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How Sorting “Surfer’s Eye” Revived Ross Taylor’s Career

About three years ago, Ross Taylor found himself struggling. What had once come easily to him, was now a huge task. Merely sighting the ball was tough – and if you’re a batsman, that’s not a very good place to be in. It couldn’t be age-related. After all, he had just broken into his thirties. It was time for drastic measures.

Hemant Buch |Cricketnext |January 28, 2019, 7:15 PM IST
How Sorting “Surfer’s Eye” Revived Ross Taylor’s Career

About three years ago, Ross Taylor found himself struggling. What had once come easily to him, was now a huge task. Merely sighting the ball was tough – and if you’re a batsman, that’s not a very good place to be in. It couldn’t be age-related. After all, he had just broken into his thirties. It was time for drastic measures.

A visit to a Brisbane optometrist followed, and he was diagnosed with Pterygium, or Surfer’s eye, a disorder of the surface of the eye that commonly affects people who spend a lot of time outdoors, especially in the sun. Eye drops were prescribed, and while they did make things temporarily better, it was clear that a more drastic solution was needed. So, under the knife he went.

Pre-Operation Eye (L) and Post-Operation Eye (Twitter/ Ross Taylor) Pre-Operation Eye (L) and Post-Operation Eye (Twitter/ Ross Taylor)

And then, everything changed. Where once he was struggling to pick up the ball, especially under lights, now, the world became clearer and sighting the ball was a breeze once again. His average in the last ten one day internationals preceding his surgery was a mere 29.28. Since his surgery (not including Friday’s game) he averages 70.81, So what changed, exactly?

Batting isn’t easy. In fact, batting is a science. Every part of the body needs to be in sync for a batsman to deal with extreme pace, swing, seam, flight, spin and turn – the tricks at a bowler’s disposal.

Perhaps the most important part of the body here though, are not the hands and the feet, but the eye. That is why batsmen routinely seem to lose form as they age, when the eyes stop being as sharp as they used to be. Someone like Virender Sehwag, for example, went from dominance to struggle rather rapidly, as his eyesight slipped.

A 90 mile per hour delivery takes less than half a second to reach the batsman from point of release. The best batsmen in the world, it is surmised, react to the ball as quickly as 230 milliseconds (or half the time it takes for the ball to reach them. For reference, a blink of eyelid is 300-400 milliseconds!) and so they have the rest of the time to get themselves into the right position to play the right shot.

The better you are, the quicker you sight and react to the ball. Now, the window for the bat to meet the ball at just the right spot is just 2-5 milliseconds. To complicate things even further, a batsman can only visually track the initial 50-80 percent of ball flight before he shifts his gaze to the predicted location of where the ball will bounce.

This entire kinematic response, which can be predicted using complex mathematical equations, actually depends on the batsman’s perception of the ball’s motion in three dimensions. This is a function of the angular velocities of the images of the ball on the retina (the light sensitive portion) of the batsman’s left and right eyes. Add to this, the inertia due to the weight of the bat itself, and the batsman’s reaction time, and it is a minor miracle that he actually manages to ever hit the ball for four or six.

(AP Image) (AP Image)

So, what are the determinants of accuracy in this spatio-temporal prediction? This intricate coordination of the neuromuscular and visual systems, depends on seven critical attributes of vision. Eye movements, binocular depth perception, visual acuity (both, static and dynamic), contrast sensitivity, hand-eye response time, accommodation (ability of the eye to focus at different distances) and glare recovery.

Keeping your eye on the ball helps an elite batsman only to an extent, since the kinematic response time doesn’t enable a reaction to it once the ball is 2 meters away. Instead, the best batsmen exhibit what is called a predictive saccade: their eyes move involuntarily (training is key) in anticipation, to the point where the ball will land, depending on the clues they derive from the bowler’s torso, arm position and seam of the ball.

This means not only must his eye have perfect vision for distance (visual acuity), it must adapt very quickly as the position of the ball rapidly changes in three dimensions (accommodation, a phenomenon that decreases after your fortieth birthday), as also, stereopsis (depth perception). Any problems with contrast sensitivity and glare will interfere with the visualization of the ball and its seam against a busy visual background, and increase the hand-eye response time. Remember all of this happens within the quarter of a second, in the supercomputer that is the batsman’s brain, resulting in magic on the field.

Ross Taylor’s pterygium, is wing-like growth of the conjunctiva that encroaches upon the cornea, causing a persistent, red, irritable eye. From the pictures that he has tweeted, it is unlikely that he was playing with very poor vision in that eye, since the pterygium was well off the visual axis. However, it is very possible that could have caused an irregularity of his cornea, giving rise to astigmatism. Astigmatism is treatable with glasses and contact lenses, and since he played without either, this could have resulted in a decreased vision for distance.

(AP Image) (AP Image)

Pterygium is also known to cause dryness of the eyes, and breaking up the tear film. This tear film is essential to maintain your quality of vision. Dry eyes, and diseases of the ocular surface, invariably affect your ability to perceive contrast and cause glare as well.

This would invariably mean a delayed response time, an inability to meet the ball at the optimal point, inexplicable (at that point) dismissals and all that he struggled with on the field. The fact that he performed better with the red ball could possibly be because sighting the seam on a red ball is substantially easier than on a white or pink ball.

Was the pterygium entirely responsible for his poor form, and is the surgery totally responsible for his upturn in fortunes? Perhaps, perhaps not. But this episode only goes to show that the usual commentary cliché “the batsman needs to get his eye in” might not be such a cliché after all!

(Hemant Buch is a media professional with nearly 25 years of experience in sports broadcasting. He currently travels the world, directing and producing cricket. While not sitting in front of a bank of monitors, he’s indulging in his other passion – photography. He tweets @hemantbuch. For this piece, he consulted Dr Shibal Bhartiya, senior consultant, Ophthalmology services at Fortis Memorial Research Institute, Gurgaon. She specialises in glaucoma and diseases of the ocular surface.)

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