March 10, 2009

England in West Indies, 2008-09

Why the referral system may be written by monkeys

Andy Zaltzman


The referral system’s effect has largely been to overturn correct decisions and uphold wrong ones © Getty Images
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A potentially nerve-jangling end to this largely drab series will certainly make a refreshing change, if only through having a day’s cricket in which the main talking point will be cricket, not the accursed referral system.

To those uninitiated in the arcane, murky and incomprehensible processes of top-level sporting administration, the referral system appears either to have been myopically conceived, or to have been based on some cast-off pages found in the recycling bin of a special ICC room containing in Dubai an infinite number of monkeys with an infinite number of typewriters attempting to write a three-volume anthology of poems about David Boon.

The system is as confused and incomplete as a dog without a head, its obvious and easily remediable flaws exacerbated by umpiring that might as well have been carried out by the same bonceless pooch.

Daryl Harper has appeared to be umpiring a different game to the one taking place in Trinidad. (In fact, the closest match I have found based on the pattern of his decision-making suggests he has been hallucinating a Test between Australia and India from December 1967 in his hometown of Adelaide, and officiating, quite well, on that instead. When he gave Strauss not out after an edge to Ramdin that was both audible and visible, he thought he was turning down a caught behind appeal from Graham McKenzie against Farokh Engineer (correctly, as it happens – Engineer’s bat brushed the ground and wicketkeeper Barry Jarman only half appealed). Whether or not Harper attended this match, watched it on television, or listened to it on the radio, remains a matter for conjecture, but it clearly lodged in his subconscious and is now seeping out at an awkward time. And the only explanation for Aleem Dar failing to overturn the indecision was that he was understandably distracted by an escaped rhinoceros rampaging around the umpires’ room.)

The referral system’s effect has largely been to overturn correct decisions and uphold wrong ones. Why the predictive element of Hawkeye is not used is, frankly, a baffling piece of cricketing Ludditery. If the technology is trusted to track the ball accurately to the point of impact − the difficult bit, requiring complex and highly advanced equipment – why not allow it to complete the task by then predicting the remainder of a parabola – the scientifically simple part, requiring some a computer or a bendy ruler?

Science, the coquettish little vamp that she is, can predict for us where comets are going to be in 200 years’ time. I think the ICC could unleash science’s smart-arsed power to compute where a cricket ball would almost certainly be six feet from where it last demonstrably was. As it is, the TV umpire is being shown the ball’s path to impact, but then being forced to guess what happens next. In my experience, in matters of science, science will generally take more accurate and better informed guesses than guesswork. Which partially explains why I have never won a Nobel Prize for physics, whereas several physicists have.

There seems no reason why, within a couple of years, a properly managed combination of Hawkeye, Snicko, Hi-Motion and Hot Spot (coincidentally the names Tiffin, Harper, Dar and referee Alan Hurst use when they’re pretending to be a hip-hop group whilst warming up before the start of play) could not be able to produce a close-to-definitive verdict on most appeals within 30 to 40 seconds. Furthermore, with the Strauss non-dismissal yesterday, an elementary psychologist, or parent, could have taken look at the England captain’s face and told the on-field umpire that the batsman was at least 135% out.

At the moment, the half-use of only some of the available technology is tantamount to using the latest electronic medical equipment to diagnose an illness, then asking a child with a pair of scissors and a plastic stethoscope to perform the operation. If I may exaggerate wildly to make a point.

COMING SOON: The Confectionery Stall Review Of The Series, and, following on from The World’s Dullest XI, the Confectionery Stall World’s Most Unpredictable XI.

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Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer

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Posted by Ananth on (April 1, 2009, 17:17 GMT)

As flawed as the referral system may be, its better than before; because some absolute shockers can be avoided. However I totally agree with you when you say that stuff like hawkeye, snicko, etc. should be used as well. Technology may not be foolproof, but is certainly a lot more reliable than umpires. For one, hawkeye and the others are impartial, and more importantly, they are seen to be impartial. Even though hot- spot hasn't recorded obvious nicks a couple of times, I'd say that so far, hot-spot has a higher success rate than any umpire; even Simon Taufel. But I'd still have umpires, who should be encouraged to go upstairs if there's enough doubt, with a sort of refined referral system with the third umpire having access to everything ranging from hawkeye to the hot-spot.

Posted by mo-ha on (March 23, 2009, 11:17 GMT)

interesting that Bucknor had three decisions overturned after referrals during the Newlands test. Is just chance or is it at all possible that the system will impact on umpires'first time success rates? Will umps be less willing to make the hard decisions, knowing that they will probably be referred anyway? Does this put the batting team at a disadvantage?

Also, regarding hip-hop crew member hot-spot, did anyone notice that it was caught spotless on a couple of occasions when the ball was obviously nicked?

Posted by Balaji on (March 18, 2009, 9:24 GMT)

Science is a dangerous toy which has to be handled properly. ICC is messing with it!

The cricket coverage media doesnt want to improve the technology that are available, may be because they are costly or may be because the controversies emerging from the field are more revenue generating than a simple correct decision!

Posted by Yash on (March 16, 2009, 8:40 GMT)

Here's my take on the referral system.

I believe the third umpire should only be used for referrals. All decision, including runouts and stumpings, should be taken by the on-field umpires. If the fielding captain or the batsman feels that the decision was wrong, then he can have it referred. This will probably stop people from going to the third umpire every time there's a direct hit, even though the batsman might be a foot in/out.

The only other use the third umpire can be put to is those pesky boundary "did his foot touch the rope" decisions.

Posted by Hunter on (March 12, 2009, 21:30 GMT)

The hawkeye system was tested in Australia and shown to be correct 999 times out of 1000 at predicting whether the ball was going on to hit the stumps. The umpires are about 50-75% accurate by comparison.

Posted by Arun on (March 12, 2009, 20:55 GMT)

I'd be really careful using that simian reference, Mr Zaltzman. People have got into a lot of trouble over it. You might find Harper and co. not turning up for their umpiring duties, choosing to go fishing instead. You too might be affected, finding yourself overcome with an uncontrollable urge to slap other people. I'd recommend using critters from other families in the animal kingdom.

That said, I agree with you on the issue of predictive hawk-eye. The issue is not if hawk-eye is 100% accurate - it can't, it's a mathematical model - but whether it's more accurate, precise and consistent than a human. Easily proven using statistics. As far as the delivery to Strauss goes, that freak delivery would've hit Strauss's pad way outside off-stump. Typically, umpires wouldn't give that out. That ball would've never taken a wicket had it struck the pad.

At the moment, telecasters have no responsibility to caliberate hawk-eye. If it is used to make decisions, they need to. Is it that hard?

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andy Zaltzman
Andy Zaltzman was born in obscurity in 1974. He has been a sporadically-acclaimed stand-up comedian since 1999, and has appeared regularly on BBC Radio 4. He is currently one half of TimesOnline's hit satirical podcast The Bugle, alongside John Oliver. Zaltzman's love of cricket outshone his aptitude for the game by a humiliating margin. He once scored 6 in 75 minutes in an Under-15 match, and failed to hit a six between the ages of 9 and 23. He would have been ideally suited to Tests, had not a congenital defect left him unable to play the game to anything above genuine village standard. He writes the Confectionery Stall blog on Cricinfo.

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