The ‘Merlyn by BOLA’ spin bowling machine – a development project by Stuart & Williams (BOLA) for the England and Wales Cricket Board – has been greeted with praise and enthusiasm by professional players and coaches alike.

“What an awesome piece of kit,” enthused Andy Hurry, Somerset CCC Head Coach. “The boys have loved it and in only a few days their game against spin has improved noticeably.”

Geoff Cook, Head Coach of Durham described the Merlyn as a, “fantastic addition to the Bowling Machine range,” and Kent Captain Robert Key said, “this machine will have a huge effect on English cricket and the way we play spin.”

Merlyn by BOLA’ is a state-of-the-art machine that delivers programmable, spinning balls, of every imaginable variety. It really has had everyone in a spin!

The ‘Merlyn by BOLA’ project was conceived at the request of the ECB who were searching for a means to extend the experience of first-class players against top class spin bowling. After receiving a design proposal and viewing a mechanical prototype of the concept the ECB ordered twenty of the new machines but insisted on a very specific set of performance criteria.

The mechanical principle of the machine is relatively simple and is fundamentally derived from a BOLA development project of more than a decade ago. The development was not pursued at the time because of the questionable viability of a machine that would only bowl spin.

'This machine will have a huge effect on English cricket
and the way we play spin'
- Kent Captain Robert Key

In 2005, after more than 15 years of development work, engineer Henry Pryor successfully aided the historic England 2005 Ashes victory with his innovative and complex bowling machine called Merlyn.

Pryor’s original machine proved too complex to be financially viable but it had convinced international players and coaches, at the highest level, that a machine could bowl realistic and challenging spin.

Henry Pryor realised that it would be necessary to simplify his mechanism and following a design discussion with BOLA manufacturer Nye Williams the ‘Merlyn by BOLA’ project was born. The ECB’s involvement provided the financial catalyst that had been required to develop the concept and finally a fully automated Spin Bowling Machine was produced.

It took nearly two years of intensive research and development by Stuart & Williams (BOLA manufacturers) to produce the new spin machines and one has now been delivered to each of the first-class Counties and two by the ECB National Cricket Performance Centre at Loughborough.

The knowledge and experience gained from 25 years of making ball throwing machines of all types has enabled Stuart & Williams to produce an extremely user friendly and useable spin machine. The accuracy of the machine and the sophisticated electronic control package combine in a unique way to give the coach complete control of the spinning delivery.

All BOLA Bowling Machines can produce spinning deliveries but the axis of rotation of the head of a standard BOLA limits the spin options. ‘Merlyn by BOLA’ provides the coach with the flexibility to deliver any combination of leg-breaks, off-breaks, top spinners and arm balls that he or she requires. The ‘easy to use’ switch panel allows complete control of line, speed, flight and the amount of top spin and side spin imparted to each ball.

“The spin variations on the new BOLA are very, very good. They are subtle and keep the batter on his toes. Because the variations are so subtle they help you hone your ability to predict the length of a
spinning ball,” said Rob Key. “I have learnt some new attacking options against spin from playing against the machine.”

“Traditionally we haven’t been great at playing spin in England,” said Geoff Cook. “The new machine provides players with a realistic testing workout. It allows us to produce repetitive spinning conditions indoors. It can turn the ball much sharper than a human bowler.”

The laser sight for machine positioning relative to the stumps and the simplicity of the Control Panel allows the operator to set-up quickly and navigate through the menu driven software (the menu design is very similar to a mobile phone and simple to use).

"The Machine can get the ball to spin more than a spinner so we can overload the training which means batsmen will face tougher conditions than they would face in a match," said David Parsons, the ECB's Performance Director.

“Human bowlers struggle to turn the ball especially on indoor surfaces. The BOLA is a much greater challenge,” said Rob Key. “I had to have the amount spin turned down because it was turning square!”

Merlyn by BOLA’ can deliver any type of ball of the right size but is especially effective when using leather cricket balls.

“It’s great that you can put cricket balls through the Merlyn. Watching the revolutions of the seam is how the batter gets his first ‘tell’ on what the ball is doing,” commented Rob Key.

Steve Rhodes, Worcestershire CCC’s Director of Cricket, agreed with Rob he said, “The batters don’t get any clues from the wrist or fingers of the spinner when they play against the Merlyn. It makes them look really closely at the revolutions on the ball.”

“The essence of playing spin is to be very precise. The accuracy and the sharp turn produced by this machine accentuates the need for players to be precise. It will definitely improve the play of English batters against spin,” added Geoff Cook.

The ‘Merlyn by BOLA’ incorporates a 28 ball Auto Feeder and traffic light ball release indication. The machines were supplied complete with Machine Stands which allows them to be easily moved/stored as well as providing the operator with a safe and stable platform.

All the various spin functions are programmed in the factory but the ‘Merlyn by BOLA’ also has a USB interface. In the near future coaches will be able to input different bowling programmes from a laptop computer. It is also expected that the machine will be programmable to mimic specific overs or even spells.

Rob Key summed up the benefits of Merlyn by BOLA to English cricket: “Playing against spin bowling indoors can be very dull and gets the batter into so many bad habits. English bowlers can’t really turn it indoors and batters get used to hammering skiddy lifeless bowling but, of course, it’s a different matter when you get outdoors and the ball turns.”

“The first decent leg-spinner I ever played against was Shane Warne when I was nineteen or twenty years old. It was a complete mystery! But now young players will have the opportunity of getting some experience against top class spin bowling before they have to face it.”

The ECB have posted an interview with Leicestershire’s James Taylor and featuring Merlyn on ECB

Coach Simon Willis (left) and Robert Key (right) in the Kent CCC indoor school with the
County's Merlyn by BOLA.

To see Merlyn by BOLA on Cricinfo please click here

  David Parsons ECB Performance Dirctor (left) and Elite Player   Development Manager John Abraham with Merlyn by BOLA.