More Luddites answered, but no scope for early adopters

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This is a sequel to my earlier post, "Why umpires should welcome technology". In case you haven't already done so, please read that first before continuing with this.

Saturday, October 2, 2004

6.20pm IST - More Luddite objections answered

Many emails poured into my mailbox in response to my last post ("Why umpires should welcome technology"), a fair number of them from people who would perhaps have laughed away the very idea of email a decade ago. I smugly thought that I'd covered all the major objections to the increased use of technology in umpiring, but I was wrong. So here are some more Luddite objections that were sent to me, with my responses to them.

I'm sorry that I can't attribute all of these, as most were proposed by more than a couple of people, and I also apologise for not replying to many of you personally. There were simply too many mails for me to reply to everyone, though I read them all carefully.

Luddite objection No. 9 - Using Hawk-Eye/other technology will lead to fewer people taking up umpiring
Peter Byrd wrote in to say, "Once technology does the bulk of an umpire's job, who will want to be an umpire? The charm will go out of umpiring." Well, I would have thought that quite the opposite would happen. The amount of opprobrium to which umpires are unfairly subjected - for mistakes detected through technology they have no access to - is already enough to scare off prospective umpires from the job. Technology will make an umpire's life immeasurably easier, by cutting down on his errors. He will be able to go about his job, of running the game out in the middle, with far more confidence.

Remember the times when a large number of umpiring errors were run-out decisions? Today, almost none are. If that hasn't diminished the umpire's status in any way, then why should the reduction of lbw mistakes?

Luddite objection No. 10 - There will be more appealing
Winston Gutkowski wrote in to say that, because the chances of getting an lbw decision upheld will rise if technology is used, bowlers will appeal more, and this will adversely affect the game. Well, umpires will still have, as they do now, a disciplinary mechanism to put an end to gratuitous or over-vociferous appealing, and no-one has advocated handing that over to technology. They will still run the game, and if you doth appeal too much, you doth get pulled up for it. Parthiv Patel will still have to watch out for Steve Bucknor, so that kind of entertainment - or charm, if you will - will remain.

Luddite objection No. 11 - Hawk-Eye will be too expensive. Who will foot the bill?
Clutching at straws, aren't you, young Luddite? Try the Super Sipper instead. Hawk-Eye is already used by most broadcasters around the world, and if the ICC regulated it into the game, it would take them around half a day to find a worldwide technology sponsor to make it worthwhile. Heck, I could do it in my lunch-break if they'd give me a commission. This is international cricket we're talking about here - the sponsors will be willing, but the will is weak.

Luddite (or Marxist? Actually, Romantic) objection No. 12 - Cricket will create an elite class then, with only international cricket using technology
Bruce Hardie wrote in saying, "One of the joys of so many sports is that the game that is played in the parks on a Saturday afternoon is the same one that will be played out by the elite in the world's great stadiums. A bat is a bat, a ball is a ball and while the quality of the items may vary, the equipment still must comply to the exact same laws of cricket. There is no way that the West Newport 2nd XI is going to have access to Hawk-Eye or a side-on camera for run-outs." And Andy Plowright writes, "It would be rather foolish to go through one's county career never being judged by Hawk-Eye and getting a bad decision for 0 one week and being given a life the week after and making a century, batting your way successfully into the selectors' eyes and then suddenly being met with technology in the Test arena."

Well, isn't that how it already is: after all, we do not have run-outs being referred to the third umpire in anything but the highest levels of the game because of the lack of television coverage. Should we abolish third-umpire referrals then? If there is a problem with the game - improper implementation of the laws because of human error - should we leave it to rot at one level because we can't fix it at all levels? I don't agree. I enjoy the little cricket I play (most incompetently, I assure you) with my colleagues, and I love it because of the contest between bat and ball and fielders. Whether the regulator of the action, the umpire, uses technology or not has no impact on the romance of the contest.

Luddite objection No. 13 - If technology really empowered umpires, as you argue, why would most umpires themselves be against it?
Simon Taufel, whom I consider the best umpire in the world, recently spoke against technology, invoking Luddite objection No. 3 - without evidence - and also added, "Technology is all about replacing the skills of the umpire and I'd like to think I've worked my way up this far to employ those skills. Why de-skill that part of the game just for the sake of an extra two or three correct decisions per game?"

His feelings are understandable, but a decision on technology should be taken with the interests of cricket as a whole, and not just that of umpires, who would naturally cavil at a reduction in their role. So when Taufel speaks about de-skilling, he is considering his own interests, which don't impact the game, its players or the fans; but when he speaks of "two or three correct decisions per game", well, those decisions that Taufel would like to keep uncorrected do impact upon the game, and can determine the result of a match, besides unfairly affecting the career of a player. It's a non-contest: I'll take the correct decisions any day.

Also, if there are only two or three decisions that are corrected, how on earth would matches be so much shorter that "batsmen would average 20 and Tests would be over in three days", as he says? Billy Bowden, another excellent umpire, made the same error in logic when he recently declared that if Hawk-Eye was used, there would be "oneor two-day Test matches," following this up with the assertion that "at the moment the statistics are saying that we get about 92% [of decisions] correct". How can both statements be true?

In other words, as in the case of Luddite objection No. 8, don't look at who is making the argument, but consider the argument itself. These ones don't hold.

Luddite objection No. 14 - Unpredictability builds character, and should not be removed
Some of the readers who wrote to me disagreed with my statement that we watch sport "to see human excellence, not human error". David Reed wrote, "The game would be dreadfully boring if no-one made mistakes. I like to see fielders drop catches under pressure, batsman get out to full tosses in crunch situations, strokes of luck that turn a game one way or the other. How one copes with all of that is the true test of a sportsman." And Umang Mittal wrote, "With Hawk-Eye giving decisions as accurate as it promises, the game departs from its roots. There's no charm in watching a robotic, cut-and-dried affair. The game is interesting because it's unpredictable."

The umpire Daryl Harper, another gentleman who excels at his job, said recently in an interview with my colleague Anand Vasu, "It [cricket] is a game played between two teams. If you really want no mistakes at all, then sure, let technology take over completely. Cricket is a great character builder."

Well, I love unpredictability too, and the error I referred to was umpiring error, not those committed by the cricketers themselves. Let us not confuse the participants, who we pay to watch, and the enforcers of the law, who are there just to enable the game to proceed as smoothly as possible. The cut and thrust between the players, the effects of pressure, excitement, tiredness, passion are what enliven the game for me. A bad umpiring decision just gets in the way of that, and builds no-one's character, though it might set back a career or decide a series. The game will remain unpredictable if umpires are empowered by technology, but in all the right ways.

Luddite objection No. 15 - How do we know that the technology is as good as it is made out to be? Isn't it too much of a risk to take?
A few people referred to an article I'd linked to by my colleague, S Rajesh, in which he had written about how, on a sunny day, the tracking cameras may get confused between the ball and its shadow. Isn't that a worry? Well, no, because as the article makes clear, the system is monitored on a ball-by-ball basis, and the mistake is corrected as soon as it happens, and if a ball has been tracked incorrectly, its reading is invalidated immediately. So there is no chance of a batsman being given out because the shadow of the ball was being tracked, and not the ball itself.

Phil Felton and Sriram Gopalakrishnan wrote in to say that no technology that claims to measure anything is perfect, and whatever minute degree of uncertainty there is in Hawk-Eye should be measured and accounted for. Well, it so happens that Dr Paul Hawkins, Hawk-Eye's creator, has offered, mainly in response to the worry about matches getting shorter, to build in an area of uncertainty into Hawk-Eye's reading, artifically creating an area of doubt, modelled on the abilities of the best umpires today. After the ball hits the batsman, Hawk-Eye would, in Hawkins's words, "model the umpire's uncertainty to produce a 'possible area' where the ball may have passed the stumps." If the entire area was covered by the stumps, the batsman would be out. If any part of it was outside the stumps, the batsman would get the benefit of this artifically created doubt.

Naturally, the size of this "halo of uncertainty", as Phil referred to it, would increase in proportion to the distance the ball would have to travel to the stumps after impact - there would be greater doubt, thus, for a batsman struck while on the front foot than for a player on the back foot.

Note, however, that Hawkins's suggestion of creating this zone of uncertainty is not meant to be an indication of the accuracy of Hawk-Eye, which is far greater than this, but merely a way to assuage skeptics who are worried about matches getting getting shorter because of more batsmen being rightly given out. If it models the umpire's level of uncertainty, you might ask, why not leave the umpire in place then? Well, because it makes sure that no batsman is ever given out lbw wrongly again. Ever. That is a huge development in the game.

Hawk-Eye is a confusing technology to understand fully, so doubts about it are natural. And while the people behind Hawk-Eye have always welcomed, indeed solicited, scrutiny, you or I have neither the access nor the resources to examine their technology or carry out empirical tests. It is up to the ICC, in the interests of the game, to expose Hawk-Eye to scientific scrutiny, and then, if it passes muster, to use it on a trial basis. There is no reason for not doing so.

It is the ICC's responsibility to make sure that the laws of the game are upheld. Umpires are, as Mike Killingworth pointed out in a mail to me, only a "means to an end". That end is paramount, and if there is a better way to achieve it - umpires + technology as opposed to umpires alone - then it is incumbent upon the ICC to examine that option, and to implement it if it works.

Some comments by non-Luddites

Neil Muller, Michael Gray and Subra Srinivasan all suggested that a simpler way to help umpires make accurate lbw decisions would be to draw a pair on lines between the stumps, so that umpires would be easily able to tell whether a ball pitched in line or not. This is an old suggestion, but I am not too sure about it, simply because unlike Hawk-Eye, this affects the players as well. Bowlers may find it a navigational aid in pitching the ball where they want to, and batsman well get help in judging which balls to leave outside the off stump. It seems to me to be a makeshift solution, like leaving a plate out in the sun to heat the food on it instead of just using the microwave.

Quite a few people also favoured a proposal that the ICC is now considering, to give the teams the right to appeal against a set number of umpiring decisions per innings, as in the NFL. Michael Higgins said, though, that the area of the game in which technology is most urgently needed is to detect chuckers. I agree with him. It is about time that we put that issue to rest as well, and determine once and for all who chucks, who doesn't, and how much straightening of the arm is permissible.

Ravi Sharma pointed out that bad decisions are not only tough on the players who suffer from them, but can also cause a law-and-order problem, as crowds react violently to a mistake that affects the side they support, and that is revealed to them by technology the umpire himself is not allowed to use. Meanwhile, Rajen Panikkar took my argument a step further than I'd dared to, and said that if Hawk-Eye stands up to scrutiny, it should be used to train and test umpires. Right. Suggest that at the annual umpires' conference, if there is such a gathering, and you'll be lynched. One step at a time.

Nuwan Kodagoda wrote to me that while he followed matches on Wisden Cricinfo through our text ball-by-ball updates, he did not have the bandwidth to avail of live video or audio. "One possible use of Hawk-Eye," he pointed out, "is to basically have the match shown online on the internet by installing a customizable 3D modelling program at the client end. All Hawk-Eye has to do is provide a stream of data, which will probably be smaller than a streaming audio-cast." That's an interesting thought, but one problem that strikes me instantly is that the data Hawk-Eye has relates only to the trajectory and speed of the ball - wouldn't you also want to see what shot the batsman played and what happened subsequently on the field?

Murali Donthireddy wrote in and pointed out that using Hawk-Eye could bring about a seminal change in batting technique. "Batsmen are coached to use their pad as a second line of defense partly in order to take advantage of the benefit of doubt," he said, and if the doubt was significantly reduced, they'd have to change the way they batted. Good, I say. What does the batsman have a bat for?

No scope for early adoptors

Neil Gordon wrote in that my arguments reminded him of "a question a professor of mine used to pose when arguing against sundry Luddites - would you like to be operated on by a brain surgeon who didn't want to use the latest technology?" And Pankaj Poddar gave me an analogy that I thought was quite apt. Pankaj wrote:

Reading about past cricketers' resistance to the technology reminded me of the times when there were no banks, when the concept of banks simply did not exist. People handled their own money, built safes and lockers buried inside walls or kept it suspended in the wells in the backyard. And when the idea of banks took birth, there was a lot of opposition mainly bordering on arguments like "How can we trust somebody else when we ourselves can handle our own money?" (Similar to "How can we trust technology when the umpire is the best judge?") And now imagine a world without banks.

The kind of resistance to technology that Pankaj refers to, and that I have written about earlier as well, is a normal response to any new innovation. How do such technologies become ubiquitous then? Well, it is thanks to the early adopters who fearlessly take it up, and once they demonstrate its efficacy and safety, the rest of the world follows. In the case of cricket, though, there is no scope for early adopters. I may want to see more technology being used in cricket, and I hope you do, too. But that decision will not be made by you or me, but by a single sports body, the ICC - and organisations run by bureaucrats and committees are always resistant to change. But I believe they'll come around eventually.

Not broken?

As many as 18 readers wrote in to say, "If it ain't broken, don't fix it." Excuse me, it is broken. Find me a match without a wrong umpiring decision, and I'll show you a rained-out game.

Amit Varma is managing editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India.

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