May 11, 2008

Trial by gimmickry

The ICC is barking up the wrong tree with its decision to experiment with umpiring referrals



The referrals system was trialled in English county cricket in 2007 and was a dud by all accounts © Getty Images

Following an occasionally spiteful Test series between Australia and India where much of the controversy arose due to the umpires having reduced control on the field, the solution proposed by the ICC is to further undermine the authority of the arbiters.

The rationale behind the decision to trial the umpire referral system is supposedly to ensure the right decision is reached. However, if three referrals are deemed fruitless, under the recommendations of the proposal a team would then have no further opportunity to ask for assistance from the third umpire. Consequently, the biggest howler ever perpetrated could then enter the scorebook unhindered. This would be classic "justice for some but not for all".

The ICC's decision is even more bewildering in light of the fact that a similar trial in county cricket was aborted on the grounds that not one disputed decision was overturned. The general feeling was the third umpire wasn't about to undermine his mate in the middle and this resulted in no result.

The move to allow decisions to be referred to the video replay also goes against one of the strong foundations of the game: that players don't dispute umpires' decisions.

The proposal appears to be trying to replicate the system used in tennis but this ignores a couple of important differences in the two games. In tennis singles the individual has control over the issuing of a challenge, while in cricket there is no allowance made for top-order batsmen who may conceivably use all the referrals and leave the players that follow with no chance to dispute a decision. Also, in tennis the decisions in dispute are line calls: a black-and-white situation. Appeals for lbw and caught in cricket are often anything but straightforward.

For common sense, this decision by the ICC would rank alongside a move to make ash-trays on motorcycles compulsory.

The ICC's cricket committee has also recommended that catches can once again be referred to the third umpire. This was trialled a few years ago and proved to be a white elephant. Most of the evidence was inconclusive and favoured the batsman, and there is ample proof that the system will also lead to incorrect decisions on occasion.

A move in this direction could tip the scales in favour of the batsmen in the contest between bat and ball. Anything that is likely to lead to bigger scores in cricket should be treated with extreme caution.

These moves by the ICC are more in the category of gimmickry rather than logically thought-out solutions to problems that exist in the game. There is nothing wrong with using technology, but it should result in improvement. Technology needs to produce a guaranteed correct result before it usurps the authority of umpires, who according to ICC reports, get more than 90% of their decisions right.

 
 
As much as possible Test cricket should retain the possibility of the element of human error. Any experiments with technology should first be trialled in the shorter versions of the game and once shown to be foolproof, adopted for use in Test matches
 

Perhaps the time has come to split the laws and playing conditions for cricket into two quite distinct groups; one set for Test matches and another for the limited-overs game.

As much as possible Test cricket should retain the possibility of the element of human error. Any experiments with technology should first be trialled in the shorter versions of the game and once shown to be foolproof, adopted for use in Test matches.

This distinction could be made on the basis that Test cricket is the version of the game that brings the most player satisfaction, while limited-overs matches satiate the crowds' urge for entertainment. As a combination, they complement each other because the shorter versions subsidise Test cricket in many parts of the world.

For 30 years the two have been treated as slightly different versions of the same game. However, the successful arrival of Twenty20 has shown that limited-overs cricket has become the rock concert while Test matches remain the chess contest.

We need to hear of ideas that are likely to improve the standard of umpiring, especially in Test cricket, rather than gimmicky suggestions put forward to satisfy a clamour for more use of technology. Encouraging good umpires by investing them with more authority would be a good starting point, rather than breeding coat minders who are comfortable with less.

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