Unaccountable umpires, and falling short of change

Some final thoughts on technology and cricket

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Sunday, October 10, 2004

1.10pm IST - A license to be wrong

A number of people have written in, responding to my earlier posts on why we need to use technology to help umpires ("Why umpires should welcome technology", "More Luddites answered, but no early adopters" and "Falling short of change"), pointing out how the awful umpiring mistakes in the first Test between India and Australia should not have taken place, and could have been avoided with technology.

Australia played better cricket and would probably have won the Test anyway, but India would have had a far greater chance of a fightback if their openers weren't both victims of umpiring mistakes in the second innings. Billy Bowden, who gave Virender Sehwag lbw after a massive inside-edge, had also wrongly given Irfan Pathan out in India's first innings, ending a 60-run rearguard partnership. Sehwag was astonished at the decision, like everybody else who saw it, and expressed his view to Bowden on his way back to the pavilion. He ended up getting fined 65% of his match fee for dissent.

One of the commentators on television suggested that it all evens out, and that Pathan being dropped at an irrelevant juncture in the second innings was an example of that. That is nonsense. Even if the number of batsmen wrongly given out is equal to the number of batsmen wrongly reprieved, the decisions would only even out in a statistical sense, and not in terms of their consequences. A batsman's career can be affected by a wrong decision, and the result of a Test match influenced by two or three. At the level of individuals, and of teams, it does not even out.

[Update (1.40pm) - Yogesh Upadhyaya writes in to point out that even at the statistical level, it does not even out. "Take the toss for example," he writes. "On an average all captains would have a 50-50 record. But if you look at the records of all captains they have statistically a good chance of being distributed around the average, so that there are lucky-with-the-toss and unlucky-with-the-toss captains." Quite. Another update (9.30pm) - Pankaj Poddar writes that the people who believe that it evens out in the end suffer from "the-mathematician-drowned-at-the-deep-end-of-the-pool-because-it-was-only-three-feet-deep-on-an-average" syndrome. Wonderfully put.]

Even if one's luck with umpiring decisions did even out, two wrongs would hardly make a right. That is a ludicrous argument - call it Luddite objection No. 16.

There is another big issue here, beyond that of using technology: are umpires accountable? When players make mistakes consistently, they get dropped. But when umpires make repeated errors, as opposed to the occasional understandable mistake, they get away with it. The ICC supposedly has a mechanism of review to deal with this, but it is not working.

Steve Bucknor might have been a good umpire at his peak, but as I have argued earlier ("On age and technology"), he is past his sell-by date. That is not merely my conclusion - the Indian team, in their official review of the umpires to the ICC, slammed him repeatedly through India's last tour of Australia, and the VB Series that followed. Nevertheless, Bucknor officiated during the India-Pakistan series, messing up again. And despite this repeated history of errors, despite the feedback process that the Indian side has constantly availed of, Bucknor is still officiating at this level, and still goofing up. His officious and arrogant attitude towards players has also, remarkably, gone unpunished. (As Harsha Bhogle says in an excellent piece in The Indian Express, "A judge cannot have the demeanour of a lawyer.")

The ICC is erring, in two ways. One, it is not making umpires accountable enough; and two, it is defining dissent too harshly. Whether Sehwag went over the line or not depends on what he said, which is not yet known, but too often batsmen have been reprimanded for just shaking their heads at a wrong decision, or looking at their bat to indicate that there was an edge, while umpires get away with mistake after mistake, which naturally encourages them to become, as Bhogle described Bucknor, "intrusive and bossy".

Of course, both issues will become irrelevant if the ICC uses technology, and eliminates these mistakes forever. How much longer must we wait till that happens?

Thursday, October 7, 2004

2.50pm - Falling short of change

I had promised myself that I would write no more on the subject of technology in umpiring after my last two posts on the subject ("Why umpires should welcome technology" and "More Luddites answered, but no early adopters"). But the emails kept flooding in - some thought-provoking, others entertaining - and I figured that I'd have a last go at it. No more after this, I promise. (And please read the other two first, if you haven't already, before you continue with this.)

Mike Zahm wrote to me from Singapore with a lovely illustration of the point I was making. He wrote:

You go to the grocer's, do your shopping and come home only to find that you're a 100 rupees short on change. You go back to the store and point it out to the cashier who replies "Oh, sorry, I made a mistake, but what I do isn't easy, you know. I total everything in my head instead of using the till. I could use the till, but then there wouldn't be anything challenging about my job, would there? I wouldn't get to use the skills I've developed. Anyway, what's done is done, and I can't give you your money back. Don't worry though, I get it right 95% of the time. Hey, you think your mental maths is any better?"

Quite. And if I may add to that, if you pointed out during the transaction itself that you got less change, the store would haul you up for dissent and confisticate half your shopping. And some smartass would no doubt tell you, "Don't worry, next time he might give you more change than is due, it all evens out in the end." Right.

Mike adds:

You go the grocer's to buy supplies for the correct price, not to see how good someone's addition is. [Similarly], you watch cricket to see the players play, not to see whether Billy Bowden can judge the trajectory of the ball after hitting a pad, in a split second, with all of Eden Gardens screaming around him. I don't care how good his eyesight is. I don't care how good his hearing is ... I care about whether the ball was going on to hit the stumps.

That is an important point. Umpires are not, much as they would like to believe otherwise, particpants of the sport of cricket. The players are the participants, and the umpires are there only to enforce the laws of the game. The current interest in the India-Australia series is there because two great sides are taking each other on, not because Steve Bucknor and Billy Bowden are umpiring. To do justice to the teams, and to the players, and to cricket, the ICC must ensure that they give umpires the means to get as many decisions right as possible.

We need Hawk-Eye, not Australia

My colleague S Rajesh wrote to me to say that using technology in umpiring would actually enhance the quality of the cricket played. He wrote:

The introduction of Hawk-Eye will drastically reduce the amount of pad-play, especially against spin. Currently, incompetent batsmen too often get away with thrusting their pad out to deliveries they know nothing about, simply because they know their stride will allow them to get away with it, even if the ball is hitting middle stump. Hawk-Eye will have a zone of uncertainty, but it'll still mean that far more batsmen will be given out padding up. It'll force the batsmen to use their bats more, while the spinners will be rewarded, deservedly, for foxing the batsmen. That, surely, can't be bad for cricket, or for the art for spin bowling.

Syed Moosavi, making a similar point, wrote, "Who said we needed Australia to save Test cricket? We need Hawk-Eye."

Michael Higgins wrote in saying that he had observed an underlying central objection, often unarticulated, behind many of the Luddite objections I'd discussed. He said that a number of people are besotted by statistics, and "believe that it is possible to compare players of various times because of statistics [relating to] the same game using the same rules and the same technology. If you ever make a change in the game, no matter how trivial, it might lower batting averages and/or bowling averages and make this inter-generational comparison impossible."

Higgins pointed out that it is, in any case, silly to compare Jack Hobbs with Sachin Tendulkar because the sport has changed so much in the decades that separate these two that we'd be talking about, for all practical purposes, two different sports. As if to illustrate this, Andrew Ward cited how Len Hutton had once written that after the lbw rule was changed in 1935, so that batsmen could be out lbw to balls that pitched outside the off stump, the manner in which players batted changed drastically. "Sir Len writes that Herbert Sutcliffe and other older players at the time really struggled to adjust to this change, because they were so accustomed to padding up," wrote Andrew. (After receiving this mail, I stumbled across a strange rant by Sutcliffe to his son, where he implied that batsmen played more with their bats before the rule change. Click here and scroll down to item No. 176.)

The lbw law changed again after WW2, so that even batsmen struck outside the line - as opposed to struck in line to balls pitching outside off - could be given out if they weren't offering a shot. Both these changed the way batsmen played, and for the better. If Hawk-Eye is implemented, the drastic reduction of doubt in lbw decisions will force batsmen to play with their bats more, and cricket will benefit from it. It is contentious if the modern game has indeed tilted towards batsmen, but if so, this would be a welcome corrective.

Dr George John wrote in to say that through history, most technological innovations have been met with a dismissive reactions from experts - click here for some instances of this. And Stephen Gould (not the science writer) imagined the following dialogue from the future:

"You know that device we use that tells the umpires whether the ball was going to hit the stumps for an LBW ?"

"Yeah."

"And that device we use that tells us whether the batsman got an edge?"

"Yeah."

"And that device we use so we know whether the ball carried to slip?"

"Yeah."

"And the replay that allows us to tell whether someone should have been given run out or stumped?"

"Yeah."

"Well, some bloody fool is suggesting that we get rid of them."

"Won't that mean that decisions will suck?"

"Only about 10% of them."

"Sod that, I'm a traditionalist. I want to keep all these gadgets."

Point is, if all of these devices were already in use, who on earth would ask for them to be removed?

Addenda: Arcot Somashekar wonders why cricket is the only game where the players have to appeal to the umpire/referee for a decision. He says that in other sports, "if there is a foul, a goal, a point, whatever, the referee sees and rules". So why does cricket have appealing then?

Some more cricket blogs: Here I go plugging the competition again. Do check out these fine blogs, labours of love, each of them: Rick Eyre's blog at cricket.rickeyre.com, a West Indian blog by Ryan Patrick, and an Indian one by Ranganathan Sriram. I am, thankfully, not the only one blogging on cricket.

Amit Varma is managing editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India.

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