Michael Jeh December 8, 2010

The use and abuse of UDRS

It's clear from the first two Ashes Tests that the UDRS is still a long way from being perfect

It's clear from the first two Ashes Tests that the UDRS is still a long way from being perfect. Common sense will tell you that it was probably first conceived with the intention of eliminating the absolute 'howlers' but as the concept has been refined and debated, mindful of time-wasting issues, it has now morphed into something that is being used as a strategic weapon. Meanwhile, the really poor decisions still go under the radar, as we saw with Rohit Sharma last night, because it's not even compulsory around the world. It is indeed a curious workplace environment where some cricketers may lose (or save) their careers depending on whether they're involved in a game that includes the use of the UDRS whilse their colleagues in another country play to a different set of rules. It seems ridiculous that for a universal game administered by a global body, there is such inconsistency over such an important facet.

One can't blame captains for using the system, as it currently stands, as a strategic entitlement. It's no longer something you only use to overturn a blatantly wrong decision, but it has now become a calculated 'Powerplay' that should be used with great caution, perhaps to break up a valuable partnership or to stem the rot of a collapse or to try and get rid of the gun batsman if there's a s50/50 chance that the decision might just go your way. Clearly, umpires are getting a few of them wrong, mainly the tight calls, so unless it's going to be used for all decisions, we still risk having a system that is fundamentally flawed just because a team has already used up it's quota on those marginal calls.

The players themselves can take some of the blame for this. Michael Clarke, perhaps through abject disappointment or the act of a drowning man clutching at a serpent, saw a glimmer of hope when the umpire missed a blatant inside edge and forced England to refer a short-leg catch that was obvious for everybody to see. Well, obvious to everybody except the man in the best position - the umpire! Now, let me state upfront that I have no issue whatsoever with Clarke (or any other cricketer from any country) standing their ground and waiting for the umpire's decision if they are also prepared to abrogate ALL decision-making responsibilities to the umpire. It's when we have this "duality of morality" (as I call it) that major problems emerge and tensions can flare.

Let's consider the last two Tests in Brisbane and Adelaide; Australia (Ricky Ponting) claims a low catch off Alastair Cook on the 5th day at the Gabba. His indignant response to the decision being referred to the 3rd umpire might be understandable if Australia (in this example) were always prepared to play the game on the basis of 'player honesty'. But, as Clarke proved a few days later in Adelaide, that honour code is totally dispensable when you snick the ball, either to the wicketkeeper, short leg, silly mid-off etc. It's almost as if a catch when you’re batting has a totally different moral obligation, to a catch you claim as a fielder. Why is that? I simply don't see why there is such a difference in ethics. If you knew you nicked it, why is that fundamentally different to claiming a catch that bounced before you caught it?

Likewise, wicketkeepers are prone to appealing vociferously for a catch that they knew missed the edge of the bat, but are bound by some sort of moral code that apparently can be relied upon to kick in if the nick doesn't quite carry to them. Fielders will appeal for an lbw that clearly got an inside edge. Sometimes the initial appeal is instinctive but you know a fraction of a second later that the batsman smashed it, but I have yet to see a batsman being called back if after an umpire gives him out lbw. Again, I have no issue with accepting the umpire's verdict, good or bad, because you know that over a lifetime, things even themselves out. For that argument to hold true though, cricketers who subscribe to that theory need to accept the umpire's decision on all verdicts. Insisting that you are so honest that you'd never claim a bump ball whilst happily admitting that you would appeal for a dismissal that you knew was not out or stand your ground when you knew you nicked one to the keeper just doesn't make sense.

The other issue about the challenge system with the UDRS is that it needs to be cognisant of the fact that umpires are human too. It's human nature to make decisions in the context of what has happened before, even if that is only a subconscious reflex in the back of your mind. With those 50/50 calls, would an umpire not be influenced slightly (perhaps not even as a conscious decision) by which team has more challenges up their sleeve? For example, if the fielding team has already used up two unsuccessful appeals, is there a possibility that the next appeal might go in favour of the fielding team because the umpire knows that the batting team can still exercise their right to challenge that tight decision? Knowing it's a marginal call, the umpire might sensibly be inclined towards leaning the way of the team who haven't got any challenges left, knowing that the other team still has the capacity to appeal the decision and therefore the correct decision still remains a possibility. In pure probability terms, if he follows this instinctive logic, he still leaves the door open for the correct decision to be made because the team with the challenge still up their sleeve can exercise that option.

Perhaps umpires never actually pre-empt that sort of decision but as human beings, it must surely figure somewhere in their subconscious. Another possibility is that they might be a tiny bit peeved that Team A has actually questioned two decisions in the past (and got it wrong) so this resentment might just be bubbling under the surface and even when a decision is probably 70/30 in favour of Team A, the umpire is inclined to rule the other way and that might be the really bad decision that the UDRS was set up to safeguard against. For instance, Michael Hussey's lbw off James Anderson at the Gabba that went undetected because England had used up their challenges earlier in the game. They were a bit over-ambitious and got a few earlier calls slightly wrong including Clarke's caught behind that they are still adamant was out despite Hot Spot being inconclusive) but by missing the Hussey lbw on that third morning, the system failed a crucial test due to a strategic error rather than the imperative to get it right. Is that really why the UDRS was implemented?

The bottom line is that the UDRS is still an imperfect answer to a problem that will never go away until all players can agree on a universal code of morality. Either leave every decision to the umpire and cut out the self-righteous indignation or start truly playing according to one's conscience and giving yourself up when you know the truth. Of course there are times when players genuinely do not know when they've nicked one or grassed a low catch so the safer option might be to simply shut up and leave it all to the umpires, taking the rough and the smooth with good grace. For their part, the ICC needs to dispense with the shambolic pretence of caring about time-wasting and allow umpires to call for technological assistance whenever they wish. Clearly, the players have no intention of bowling 90 overs in a standard six-hour day so what does it matter if we lose a few more minutes to ensure we get the correct decision every time? Or take the game back to a bygone era where character was shaped by accepting the verdict with a rueful smile and a quick walk back to the pavilion, instead of the open-mouthed astonishment, and the constant shaking of the head to let everyone know that poor little Diddums has been hard done by. It's funny how they manage to keep their emotions perfectly in place when they dodge a bullet.

And when you make a goose of yourself like Clarke did the other evening, full marks for the apology and the plausible explanation but for goodness sake, don't hide behind Twitter!

Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane