August 3, 2013

It all evens out in the end

If you don't walk when you know you've nicked it, there's no reason you should feel aggrieved if the umpire makes a mistake (with or without DRS)

If you're happy to stay on when the umpire makes a mistake that lets you off, how can you complain if you're mistakenly given out? © PA Photos

After the first day's play at Old Trafford, I was asked to speak to a national audience on ABC Radio to discuss the Usman Khawaja incident. In my preview notes to the producer (before day two's incidents involving David Warner and Tim Bresnan), this is what I said:

"My summarised viewpoint on this is that we can't get too caught up in the seeming injustice of it. Assuming we accept that umpires are neutral and that any mistakes they make are not motivated by bias, then Australia is no worse off than any other country. It will even itself out in the long run. I can think of many examples where Australia (or any country) have benefited from an umpire's mistake. When that happens, we're quick to shrug our shoulders and say, 'Mistakes happen, it all comes out in the wash, take the good with the bad' etc.

"We've also been very vocal in our criticism of India for refusing to use DRS when they play in India. The Indians have long argued that DRS is unreliable and we've been one of their loudest critics, arguing that it is still better than not using DRS. So now, we've just got to suck it up and live with human fallibility.

"Final point: Australia pioneered the culture of not 'walking'. Nothing wrong with that. We've always believed that even if you edge the ball to the keeper, you are entitled to stand your ground and live or die by the umpire's verdict. It's now time for us to honour that code, even when the rub of the green is temporarily against us. This was inevitable - as soon as players decided not to be honest, they left the decision in the umpire's finger. We can't now whinge too much when the umpire gets it wrong, because every umpire knows that batsmen will never walk if they edged it anyway. Nothing wrong with standing your ground and waiting for the umpire's verdict but if you subscribe to that theory, you can't have your cake and eat it too when you get a rough call.

My comments above proved eerily prophetic, but to be honest, I wasn't that much of a soothsayer. I made those comments to the producer to help guide our on-air discussion and to be controversial enough to attract talkback from listeners, but I was confident that day two was always going to provide some material to support my thesis. I must confess that I never expected something as dramatic as the Warner incident to reinforce my point but the way this series has gone on dry pitches, it was a sure bet that something was bound to happen to add fuel to this fire.

Here is a link to the radio show which probably be will be live for another 24 hours. There are some fascinating conversations with listeners who call in with intelligent observations. It was not a jingoistic or unreasonable talkback radio session, possibly because at 4am only the die-hards were still tuned in!

To my first point, the old adage that decisions even themselves out in the long run will always prove true. Even in this Test, it is hard to argue that one team has benefited more than the other, taking all the umpiring errors into consideration. The cricketers themselves accept that, so it now behoves the commentators and general public to take a holistic, long-term perspective on that cycle.

Perhaps one criticism of DRS is that because of the quota system, players are now using it strategically rather than because they feel the wrong decision was made. If Bresnan was a top-order batsman (Jonathan Trott for example), he would almost certainly have reviewed his dismissal but they must have decided that it was a risky call to make for a tailender. So in some senses, the quota system is forcing teams to make decisions based on strategic imperatives rather than to eliminate every mistake. That is a flaw in the system.

The Warner case just proves the point that sometimes players genuinely don't know, even if it is bleedingly obvious to everybody else. On the television replay it looks ridiculously simple but in defence of Warner, he must surely have been sincere in his belief that he didn't nick it. There can be no other rational explanation. Why Michael Clarke backed Warner's judgement is another question altogether. Warner's judgement, on and off the field, in recent times has hardly afforded him the right to be afforded that respect. This latest dumb decision just proves the point, but I'm sympathetic to him in this instance, because he clearly made a mistake in good faith rather than good "spirits".

Whilst I still think that DRS gets it right more often than not, I have no sympathy for anyone who vacillates between the two camps

Therein lies the problem for the poor old umpiring fraternity. Admittedly they have been less than perfect this series but we still have to believe in the philosophical position that they are (a) the best available umpires, and (b) they are not biased. Assuming we subscribe to that position, we can remove any suggestion of "cheating", so we're back to the fact that everyone makes mistakes, including players. So when we have recent incidents like the Stuart Broad edge at Trent Bridge and Warner's nick last night - where players do not walk when there is a clear edge (either because they are deliberately testing the umpire or they genuinely want to believe the answer that they want to hear), that further undermines the confidence of the umpiring fraternity.

Perhaps umpires too go through their own "form cycles"; these guys may be facing a crisis of confidence in their own decision-making abilities, confounded further by a group of players who will now refuse to walk for even the most blatant edges just in case they get a reprieve. And then when the third umpire too gets it marginally wrong (as humans are wont to do in any walk of life), the pressure on the next decision keeps ratcheting up notch by notch.

The players too need to learn to be philosophical about these mistakes, because it is they (as a collective) who have created a culture where nobody walks. Yes, Khawaja had every reason to be disappointed, but unless he can claim, hand on heart, that he always walks when he nicks a fine one, his chagrin needs to be contained to that first flash of annoyance rather than a lingering resentment.

There will inevitably be those who argue that these mistakes can cost careers. Of course they can, but it has always been thus. Umpiring errors pale into insignificance when compared to the mistakes of judgement that players make, but, of course, they can make or break careers. The DRS can't be held responsible for that. Khawaja has as much right to be aggrieved as Steve Smith has to be thankful. For Smith, following twin failures at Lord's, being lbw for nought might have been terminal for his short-term career prospects, but another dubious umpiring decision reprieved him to the tune of 89 runs. If Stuart Broad was a junior bowler facing the axe, that denied wicket may have changed his career too. At the end of the day, the player's initial error (not hitting the ball in the middle of the bat as he intended to) was the first link in the chain of errors that follow, culminating in the umpire's verdict. Don't like mistakes? Hit every ball in the middle then. See, it's not that easy to be perfect is it?

A non-cricket person made an insightful comment to me yesterday with regards to the Khawaja dismissal. She said, "So he's actually annoyed that he made more of an error of judgement than he intended to?" Her point was that his initial error was that he missed the ball, so why should he be rewarded (given not out) for missing it by a bigger margin than he intended to? I smiled and had to explain that if we adopted that logic, most Tests wouldn't last a day! Fair point, though, from someone who doesn't understand the nuances of the game. I tried explaining to her that playing and missing was sometimes a skill in itself but the blank look she gave me suggested that she regretted engaging me in a conversation about a sport that she had no real interest in. As an elite tennis player, that concept just escaped her logic, and fair enough too.

India have been globally criticised for not agreeing to use the DRS in their home series and whilst I still think that DRS gets it right more often than not, I have no sympathy for anyone who vacillates between the two camps. I respect the BCCI's stance on the matter so long as it is prepared to be gracious if India lose a crucial game because of human error that would almost certainly have been reversed if the DRS was in use. Similarly, for all the other countries who strongly advocate for the DRS, they can't really complain too much so long as we're prepared to accept that any mistakes are purely mistakes and have nothing whatsoever to do with bias.

James Sutherland was careful to defend the DRS even when he asked the ICC to look into the Khawaja incident; he had no choice really, having been a staunch supporter of the system. In the case of most other countries except India, you have to be careful what you wish for (e.g. DRS) because sometimes you might just get it.

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