August 12, 2013

Give the umpire a break

Despite all the criticism that has been turned on them, the on-field officials are doing a decent job

Tony Hill hasn't had a great match in Durham, but he hasn't been as bad as it's being made out to be © Getty Images

This gripping fourth Ashes Test in Durham hasn't been without small controversies, most of them focused again on the poor old umpires. Well, Tony Hill in particular. It's no secret that Hill has had a shocker in this game, but as Brydon Coverdale points out in his excellent article, he's not the first umpire to do so and nor will he be the last. More to the point, he's not the first person on the field to have made numerous mistakes in this game. Throughout this series, many of the players have been guilty of gross errors of judgement, both with bat and ball in hand as well as when reviewing umpiring decisions. Whilst Hill has had a forgettable match, his error rate may actually be lower than that of many of the players.

Yes, the Ryan Harris lbw was a shocker and that may have been a sign of a man low on confidence. But many of the other contentious ones given by Hill that were subsequently overturned were 50-50 calls. Chris Rogers' caught-behind in the first innings was close enough to not be deemed a howler. Just before that decision, Hill correctly picked up a tiny bottom edge off Usman Khawaja, so let's not forget that he got one of those tight decisions correct too.

Rogers' eventual dismissal, caught by a tumbling Matt Prior off the tiniest soft contact with the glove, barely even visible on Hot Spot, was certainly the correct decision, you could argue. If you have doubt (which Hill must undoubtably have had), give it not out. So that decision too was not an unreasonable one.

When it comes to the players themselves making mistakes, the current DRS ratio for the series stands at roughly 32 to 10 in favour of the umpires. By this, I mean 32 reviews that the players asked for were "struck down" compared to ten reviews that were "upheld". Admittedly these numbers can be skewed somewhat, considering incorrect umpiring decisions are sometimes not reviewed because teams have used up their quota (e.g: Stuart Broad edging Ashton Agar at Trent Bridge) but in the interests of fairness, there may also be a fair number of decisions that were not reviewed by the players (when replays indicated they should have; e.g. Kevin Pietersen's lbw at Lord's, when Australia missed the opportunity to ask for a review off Shane Watson's bowling), which reinforces my proposition that players sometimes get it wrong even when they have the most to gain from it (e.g. Tim Bresnan's dismissal in the first innings at Lord's). A three-to-one ratio of judgement errors in favour of the umpires is a telling statistic, even allowing for the other factors that may confound these numbers.

My point is that the players are equally bad (perhaps worse) with their accuracy and judgement, even when they are often in the best position to know. Dave Warner's nick in the Old Trafford Test and Brad Haddin's decision to review his lbw in the first innings in Durham were but two examples that spring to mind. Broad was equally lacking in judgement when he convinced the captain to waste an lbw review on Rogers; it was clearly pitching outside leg, even to the TV viewer at first glance. (Yet another correct decision that Hill made, although this was so obvious that he would have surely been pilloried if he had given it out.)

Commentating in the Carribbean Premier League, Simon Doull made the sage observation that all too often the replays show umpires getting it right and players getting it wrong, even when their body language and histrionics are clearly designed to create the impression that the umpire is blatantly mistaken. Some of that might just be natural human disappointment, or genuinely believing the outcome that you want, so I'm not suggesting any sinister intent to undermine the umpire. The bottom line, though, is that the on-field umpire gets one fleeting moment to make a decision that his colleague sitting up in the pavilion (and those of us watching television) needs multiple, frame-by-frame replay viewings of before he can make a decision, which is often still inconclusive.

Okay, some will argue that the umpires are in the best place to make a decision, especially for lbw verdicts. That's probably fair enough but there is also a valid argument that if players sometimes don't know what happened, though they were the ones closest to the action, how can we expect umpires to get those 50-50 calls correct? If a batsman can't feel an edge as obvious as the one Warner edged at Old Trafford, can you blame an umpire for perhaps getting it wrong from the other end of the pitch? If Haddin, who knows what guard he was batting on, can't tell if he was hit plumb in front, surely we can cut the umpire some slack if he got it wrong too (not that Hill made a mistake with this decision, by the way). Bowlers know whether they intended bowling the inswinger or arm ball, so they have as much knowledge about the intent of the delivery as the umpire does - if not more - when he judges the outcome. And we've seen that bowlers get it wrong more times than umpires when they demand a review (or appeal with utter conviction) for a decision that is clearly not out.

When the third umpire makes a blatant error, that is less forgivable. He at least has the benefit of multiple replays, angles, and the most important thing of all - time. Crucially, he has the massive luxury of being able to assess all the evidence (sight, sound, Hawk-Eye, Hot Spot) with as much time as he needs to make the right call. Even with those privileges, who amongst us can honestly say that we've never had any doubts after we've viewed these replays? There are always some decisions that remain doubtful and no amount of scrutiny eliminates that doubt. Imagine then trying to make that decision in a split second.

Since the Trent Bridge Test, I've tried to pretend that I'm the umpire, to see how many decisions I got correct, at first glance and then also after watching the replays. Perhaps it speaks to my lack of skill but my ratio of correct decision-making is no better than the 3:1 managed by the players who are actually on the field. My superior viewing angle (behind the umpire) is balanced by the fact that as a non-player, I don't get to feel the edge or hear the nick from close quarters. I consider myself an experienced cricketer with reasonable eyesight and good hearing, and I'm still making way more mistakes than the umpires, who have to be constantly alert for no-balls and all manner of other things (bad light, session times, weather, player behaviour, sightscreens, ball-tampering, over rate).

I never thought I'd see the day when I became an apologist for umpires! My semi-retirement from club cricket is almost entirely due to the poor quality of umpiring over the last few seasons, most of it relating to a complete lack of consistency and basic knowledge of the rules (like about balls pitching outside leg), or of enough cricket-savvy to realise that a left-arm seamer bowling round the wicket and wide on the crease will struggle to get an lbw against a right-hand batsman.

I once played in a grade final that got down to the last wicket in the fourth innings of a four-day match and the umpire refused to give any decisions, actually admitting that the game was too close and that he didn't want to make a decision, having made plenty of other tight decisions for 99% of the rest of that game. It's that sort of muddled thinking that I deem "poor umpiring", not the sort of calls (Harris' lbw notwithstanding) that the unfortunate Hill has got wrong in Durham.

So the next time I watch an international match and curse the umpire, I'm going to take a deep breath and ask myself whether I could have made a better decision in that split-second moment. I'll reserve my wrath instead for the third umpire when he gets it wrong!

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

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