September 8, 2007

The decision, not the official

The Peter Hartley incident from the sixth ODI has shown that umpires need to set aside their egos and accept the increasing role of technology in decisions



Peter Hartley may have set a template for the considered use of technology in future © Getty Images

It is just as well for Peter Hartley that his maiden appearance as an on-field international umpire coincided with one of the most gripping contests of the summer. On a drearier day - if the series had been in the bag already and there had been no tasty sub-plots such as Dimitri Mascarenhas's five sixes in an over to distract the tabloids - some serious capital could have been made of the moment when Paul Collingwood was given his marching orders for 1, after Hartley's belated glance at the giant replay screen.

The moment was soon buried in the blizzard of action that followed, and even Collingwood himself - who had been none too pleased with the decision at the time - claimed he had forgotten about it by the time the presentation ceremony came around. "It was obviously a little bit of a mistake from the umpire," he told Sky Sports afterwards. "He didn't want to have a look at the replays; then suddenly he did after seeing it on the big screen - so thank you very much to the people who put it up there."

The fact that the furore died down so quickly is a relief because, regardless of the circuitous route that Hartley took, the right decision was reached in the end - a fact acknowledged by the ICC soon afterwards. "There is nothing to prevent an umpire reversing his decision as long as it is before the next ball has been bowled," confirmed a spokesman on Thursday. "He should have referred the decision straightaway but he had the presence of mind to refer it once he realised his mistake."

But the lack of controversy does not disguise the myriad of issues that have been thrown up in the incident's wake. The intrusion of technology has been a feature of international cricket for several seasons now, but here finally was the crossover moment. Line decisions have been television's prerogative for more than a decade, but only ever at the invitation of the on-field umpire. This time the roles were reversed. Television, the all-seeing eye, beamed incontrovertible proof of an official's error, and Collingwood was given his marching orders as 23,000 voices hooted their derision.

There were parallels with a similarly stop-start decision in the first Test at Lord's, when Kevin Pietersen edged Zaheer Khan to Mahendra Singh Dhoni, only to be stopped in his tracks as he approached the pavilion gates. And at Glasgow last month, during India's one-day warm-up against Scotland, the Scottish captain Ryan Watson was also reprieved by the cameras after driving on the up to mid-off. On both occasions, however, the referral was initiated by the men in the middle, thus maintaining the thin veneer of pretence that it is their word that is final. Hartley, unwittingly, has repainted that whole issue in a very fetching shade of grey.

Ironically, Hartley did very little wrong in terms of pure decision-making. His instinct in the heat of the moment was to give the batsman the benefit of the doubt in what, to the naked eye, was an extremely close call. Unfortunately, in that same heat of the moment, he forgot that he was no longer on the county circuit - or indeed, sat back in the TV umpire's armchair, from where he conducted his previous five Tests and five one-day internationals. He was in the middle of a high-octane international and he forgot he had tools at his disposal to aid his adjudication.

To his immense credit Hartley regained his poise quickly, and by the end of the day even Collingwood had reverted to singing his praises. "He's a great bloke," he said, "who I've played against in county cricket, and he will be a very good umpire." Hartley's personal authority is undiminished, and maybe even enhanced by the episode. But whatever route his career now takes, he'll know all too well that the umpire's decision is by no means final.

That, however, may not be such a bad thing. For too long cricket has been at the mercy of umpires who, in the words of Nasser Hussain, come over too "precious" when their pride is put on the line. Darrell Hair's ego was at the route of the ructions that split the game last summer, while on Tuesday the inaugural World Twenty20 gets underway without four of the biggest-name officials in the world. Steve Bucknor, Aleem Dar, Rudi Koertzen and Billy Bowden have all been stood down for that tournament after their parts in the fiasco at the end of the World Cup final in Barbados. That nonsense in the twilight could have been avoided with a modicum of Hartley-esque pride-swallowing.

The need to blood new officials has never been more urgent. The current crop is overworked and fraying at the edges, with even the multi-award-winning Simon Taufel succumbing to some howlers during the recent England-India series. But the era into which the new candidates are to be pitched is an unforgiving one. All sports are dogged by the nagging suspicion that their officials are redundant at the highest level, but none more so than cricket - take poor Ian Howell, who was castigated for his imperfect efforts at Trent Bridge and The Oval. Perhaps it's time, finally, to save the umpires from themselves, and transfer the final decision from the men in white coats to the man with the remote.

The intrusion of technology has been a feature of international cricket for several seasons now, but here finally was the crossover moment. Line decisions have been television's prerogative for more than a decade, but only ever at the invitation of the on-field umpire. This time the roles were reversed

Such a shift has been tried before, but without much success. In a trial run in the Champions Trophy in 2002, Shoaib Malik become the first cricketer to be given out lbw via a TV replay, but delays and indecision - particularly over low catches - dissuaded the ICC from extending the experiment, although it did receive a second airing during the Super Series in Australia in 2005. For this season's Friends Provident Trophy in England, a new variation was introduced, with each team given the option of two referrals per innings. For the final of that competition, however, the rival captains, Durham's Dale Benkenstein and Hampshire's Shane Warne, agreed to suspend the idea. No one, it seems, wants to get on the wrong side of the umpires. Until such time as umpires are made accountable to an off-field adjudicator, they will wield power that is not in proportion to their diminishing authority.

Hartley, a popular ex-pro and a man with an encouraging lack of ego, might just have stumbled upon a template for the future of umpiring. As England and India have shown in a series that has often been tempestuous, there are plenty of on-field behavioural issues that require a modern official to wield tact and diplomacy, and there are plenty of decisions that still require the naked eye to make the first call. Lbws, for instance, cannot yet be entrusted to HawkEye, because there are too many doubts about the reliability of the tracking system.

Just occasionally, however, a replay from on high - and an over-rule - might not go amiss. Marginal decisions are one thing, but howlers such as those that have cropped up all summer long are something else altogether. It might therefore be time to confer a greater responsibility on the ICC's oft-maligned match referees, who could probably do with some tangible evidence of their worth. As former pros they will have an innate cricket knowledge, and enough tools at their disposal, to do the work of the third umpire, and sufficient authority to have a quiet word if a glaring mistake has slipped through the net. If the umpires' egos can cope with the jolt, they might one day be grateful.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo

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