Save the on-field umpire

On age and technology

In the middle of a fascinating period of play, the last thing you wanted to see was this: players looking up at replays on a giant screen, in dismay and anger; the crowd gasping at an umpiring decision that was clearly wrong; the umpire in question,

Amit Varma

January 6, 2004

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Steve Bucknor: a little technology would be handy
© Getty Images

In the middle of a fascinating period of play, the last thing you wanted to see was this: players looking up at replays on a giant screen, in dismay and anger; the crowd gasping at an umpiring decision that was clearly wrong; the umpire in question, refusing to glance at the replay, repeating his error. It was Steve Waugh's final day of Test cricket, approaching the climax of a great Test series, and it was tragic that the attention was deflected from the fascinating cricket to the incompetent umpiring.

Ajit Agarkar had got Justin Langer lbw twice, with balls that pitched on leg, straightened and were hitting middle stump. Both were plumb, but both were given not out by Steve Bucknor. Later, Damien Martyn was plumb to Murali Kartik, and again Bucknor, who had made that shocking decision against Sachin Tendulkar at Brisbane, adjudged it not out. His decisions threatened to affect the outcome of a tense, even series. And it is surely unjust that the final result could be determined not by the excellence of the cricket, but the ineptness of the umpiring. It brought two key issues into the spotlight, which the ICC would do well to consider seriously: age and technology.

It is not ageist to say that age should be a factor that should be considered in umpiring. It is a demanding profession that requires physical fitness, speed of response, sharpness of sight and depth perception. It is not prejudice, but scientific fact, to say that all of these diminish as one grows older. To stand in the field for six hours, concentrating acutely all throughout, shifting attention within micro-seconds from the bowler's crease (for no-balls) to the batsman's crease, factoring in a dozen different factors in a matter of seconds, and often dealing with the emotions of players and crowds, is a gruelling exercise. Both the body and the mind have to be in peak condition for it.

This is not to say that Bucknor's mistakes are due to his age. Perhaps he is that rare 57-year-old whose physical and mental faculties have not suffered from the advancement of his years, and even a younger umpire might have made those mistakes. But the ICC, which has an evaluation system for umpires based on player and official feedback, needs to carry out stringent medical tests, to make sure that umpires' faculties are up to the demands of their job. Cricket at the highest level is no more a leisurely amateur pastime, but an intensely competitive profession, with much riding on the results. We have seen in recent years the sad decline of David Shepherd - he was once one of the world's finest, but his howlers in the England-Pakistan series in 2001, when he failed to call several Pakistan no-balls that took wickets, cost England a Test and a series win. His umpiring was bad in this series as well.

Shepherd is 63, Bucknor is 57, and it is telling that the umpires who have made the fewest mistakes in recent times are the youngest ones: Simon Taufel (32) and Billy Bowden (40). To allow umpires to continue past their physical and mental prime is to do them, and the game of cricket, a disservice.

Even if the ICC chooses not to define the line at which umpires are no longer competent to stand, they should make life easier for them by giving him technological aid. The reason these mistakes stand out so starkly is that technology has exposed them. The same technology - specifically, but not only, Hawk-Eye - should be used to help them.

The biggest misconception in the debate over the use of technology in umpiring is that it is Technology v the Umpire. This is wrong; it is technology for the umpire. Just as the facility to make third-umpire decisions has largely reduced the possibility of error in run-out decisions, and taken the pressure off umpires, using Hawk-Eye will reduce the mistakes an umpire makes regarding lbw decisions.

The technology behind Hawk-Eye, contrary to what its opponents claim, is sound. It is not a gimmick based on graphics. (To allay some of the misconceptions about it, click here.) Its accuracy has been proved in empirical tests under scientific conditions, and all the standard objections about it (it does not tell us what the ball might have done after hitting the pads) apply equally to the umpire. Everything the umpire can do, Hawk-Eye can do better. Only those who have not bothered to examine the science behind it, and who stick to archaic Luddite prejudices about technology, can disagree with that.

One criticism about Hawk-Eye is that matches would end sooner, as more batsmen would be given out. Perhaps. Batsmen always get the benefit of the doubt, and technology would reduce that doubt. There is nothing unjust about that at all - nobody can argue with players who are out being deemed out. What is unjust, and what we would like to see the end of, is ridiculous decisions like the ones Bucknor has made in this series, like the one against Tendulkar at Brisbane, and the decisions that marred the Sydney Test.

Technology would not slow down the game either. The graphics you see on television are secondary to Hawk-Eye, just a mode of presentation. The umpire could carry a device which would instantly display whether the ball would hit the stumps or not, and if it pitched in line. Other parameters - whether there was an inside edge or not, was the batsman playing a shot? - could be considered independently by the umpire before calling for a replay. The decision would come much quicker than a third-umpire replay for a run-out, and the degree of accuracy would be as high. Human error would be vastly reduced, and the human would still be in charge of things. Umpires have a tough job already, and they need all the help they can get.

Amit Varma is managing editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India.

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