Tampering or selective control?
Steve Bucknor's potentially explosive comments, relating to production companies tampering with video footage to undermine umpires, have caused a stir around the cricket world. While no umpire has come out in support, and television producers expectedly brushed aside his comments, there is an undercurrent of unease in the broadcasting fraternity.
"I thought it was a surprising comment," Peter Hutton, a vice-president of TEN Sports, told Cricinfo, while suggesting that it was not even technologically possible to tamper with live video footage. "There's not enough time to doctor or change things. But clearly you can get shown things from different angles. Most TV umpires know what angles can be made available to them and would insist on seeing everything possible. Sometimes all angles aren't available because, for example, there might be a player or umpire in the way. As a TV company you can't guarantee that every angle will be available to the umpire at every incident, and that may be frustrating for someone in the position of third umpire. I certainly would be hugely surprised if anyone did this with malice or with an intention behind this."
But while it might be impossible to alter the nature of the images, there were voices that hinted at television companies selectively controlling the information being made available to the third umpire. "The more technology ICC uses, the more they hand over responsibility to the television producer. The position of the mat is the producer's responsibility and that can definitely be tampered with," said Harsha Bhogle, the Indian broadcaster. "Even coming to TV replays that the third umpire sees, suppose there is a 24-camera coverage, you might have 8 cameras dedicated to recording replays. The pictures you get depend on the skill of the cameramen and the skill of the editor in choosing the right replay to show, and finally the director taking a call to show it. If the director is either incompetent or biased, then that is a problem because he controls what the third umpire sees."
One broadcaster, speaking on the condition of anonymity, concurred with Bhogle and even added that, "there have been suspicions in the past that producers, especially from certain countries, have been a touch too patriotic, and have withheld replays that went against home teams." The problem will exist as long as the ICC use television companies as allies in the decision making process. Then there is the in-built economics of production itself: for the television producer, the primary aim is to produce the best quality broadcast at the lowest possible cost. This means that he would be reluctant to add a camera at midwicket, for example, if it did nothing to increase the quality of the viewing experience, even if it helped give the umpire a better view.
Although few people openly back Bucknor's claims, there haven't been too many accusations of this kind. In late 2004 John Bracewell, New Zealand's coach, made similar allegations against Channel 9, who were broadcasting the Chappell-Hadlee series in Australia. Bracewell suggested that Hawk-Eye pictures of a certain delivery had initially shown the ball pitching in line and hitting the stumps, but subsequent depictions of the same delivery showed the ball pitching outside the map. "It's absolutely irresponsible reporting," Bracewell was quoted as saying. Paul Hawkins, the originator of the technology, insisted that Hawk-Eye images are tamper-proof: "There is no way for a production company to `tamper' with Hawk-Eye's decision. They either show it or they do not."
It is next to impossible to prove - one way or the other - Bucknor's charge that television producers are deliberately making umpires look bad, and also influencing the decision-making process by showing replays of only certain angles, selectively leaving out others. But, the fact that he has made these statements has brought to the public domain something many have suspected for some time now.
In all this, umpires around the world were keen to keep a low profile. When contacted Simon Taufel and David Shepherd declined to comment, while Rudi Koertzen was unreachable.
The International Cricket Council, who have strict guidelines on the matters their members are allowed to comment on, didn't have much to add either. Brian Murgatroyd would only proffer "no comment" when attempts were made to get a reaction to Bucknor's statements, but he and his team certainly have plenty to think about now.
Anand Vasu is assistant editor of Cricinfo