India in the West Indies 2011 July 1, 2011

Randomness rocks raucously

In which a measure is proposed to introduce further arbitrariness into decision-making in cricket

MS Dhoni has had little to complain about of late. If he had eaten a fried breakfast every time he had received a trophy, an accolade or a blast of public adulation this year, he would now be the size of 18 Inzamams. However, he received a minor setback in the current Barbados Test, when a blooper in the TV umpiring box led to him being dismissed on the rogue evidence of the wrong ball.

As an Englishman, I cannot help but regret that this new strain of dismissal was not available to umpires during my nation’s dark days of Ashes humiliation in the 1990s and early 2000s. “That’s out, Hayden. Technically, you smashed that wide long hop for four, but I’m going to judge you on the evidence of the ball Warne bowled to Hussain yesterday afternoon. Out. Plumb in front. Hitting the middle of middle. On your way, sunshine. 0 for 1.”

The prancing stride of technological progress is supposed to be ridding the cricketing world of the vicissitudes of umpiring error, yet it frequently adds an entertaining element of random injustice to proceedings. Players are given out or not-out when technology suggests they were in fact respectively not-out and out, on the grounds that they were only marginally not-out and out, and therefore should remain out and not out. Players are given not-out despite technology suggesting they were definitely out, because someone in a suit somewhere doesn’t like one of the bits of technology used. Players are given out when they were clearly not-out, because one of their team-mates had earlier pretended he was not-out even though he must have known he was out. Catches are denied because the tip of an unusually curious blade of grass could theoretically have been protruding through a fielder’s fingers. And now Dhoni has been despatched back to the pavilion because someone put the wrong roll of cine film into the projector in the TV umpire’s private cinema (I admit I am not entire up to speed with what technology the ICC is using these days).

The spirit of randomness at large in the adjudication of cricket could and arguably should be extended further. The Confectionery Stall fervently believes that there should be scope within the game of cricket for a fielding team, once an innings, to decide summarily that an opposition batsman is out. This would add another fascinating level of tactical intrigue to the great game – do you save the AutomaticOutTM to dismiss the opposition’s best player as soon as he walks to the wicket, or do you wait to see whether or not he is in form, in case you need to get rid of a lesser player who is proving more dangerous on the day? In a tight game, do you hold on to your AutomaticOutTM as long as possible, saving it for when one or two wickets are left and just a few runs are needed to win, or do you play it early in an effort to turn the momentum of the match at a critical juncture? Does a captain merely use it to settle his own personal vendettas against opposition players – in a game meandering towards a draw, a fielding captain could wait until his nemesis is on 99 before calling the AutomaticOutTM and depriving his loathed opponent of personal glory, whilst running around punching the air and shouting, “Got him, got him, yes, he’s gone.”

Throughout cricket history, some umpires appear to have unilaterally applied their own version of the AutomaticOutTM, triggering innocent and baffled batsmen with a proud waggle of the finger and an internal giggle. For the sakes of consistency and fairness, the system must be formalised, and the AutomaticOutTM is clearly the best way to do this.

Of course, the AutomaticOutTM, whilst providing huge interest for spectators, players and pundits alike, would further undermine the authority of the umpire. Amidst the squibbling squabbling over the DRS, with both sides claiming to have emerged victorious and having clung on to their precious principle that some decisions should remain wrong, no matter what system is used.

Ultimately it seems inevitable that umpires as we know and intermittently love them are an endangered species. In time, they will be replaced either by omniscient robots or by grim-faced, shaven-headed, bicep-twitching, tattoo-headed nightclub bouncers employed to stop players scuffling through a mixture of intimidation and growling. Or, in an ideal world, by omniscient robot nightclub bouncers armed with flamethrowers and an overriding sense of justice.

Aside from the Dhoni controversy, the second Test has been another intriguing low-scoring game on another pitch whose jaunty behaviour might have been annoying if it was a noisy teenager on a crowded train carriage rather than a cricket pitch, but which makes for good and interesting cricket. Such surfaces may be an unintended and happy by-product of the pitifully low crowds that attend Test matches in most parts of the cricketing universe these days. Ground authorities no longer need to worry about losing gate money on non-existent days four and five if no one is coming through that gate on days one to three.

In fact, the evidence of this game suggests that, for the good of Test cricket, administrators should do absolutely everything in their considerable powers to dissuade spectators from attending Test cricket. Thus freed from the constraints of financial necessity, the groundsmen would be free to prepare pitches that produce the kind of Test cricket that spectators would happily pay to watch.

Meanwhile Alistair Cook’s England established themselves as odds-on favourites to win the 2015 and 2019 ICC World Cups by thrashing Sri Lanka in the Sanath Jayasuriya Testimonial match on Tuesday. If they can replicate the form they showed at the rain-splattered Oval – decisive and positive batting, followed by incisive bowling and sharp fielding, all leading to a thumping victory ‒ in every match of the tournament in Australia in just 45 months’ time, they will fly home with a sparkly new trophy.

New captain Cook set a blazing tempo, clattering away at a super-Sehwagian 160 runs per 100 balls at the start of the innings. Admittedly he blazed and clattered for only three balls, but he evidently inspired his troops. If he can maintain that scoring rate for the rest of his captaincy career, and, ideally, rectify the getting-out-third-ball problem that has bedevilled him throughout his current one-match tenure as ODI skipper, he will silence any press-box sceptics.

It might be a little presumptuous to draw too many conclusions from any one game – as England’s World Cup campaign proved on a match-by-match basis ‒ but it was a good beginning, particularly given that, in the Colombo quarter-final at the end of March, England had been unceremoniously heffalumped by Sri Lanka, after curiously deciding not to risk disturbing any rare birds that might have been nesting in the proximity of the boundary rope. They were aided by the fact that, unlike in the World Cup, key bowler Jimmy Anderson is no longer running in to bowl as if he has just finished a 36-hour-shift as a junior doctor in a busy hospital’s accident and emergency department.

Sri Lanka were perhaps encumbered by the fact that, whilst they showed their support for the ICC’s democratisation drive by selecting a member of parliament to open their batting, England, by unsporting contrast, did not send Cook in alongside Debbie Abrahams, the Labour MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth.

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