September 14, 2013

Let the umpire call it

Sahil Dutta
These days being consistent is valued more than making the right decision. It's time we backed umpires to use their discretion when it comes to issues like bad light

In the 2000 Karachi Test, the umpires were in part responsible for ensuring a thrilling finish © Getty Images

What makes a good umpiring decision? Thirteen years ago England were chasing an unlikely late-evening victory, against Pakistan in Karachi, in light that was manifestly poor. Conditions were unfair to the fielding team, who couldn't see the ball, and dangerous for the batsmen. Yet the umpires - Steve Bucknor and Mohammad Nazir - got approval from the batsmen and stayed on. Their reasoning was that Moin Khan, the Pakistan captain, had deliberately wasted time and so had no right now to complain.

Last month Michael Clarke's self-indulgence combined with Kevin Pietersen's to gift a capacity crowd a stirring Sunday-evening finish. A middling Ashes series was set for a spectacular denouement. Yet with the climax in sight, the umpires pulled the plug on the party and sent everyone home four overs from the finish. Why? Because the light had dipped below a benchmark level.

In Karachi the umpires used their common sense. Strong-willed and sensible, they spat on the rule book but ensured a fair and memorable result. At The Oval the umpires were consistent. The precedent was set earlier in the series and no matter the context, rules were rules and needed respecting.

It seems that when it comes to umpiring, you can have consistency or common sense but you can't always have both. Our inability to decide which we prefer means umpires get berated for making the wrong decision and similarly pilloried for making the right ones too.

Whether Saturday league cricket or a Test match, players at all levels often seem to value umpiring consistency more than correctness - the odd decision may go wrong, so the thinking goes, but it is forgivable if the reasoning is consistent. At the highest level that demand for ever more consistency, though, has meant stripping umpires of the ability to exercise their judgement in the way Bucknor did.

By necessity rules are written in the abstract and when put into practice may not be appropriate in every situation. Because cricket sprawls over five days and encompasses so many variations and contingencies, its laws are incredibly intricate and open to interpretation.

It is this ability to tailor the laws to the situation that makes umpires so important. Bowlers, for example, normally have enormous leeway for wides in Tests, but on the exceptional occasions when a chase enters the final afternoon, it makes sense for umpires to intervene and tighten up the margins. Though not necessarily consistent, few would deny its appropriateness.

Yet the more professional cricket has become, the more players' demands for consistency have been met, and the more umpires have been robbed of authority and discretion. Andy Flower, for instance, suggested after the Oval Test that there could be a universal benchmark for bad light. This would clarify any grey area but reduce the umpires' role in the matter to meter readers. And could a one-size-fits-all approach really cope with the nuances of every situation? Absolutely not.

The DRS is another area where umpiring judgement has been curtailed. The system was introduced to account for the outliers (howlers) that human umpires will occasionally make. Given that players and spectators will use all technology available to judge the quality of umpires, the officials deserve similar resources. By demonstrating just how many deliveries can go on to hit the stumps, the DRS has also helped even the balance between bat and ball and bring fingerspin back into the game. For that it should be celebrated.

The trouble is that by forcing players to decide when to use technology, it necessarily becomes tactical. It is that marginal use of the DRS that too often makes a mockery of umpires. Reasonable decisions get overturned, and umpires are reduced to go-betweens in a process dictated by players and the technology. Not only does that needlessly undermine umpires, it means reviews can get used up on marginal calls while being unavailable to correct the really poor decisions.

Better would be to give the third umpire three opportunities an innings to review what he considers to be howlers. The existing protocol for suspected edges makes a sound place to start. Through consultation with the third umpire, the on-field official gleans all information and then decides whether to change the original decision. Like in rugby, the officials' reasoning could be explained live to the public and players, and their authority upheld.

The Ashes summer was marred by some extraordinarily poor umpiring, especially by the third umpires. There is, though, no legislating for such incompetence and neither should there be. Professionally trained, well-paid and well-rested umpires must be trusted to make good decisions. Their independence also allows them to safeguard the wider interests of the sport in a way players cannot.

When empowered, umpires would then be in a better position to act in other areas of the game. The scandalously poor over rates could be tackled with much stronger umpiring. Similarly, the issue of low catches being obscured by camera-lens shortening, which often leads to the wrong not-out decision being made for the sake of consistency, could be resolved by on- and off-field umpires collaborating to try to make more positive judgements more often with clear explanation.

No matter how hard they strive, cricket's administrators can never deliver faultless decision-making. Broadcasting technology has helped, Elite umpires too, but the game is just too peculiar to guarantee perfection. Yet in a choice between more rules telling umpires how to act, or more trust in them to do what's best for the game, it's the umpires who should be supported.

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • indian cric on September 17, 2013, 2:55 GMT

    whats with steve bucknor and the asian teams? He always ends up on the wrong side of the asian folks.

  • Wadood on September 16, 2013, 15:45 GMT

    DSR gives us a peace of mind, more thrill and action and shows how horribly wrong umpires in general were. The few mistakes of DSR are incomparable to a bagful that was the norm in every series, leaving a bad taste.

  • dexter on September 16, 2013, 15:42 GMT

    Here we go again with the case of going one step forward and in this case 10 steps backward down in Babylon. People in case you have not noticed their are more important issues plaguing the game that is greater than the DRS issue. Why are these people (ICC) continuing to focus on these trivial issues that are so pointless. Zimbabwe cricket is in financial crisis, so is New Zealand, and Pakistan who may never be able to host a tornament on home soil again, these issues are far more important. An umpire is not a player and so he should not be the deciding factor of any cricket match, the DRS is good for cricket it shows the sports ability to grow with the ever increasing use in this technological world, the suspense of having the fans wait for the third umpire's decision all these things make the game even more nail biting. Somebody pleeeeeeease help these stone headed men to deal with the real issues of the sport and stop spending money and time on insignificant issues.

  • Dummy4 on September 16, 2013, 12:23 GMT

    Self indulgent, long winded. No real point just swinging both sides of the fence. This article does not belong in the cordon, fine leg to fine leg Im afraid. Players bend the rules to their advantage, umpires must be impartial and consistent no matter the game situation.

  • michael on September 16, 2013, 12:03 GMT

    This author has no clue about the accuracy of technology and the built in inaccuracies of the human body. Technology has shown repeatedly that umpires' decisions when borderline are more than 60 % wrong with a lot more in the grey zone called "on field decision". Wrong decisions can hurt players' careers and earnings and we should clearly support what gives the MOST CORRECT decisions and that id DRS complete with Hot Spot and Snicko. This has brought the accuracy up to at least 95 % and that is a vast improvement. Fix the problems with poor 3rd umpires as well.

  • Dummy4 on September 15, 2013, 13:34 GMT

    Why don't these facebook walas introduce a dislike button too... Wrong precedences like the Karachi test should not be mentioned to support umpires... Yes! Umpires should be supported but not at the cost of justice...

  • No featured comments at the moment.