April 10, 2014

The problem with low catches

The cricket cognoscenti is largely eager to give the fielder the benefit of the doubt when a catch is referred. This should not be the case

Video evidence often creates doubt about low catches because of the requirements of the law © Getty Images

Mahela Jayawardene was spectacularly caught at square cover by Michael Lumb in the World T20 game between England and Sri Lanka on March 27, only to have the decision reversed by TV umpire Steve Davis upon review. Davis was universally condemned. "Absolute Shocker!!!" tweeted England Test wicketkeeper Matthew Prior. In the Cricketer's view Jayawardene "should have been caught - in fact he was caught". On the BBC the commentator Jonathan Agnew and former Sri Lanka batsman Russel Arnold were in agreement that the catch was clean. Andrew McGlashan summarised the matter when he wrote: "Steve Davis ruled there was doubt, as is so often the case with TV pictures, but on this occasion few who viewed the images could quite fathom the decision."

After the ICC released the exact footage used by Davis to make his decision, most publications shared this new information with fans without comment, but the great New Zealand batsman Martin Crowe stood his ground about the catch having been legitimate. In doing so, he touched on a deeper truth about how we watch cricket and how we view evidence in it. Before the clarifying picture became available, the episode was seen as yet another in a long list of perfectly legitimate catches denied because the video replay inserted doubt where there ought to have been none.

I was not convinced that Davis was wrong. First, I have for long been a supporter of the TV review being used extensively for low catches. Given what the current law states (Law 32 and Law 19 are both essential to fully define a catch), given that cricket is not played on astroturf, given the comparative size of the cricket ball and the adult human hand (specifically the fingers), basic geometry and physics suggest that low catches should be legally completed very rarely. It is impossible to say with confidence, unless the fingers are all together and the ball is deep in the palm, that a ball lying in two hands that are resting on a grass outfield does not touch the grass at all. For this is what the law requires in a fair catch.

As a general rule, it is reasonable to assume that a ball that is caught with the hand or hands (more likely the fingers) simultaneously touching the ground and the ball is, most times, unlikely to have been caught fairly.

This is at odds with observations often heard on commentary. How often do we hear the remark, "Everybody knows the catch was clean. Taking it to the review is always going to throw up at least one doubtful picture." This is misplaced. The video evidence creates doubt because of the requirements of the law, not simply because of the limits of high-definition video technology.

The second reason for my scepticism is that there is no reason to think that the broadcasters show every available camera angle. The broadcast is produced by a director who puts together pictures from multiple cameras. The feed viewers receive is not the same as the one available to the TV umpire. This has been the case for a number of seasons now. The ICC publishes a drawing specifying where broadcasters are required to place cameras for broadcast, and where cameras for umpires are to be placed. Here is the 2013-14 playing handbook (pdf, see p. 5.34). These layouts have been published by the ICC since 2008-09 (pdf, see p. 98).

A reasonable observer ought not to be sure that every available angle has been shown. One can understand viewers not knowing the laws and playing conditions, but surely it is not too much to expect from professional broadcasters in TV and radio commentary and press boxes? If you were the ICC and one of your employees faced the kind of ridicule and abuse that Steve Davis faced simply because the professional commentariat did not know the laws and playing conditions, how would you feel about it? The ICC's restraint has been admirable.

It has to be emphasised here that all the camera angles were not available because of editing decisions made by the director of the broadcast, not by the ICC or by the TV umpire. Not only do professional commentators and reporters (who travel from series to series, year after year) seem to be unaware of the rules, they also seem unaware, in the case of the live commentators, of the precise role their colleagues play in bringing us the broadcast and in providing pictures to the TV umpire.

It is not the case that the bias against the evidence of video replays is part of a general scepticism towards technologically produced evidence about the precise nature of events on the field. While most commentators are sceptical about the use of video reviews for low catches, there is another area in which many of these same commentators have become slavishly devoted to what the technology shows.

Since the advent of the ball-tracking animation, cricketers with vast international experience have seemingly lost the ability to judge lbws. "Let's wait for the ball-tracking prediction" is the mantra. It is the stray commentator nowadays who will say, "That looks close", upon seeing a strong lbw appeal. These days, if the ball track shows the ball missing leg stump by a whisker, and the umpire had given it out, then the umpire is wrong, without caveats.

Contrary to common perception, the ball track does not offer a prediction. A prediction is a forecast. Forecasts cannot be made about things that have already taken place. The delivery being modelled has already been completed by the time the occasion to surmise on the hypothetical path of the ball in the absence of the pad arises. The ball track offers a supposition or conjecture. Just as the umpire does. Predictions have the valuable property of being proven right or wrong by ensuing reality; this makes good predictions extremely valuable. The fact that the ball-tracking simulation is called a prediction and not a conjecture provides a clue as to why it is taken seriously to the extent that it is used to verify the umpire's original decision. Unlike in the case of the video replay, the computer model is not a record of the actual event, but an idealised virtual reconstruction of it.

Today an idealised virtual reconstruction is accepted with far greater readiness than a high-definition video replay that breaks down an actual event into hundreds of frames per second. Professional commentators and supporters of the use of ball-tracking and DRS ought to reflect on this peculiarity in their attitude to evidence in our sport, which is increasingly reliant on technology. The nicest, surest-looking picture need not be the least questionable one.

Those who are paid to explain the sport to the public and report on it have a duty to respect umpires. At the very least, they ought not to undermine them. What is remarkable about the Lumb-Jayawardene-Davis episode is that there has not been a single mea culpa, apart from Mr Crowe's (and even this did not extend to the substantive point that Davis was right about the catch), in the professional press.

Cricket deserves better.

Kartikeya Date writes at A Cricketing View and tweets here