vicious inswinging yorkers. Being that good can have a downside, and Merlin's presence may discourage youngsters to bowl in the nets and try to become Waqar Younis themselves.

On the plus side, Merlin's consistency would make it a marvellous coaching tool for grooving certain shots or overcoming specific technical problems, something Mike Atherton worked on in New Zealand with rewarding consequences following his dismal tour of Zimbabwe.

According to its makers, this machine really can do almost anything, with the possible exception of recreating Shane Warne's wonderball and sledging the batsman. It can also be operated alone by means of a foot pedal from the batsman's end.

Its other great asset, providing there is electricity, is that it never gets tired, and even at 10 grand apiece, a pair - one for each end - would solve most counties' rising wage bills by dispensing with spinners and seamers alike. With a bit of luck it could also be modified to keep the beers cold for the batsmen and fielders. Now that would be an investment worth making.