Please tell us about yourself

There are those interested in a game, and then there are those who live for it. Bengaluru-born Pratheek Palanethra falls in the latter category – and his passion – cricket.

Pratheek himself started playing the game when he was very young – he was only two years old when he picked up a cricket bat. He has played for various teams and even went on to represent Visvesvaraya Technological University (VTU) and Karnataka at the state zonals.

Things changed when the mechanical engineer from RV College of Engineering, Bengaluru, went to the US in 2015 to pursue his master’s in Technical Entrepreneurship at Lehigh University, Pennsylvania.

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How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and interesting career?

Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention. Pratheek Palanethra, a city-based cricketer, went to the US to pursue his entrepreneurship masters in engineering but ended up designing and developing a cricket ball thrower that has the potential to bridge the gap between, say, a throw-down specialist and a high-end bowling machine.

While studies were a priority, Pratheek, a mechanical engineering graduate from RV College, couldn’t completely give-up on cricket. In the US, however, there was no easy access to cricket facilities. The nearest one was about one-and-half-hour drive from his place, and after a two-hour practice, he would lose almost half a day which made little sense for someone who was doing his masters.

The 26-year-old then went looking for a bowling machine to fix it in his garage but found it hard to procure one because of its exorbitant price. That’s when his engineering brain hit upon the idea of devising a bowling machine.

“I had to do entrepreneurship thesis as part of my course, and I presented this idea of making a bowling machine that runs without electricity, that is portable and something which doesn’t leave a deep hole in your pocket.

How did you approach the problem you faced?

I initially thought about buying a bowling machine for myself so that I could satisfy my cricketing hunger whenever I wanted to. I began looking up for an “inexpensive, portable non-electrical bowling machine” that I could use anywhere and just put it up and have my girlfriend operate it for me.

To my surprise, there was nothing out there that suited what I was looking for. I was amazed to find out nobody had tried to solve this problem in 150 years of cricket, or however long the game has existed.

After hours and hours of research, I found worse problems with the bowling machines that did exist on the market. The current day bowling machines are big, bulky, electrically operated, cost as much as $3,000. It’s so tough to own one of these that most individuals and teams just don’t bother. It can only be found in sports facilities and academies, and most of them are programmed to use dimpled machine balls but not actual cricket balls.

I began interviewing people about their experience with bowling machines and to my surprise, I unfortunately found that more than 80% of the world’s total cricket population had never used a bowling machine in their lifetime. This was mainly due to the fact that existing bowling machines have only ever been accessible to and affordable for professional teams and not every day cricketer’s who just wanted to play. 

From my own experience, I have seen a lot of young and talented players get lost in the crowd (especially in a country like India) because they do not have the resources to train like the professionals.

Even if they did, there are often other problems that arise in India like traffic, poverty and family pressures.  A lot of these factors cause many promising players to prematurely end their careers, dream and passion. I am a victim myself.

Coincidentally, I was working on my final semester project for my graduate studies in the entrepreneurship program at Lehigh University. The timing was perfect to start seriously thinking about solving this problem for millions of cricketers around the world who want to play cricket (or bat) either for fun or seriously in order to take their game to the next level.

Thus, a bowling machine, which is simplistic in design, that is mobile and portable, capable of throwing real cricket balls without using electricity, all at an affordable price point was born.

I started freebowler with a goal to serve the cricketing community.

I have suffered enough as a cricketer and I don’t want others to undergo the same cycle of struggles I did growing up. I aim to help every cricketer and make sure they are equipped to get enough enjoyment and satisfaction from their cricketing experience either by playing the cricket or watching the game. 

I see that there is huge demand for cricket here in the United States, however people are seemingly deprived of the game. It’s very upsetting to see people suffer without the ability to play proper cricket in this country, but there’s something that can be done to bring cricket back and fulfill the needs of the game.

My vision is to increase the popularity of cricket in the United States to make it a mainstream sport with the big four.

Cricket was, is and will forever be on my mind!

Tell us about your career path

“I was first funded by my University (Lehigh) and then Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation. After my project was over, I returned to India in July 2017, started a company named Freebowler and worked 3-4 months to sell the concept to prospective candidates. In March this year, I got a company – Matrix Sports and Fitness in Nayandahalli – that agreed to produce these machines,” recalls Pratheek.   

In a cricket-mad country where academies are dime a dozen even in smaller cities, demand for structured coaching and infrastructure has been rising. And while the bigger coaching centres and academies run by the BCCI and its state bodies are furnished with all the modern equipment to aid an aspiring cricketer’s growth, many smaller academies, especially in places outside metros, still lack proper amenities due to lack of resources to procure expensive tools.

How does your product benefit the community?

This is where, Pratheek feels, his product – called the “Freebowler Superthrower” — solves some of the limitations with the existing ball throwing aids regarding cost, portability, use of machine balls and electricity.                  

The various bowling machines used by state and national teams or in the BCCI-run National Cricket Academy cost anywhere between Rs 1 lakh and 1.5 lakh. Plus, you need synthetic balls, heavy batteries, long cords and electricity ports for it to work.  

“Superthrower, on the other hand, is simple in its design,” points out Pratheek. “It costs Rs 30,000 and is about 40” in length. It weighs around 25kgs and, more importantly, doesn’t need electricity. It can be folded up like a home gym equipment to carry around like a cricket kit,” says Pratheek.

The youngster hopes his low-tech training equipment will help all cricketers, especially women, by providing them with an opportunity to train like pros.

And in a small step towards success, Pratheek, apart from having received a order for 25 units already, has been getting hundreds of enquiries from across India, especially from the hinterland.

How the ball thrower works ?

The product is capable of throwing real cricket balls with natural variations of line and length. It has a throwing arm with the ball throwing cup on one end, where the ball is placed. The throwing arm is connected to a foot lever using a spring cable system. So the throwing arm is first pulled down and locked in place. Then the foot lever is pushed down and locked. This action activates the spring. The ball is then placed into the holding cup, and the throwing arm is released using a trigger handle which then fires the ball in the front simulating the real bowler’s bowling action towards the batsman.

Unlike the other electric bowling machine, that uses plastic-coated synthetic dimple balls, this machine enables the batsman to play real cricket balls. An electric bowling machine has rotating wheels which squeeze the ball before spitting it out of the hole. That’s why it cannot handle a sturdy cricket ball, lest it damages the threading of the ball. But Freebowler’s machine doesn’t squeeze and the ball but instead throws the ball from a throwing arm which simulates bowling action.

The ball in the cup can also be set at different angles and orientation using a knob that enables the batsman to play variations of length and swings.