Tax-tech is a game changer

For several years now, the Indian cricket team’s blue jersey has held fascination for many fans who do not mind spending a fair amount to buy replica jerseys in support of the team that they so love. However, the replica shirts are hardly likely to pack as many features of the jersey that the cricketers wear when they play for the country.

The design may well be similar but then it not just about fashion but also about technology. And the technology is where the team jersey would score very high. Besides the proprietary fabric, it offers the players zero distraction, multi-directional and multi-dimensional stretch for quickness along with tuned breathability that helps with temperature regulation to keep the cricketers cool.

“Over the years, the game has evolved and the need to have kits that are designed to suit the modern game has always been the priority for the team management and Nike,” says India’s most successful skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni about the team’s latest jersey. “Features like the 4D-quickness and Zero distractions will definitely help the team on the field.”

This is a far cry from the time cricketers played their sport in flannels; Or Olympic athletes turned up for competition in loose-fitting shorts, knickers – and, in some cyclists cases, simply in pants with legs rolled up – and in cotton shirts or sweat-shirts. When the Olympic Games resumed in 1948 after the hostilities of World War II, stretch fabrics made their appearance. And it was not long before synthetic fabrics – nylon, elastane/spandex/lycra etc – came to occupy centrestage.

Now, fabrics are subject to wind-tunnel tests which find that smooth, shiny material offers least resistance while stretchy, tight-fitting fabric offers an additional advantage. Some of them are made from recycled plastic bottles

To be sure, sports textile has evolved as one of the more important branches of technical textile. And now, the world is getting to see man-made fibre in fabric that is sensitive to skin wetness and to high-impact stress on joints. Come to think of it, fabric design is now such that it can sense heart rate, temperature, lactic acid, hydration, muscle coordination and other physiological data.

The material it is light weight, strong, durable, comfortable, easy to wear and low on maintenance since these are fast drying and do no need ironing.  It has a heat conductivity that assists the wearer. What’s more the textile for the modern sports outfit keeps away ultra-violet rays that can be dangerous to the skin. Besides, anti-microbial material is out in commercial space.

We also hear of smart clothing that can tracks activity like heartbeat and other vital signs. Paired up with apps, sportswear shows effort level, calories burned, steps taken, sweat level. And, we gather that there are wonderful, if expensive, socks that provide runners information about the weight distribution on their feet!

There is one sports gear maker which has embedded biological sensors in its fabric to measure electrical activity generated by muscles when they are doing anything that needs force or energy. And here’s the piece de resistance, another brand has designed clothing to help athletes maximise their recovery while sleeping. The garments have a pattern printed on the inside to reflect the far infrared waves back into the body, thus improving blood circulation.

Indeed, a world in which textiles have played an inherent role in many sport from the ancient times – the sails of ships and the ropes that held them in place to the masts are good examples – is now transforming textiles into wearable computers! It has designed performance fabric that combines biomaterials with textile design. The importance of material cannot ever be understated. Sportswear made from such material will have to survive impact, force, sweat, washing machines and dryers.

What of India? A little over four years ago, the Ministry of Textiles approved the Wool Research Centre in Thane near Mumbai, as a Centre of Excellence. It is focussing on building a high-quality research and product development of sports textiles in the country. Until we catch up with the world in research and production, our athletes will continue to sport less than optimal sportswear or buy international products.

India’s dependence on cotton and, perhaps, a misplaced belief that cotton is best for the athletes had stopped the textile hub of Tirupur in Tamil Nadu from diversifying until last year. Finally, good sense has prevailed and Tirupur firms have started evaluating the process of manufacturing sportswear and swimwear.

Talking of swimwear brings us to the revolution of 2008-09 when 140 world records were rewritten by athletes wearing swim suits that were made of extremely thin layer of polyurethane (foam-like) material, enclosing pockets of gas that made the wearer far more buoyant and helped push water away from the swimmer’s body.  These were designed with some help from NASA!

Germany’s Paul Biedermann had achieved the seemingly impossible – he had just won the 200m freestyle crown at the world swimming championship, inflicting a rare defeat on the 2008 Olympic gold medallist Michael Phelps. But inevitably the attention was the ‘rubber’ body suit he was wearing in the pool rather than on the German world record holder’s ability itself.

The suit itself may have been banned by the World Swimming Federation but sportswear makers are constantly looking to innovate with the textiles so that the athletes’ performances are optimised. And unknown to most sports fans, textile technology will have been at work deeper than the colour and design of the apparel worn by their favourite sportspersons.

 This piece was first published in Orbit, a magzine for school children.