Playing it straight: The tech gurus changing India’s favorite sport

Every child has a pie-in-the-sky dream. Maybe you wanted to be an astronaut, a firefighter or a movie star. For Gagan Daga, he dreamt of the wide open field, the freshly cut grass and the crack of the bat. He wanted to be a cricketer.

As a tech geek, Gagan became drawn to the world of technology over the course of his career, but he never forgot his aspiration to reach the highest levels of the sport he calls “almost a religion” in his home country of India.

“It was my unrealized dream,” Gagan said. “Somewhere there was this unfulfilled desire to be in the sports industry. And that’s when I thought let’s bring technology and sports together.”

Gagan is one of the founders of Str8bat, a sports technology company that seeks to help athletes of all skill levels become better at their sport by tracking movements during play and by providing actionable insights to improve their game.

Str8bat was recently named one of the top 50 sports startups in the world by the Hype Foundation and was selected as a top 100 startup by the Karnataka state government’s ELEVATE 100 program.

Technology in cricket is nothing new: The sport has embraced technological innovations for decades, from Hawkeye to Hot Spots to Snickometer. Coaches, players, umpires and more use emerging technology to improve their game. However, these innovations are largely limited to the sport’s professional world. For the vast number of amateur cricket players hoping to improve their game, there are few options.

Str8bat’s central tenet, Gagan said, is to help both professionals and amateurs reach the top of their game. It’s egalitarian engineering for the aspiring athlete.

Str8bat’s central technology is a wearable device that cricketers attach to their bat. They play the game, and when they’re finished, they have a way to become better next time: The device feeds data to the player or coach’s phone, where they can see an animated model of their actions on the field with suggestions on how to improve.

“Cricket is played in 360 degrees,” Gagan said, noting how the bat’s angle and the player’s movement forward and back can affect the game. “We capture all of this without any cameras.”

Gagan and one of his co-founders, Ritesh Kapahi, cultivated the idea for Str8bat while attending a 2016 leadership program at INSEAD Business School. Later that year, Gagan took the plunge and quit his job as a business strategy expert at SAP to pour his heart into the project full time.

The entrepreneur may not have become a professional player, but he has stoked his passion for cricket by playing every Sunday for the last 12 years with friends and former coworkers. One of those friends, Rahul Nagar, became the third co-founder when Gagan mentioned the idea. 

“We’ve known each other for more than a decade,” Rahul said. “When he brought up this particular idea, I couldn’t stop myself from leaving everything I was doing and I just jumped and joined him. It was as simple as that.”

Rahul, a long distance swimmer, an endurance athlete and hobbyist cricketer, is a big proponent and follower of Sports Technology. He took the plunge and left his job at IBM to help build Str8bat. And as a former IBM employee, Rahul’s first choice to drive the company’s technical innovation was naturally a Lenovo ThinkPad. Str8bat uses the ThinkPad for coding and development.

“We didn’t let problems come to us because we went with what we’ve been using for years now,” Gagan said, adding that Lenovo products have “always worked better for us, so it was a no brainer for us.”

Str8bat puts the power of their technology in the hands of the athletes and coaches—literally. After playing with the wearable device on their bat, the players and coaches are handed a 3D model of the batsman’s game on a phone; the insight to improve lies in the palm of their hand, not in expensive gear or exclusive systems.

And for Gagan and Rahul, that gets to the heart of their mission: to help all people become better cricketers, not just professional athletes.

“They may not be the best in the game. They may play in their own backyard, but they still desire to play better. Str8bat makes technology accessible to all to enable them to improve their game every day. That's the change we'd like to bring to cricket to start with, and then to other sports,” Gagan said.

The team continues to improve their product by testing it in the field every three weeks and making adjustments based on user feedback. Gagan stressed that “the product never gets finished – continuous innovation is the mantra!”

But they are proud of what they have built for customers so far: a tool that will change the game of cricket forever.

Technology has been an integral part of cricket since 1990s, but only with camera-based tools that are less accessible to all players, Gagan said. Str8bat is changing that.

Gagan said. “Our vision is to help every player play better every day and chase their dream!”

 

Rahil Arora leads Lenovo’s Customer Stories Program.