Why umpires should welcome technology

Amit Varma

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Monday, September 27, 2004

9.00pm IST - Save the men in white coats

An old college friend of mine, Mohammad Rahmatullah (or Jewel as we used to call him), who's now an economist in Japan, has written in to say, "In the last few weeks you have written almost on all the categories related to cricket: cricketers, fans, journalists, selectors, commentators and broadcasters. Now only umpires are left ... looking forward to reading your blog."

Can't turn down an old friend, can I? And the time is apposite. The ICC seems serious about reforming umpiring: it tried out a couple of interesting innovations during the recent Champions Trophy, and it is now considering a proposal to allow teams to appeal against three umpiring decisions per innings, giving captains the right to refer the decisions to the third umpire. These moves have created controversy, and plenty of cricket thinkers more illustrious than my humble self have slammed them. Let us not destroy the charm of the game, they have said, cricket needs the human element. Let the umpire stay in charge in the middle.

Well, I'm in favour of using more technology in umpiring decisions. And I'm also in favour of keeping the umpire in charge of the game. And those two positions are not contrary. It is wrong to look at the issue in terms of technology replacing umpires; think of it, instead, as technology empowering umpires. As I wrote in an essay ("It's about empowerment") a few months ago, technology has always been deemed by some as a threat to humans, but has invariably proved to be, instead, an aid to them. And umpires these days need all the help they can get.

You have to feel sorry for modern umpires. Like selectors, they are only spoken of when they do something wrong, and the brickbats they receive at such times is often out of proportion to the difficulty of their job. And they are judged using technology to which they themselves do not have access. That is unfair, especially when much of the technology available is reliable, and will cut down on umpiring errors, thus doing justice to the players' efforts on the field.

As the title of this piece makes clear, I am in support of using technology to aid the umpire. I am especially a fan of Hawk-Eye. The majority of umpiring errors happen with regard to lbw decisions, and Hawk-Eye would eliminate most of them. Among cricket fans - and certainly among cricket writers - I am in a minority here, as most people are against both Hawk-Eye and the use of more technology in umpiring decisions. I've enumerated below some of the standard reasons I am often given for such a stand, with my response to them. (And I can bet that if you are reading this in 2014, you will think that I am stating the obvious.)

Luddite objection No. 1 - The technology is not good enough
If this were true, it would, obviously, put an end to the debate. Yet, can it really be made against the technology that is being considered for use in umpiring decisions? I haven't yet heard a single objection against Hawk-Eye that has pointed out a technical defect in it. Hawk-Eye is built using the same kind of predictive technology that is used in missile-guidance systems and instrument guidance for brain surgeons - extreme accuracy at both macro and micro levels - and has come out with flying colours in the empirical tests that have been carried out to judge its accuracy. (My colleague, S Rajesh, laid to rest some misconceptions about it in this piece, and you can visit Channel 4's Hawk-Eye site and Hawk-Eye's own site to better understand how it really works. Rajesh also spent some time with the Hawk-Eye crew during the recent Champions Trophy final, and got to examine the technology at close quarters - something its detractors do not bother to do.)

If the technology represents a net improvement on what the umpire can do, there is no cause to reject it. But as an objection, it is not enough to merely say that it is not good enough, its flaws must also be demonstrated. No technical flaws have yet been pointed out regarding Hawk-Eye.

Luddite objection No. 2 - But Hawk-Eye cannot do [insert list here]
There are a litany of things that Hawk-Eye cannot do, such as factor in the effects of late swing that would have come into play if the ball hadn't hit the pads, and translate Homer into Arabic while humming Pearl Jam songs. The thing is, umpires cannot do these things either. In the context of lbw decisions, whatever the umpire can do, Hawk-Eye can do better. (And if it can't, feel free to write in and tell me what it is; reasoning please, not rhetoric.) And that is all that is pertinent. Hawk-Eye is not perfect - but it is an improvement.

Luddite objection No. 3 - Matches will end sooner if technology is used
This one comes up particularly with reference to Hawk-Eye. The Luddites complain that more batsmen will be given out, teams will be out for low scores, and matches will never last the distance. Well, even taking into account that the number of batsmen given out wrongly will sharply decrease, it might be true that matches will be shorter - though no-one has yet done a study on by how much. After all, the benefit of doubt always goes, in theory, to the batsman, and as the amount of doubt goes down, more batsmen will be given out. But if they are out to begin with, then what is wrong with that? Isn't optimal application of the laws of the game the ideal that we should strive for? And if that makes matches too short for anyone's liking - an unlikely event - shouldn't the laws then be amended, instead of the current laws not being implemented properly, as is happening?

Luddite objection No. 4 - Technology will slow down the game
While this certainly did happen in the case of third-umpire run-out decisions - and no-one seems to mind that or call for their rescinding, because the benefit to the game is palpable - new technologies would not slow down the game at all. For example, we don't actually need television replays to use Hawk-Eye; what we see of Hawk-Eye on TV is just a visual interface for the broadcaster - the umpire would simply have a Hawk-Eye hand-held device with him that would indicate, after every delivery, the line the ball pitched on and whether it was hitting the stumps or not. Other elements, like whether the batsman got an inside-edge, or wasn't attempting a shot, would still be determined by the umpire. And use of technology like the Snickometer and being wired to the stump microphone would help him achieve greater accuracy on detecting edges. Hawk-Eye-assisted lbw decisions, thus, would be virtually instantaneous. And the umpire would have the option of over-ruling Hawk-Eye, the same way tennis referees can over-rule line calls.

Luddite objection No. 5 - The umpire is in the best position to make the judgments he is asked to
Well, the umpire is certainly in a better position to judge an lbw than, say, a fine-leg fielder. But where he stands is imperfect in an absolute sense, and opens him up to all kinds of errors that technology can correct. For example, as Hawk-Eye's creator Dr Paul Hawkins points out in this piece, the ideal position for an umpire to judge the height of the ball is actually a sitting position, with his head level with the top of the stumps. Standing as high above the bails as he does makes him susceptible to the parallax error, and raises the possibility that batsmen will be given out leg-before to balls that would have gone over the stumps - a common mistake, as it happens. He is also susceptible to all kinds of optical errors, such as the motion-bounce illusion, which I've written about earlier. The umpire is in the best position that a human can be - but to edge towards perfection, he needs technology.

Luddite objection No. 6 - Technology takes away the human charm of the game
This is essentially the point my colleague Dileep Premachandran once made in an article against the use of technology ("The flaw's the charm"), and one that romantics of the game keep reiterating. Such objections, though, have been common every time a new technology has been introduced. One obvious example: ovens and microwaves haven't taken away the human element of cooking, the "mother's love", as it were. They have just made life easier for the mother. Similarly, technology will just make it easier for the umpires to uphold the laws of the game, and, by removing errors, will do justice to the skills of the players. That is, after all, why we watch sport - to see human excellence, not human error.

Luddite objection (rant actually) No. 7 - Why not remove the on-field umpire then, and have robots running the game?
Invoke the slippery slope and construct a straw man to knock down with one fell swoop of rhetoric. I've gone over this in the introduction to this piece - no-one is suggesting that technology replace umpires, because in reality, it empowers them, by giving them a tool by which they can perform at an optimal level. It is, in any case, already a tool that they are judged by. When an axe murderer comes at you, it is handy to wield an axe yourself, isn't it? Or maybe a machine-gun.

Luddite objection No. 8 - So many eminent ex-players are against more technology in umpiring, and they must be right
A fellow journalist said to me a few months ago, "I was having a chat with [great ex-player-turned-commentator] - he is a very reasonable man - and he convinced me that we should not use more technology in umpiring."

"Really," I asked, my interest piqued, and eager to finally hear a good argument against technology. "And what was his reasoning?"

"Reasoning, um," said my friend, continuing eloquently, "erm, ah, well, mmm ... "

Exactly. [Great ex-player-turned-commentator] was the argument. The commentary boxes are full of ex-cricketers mouthing reservations about technology without, frankly, knowing the slightest thing about the technology they bad-mouth. And fans who idolise them for their erstwhile cricketing ability assume that they must know what they are talking about. Some of these gentlemen hold that attitude because it is fashionable, and because they are too intellectually lazy to keep aside biases and peer-pressure to think the issue through on their own.

Many, however, have a worry that is understandable - a fear of the unknown. To give in to Hawk-Eye will take the game into territory that holds many imponderables. What if matches are much shorter? What if there is something fundamentally wrong with the technology that we don't understand yet? What if the game loses its soul (whatever that is)?

The solution is simple: experiment with technology one tournament, one series, at a time, and see how it goes. The ICC is already showing a willingness to do this, but they haven't yet attempted such an experiment with Hawk-Eye. One day, they will - progress is always inevitable, and always delayed. And when we see how smoothly it turns out, we'll wonder what the fuss was all about.

Amit Varma is managing editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India.

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Note: I've gone over old ground here, having written about these issues before in two separate articles earlier this year. ("On age and technology" and "It's about empowerment", besides having mentioned it in other articles here and there). I've revisited this topic because I wanted to put all my arguments in one place. My apologies if you've read my earlier pieces and felt this a waste of time.

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