May 16, 2008

Good move, bad move

The MCC's proposal to limit the power of cricket bats has merit; the ICC's decision to trial the umpiring referral system doesn't

More power to the MCC, less to the batsman: a bat Matthew Hayden trialled has been found to not fit the new specifications © Getty Images

Albert Einstein famously never worried about the future - it arrived soon enough. A fast-arriving future, however, seems to be worrying cricket a great deal. Few weeks have shown cricket's divided consciousness about the promise of technology as clearly as the last.

First of all, the MCC, in its capacity as holder of the worldwide copyright on the Laws of Cricket, rewrote Law 6 to curb experiments aimed at making already powerful bats more powerful yet. No sooner had this been digested than the ICC, in its capacity as holder of a worldwide reputation for being unable to organise a piss-up in a brewery with Oliver Reed and Keith Moon, foreshadowed an experiment under which captains will be permitted to refer three decisions per innings to a third umpire. The MCC is probably right; the ICC is almost certainly wrong.

If you've been playing cricket in the last decade, even at low levels, you'll have noticed that bats are way more powerful than of yore. As someone who finds it psychically impossible to discard bats, and has a veritable belfry of them at home, the comparison staggers me. The bat I switched to last season is so good it almost plays the shot for me - just as well, really. When the ball hits the middle, it emits a sound as euphonious as a violin concerto. But if I hit a ball with the one I played with ten years ago, the noise is like that of fingernails on a blackboard. That improvement, if it has not already gone too far, has certainly gone far enough, and the squeals of bat-makers should be ignored.

"Tennis used to be played with wooden racquets and now it is much faster and more exciting," complained Gray-Nicolls' marketing manager. Capacity for false analogy is probably why he is in marketing: the contest in cricket is between bat and ball, not racquet and racquet. Nor is it entirely true to claim that the transition from wooden to metal racquets was an unmitigated good; you'll find plenty of tennis traditionalists who lament the obsolescence of the touch player, who was blasted out of the game by weight of stroke. And not even in tennis does "faster" translate automatically as "more exciting", or every clay court would have be been relaid with Rebound Ace.

Cricket is also a game with dense statistical records, whose integrity it has to protect. When more than a quarter of the runs in the IPL are being scored in sixes, the game's currency is being debauched by power hitting. In fact, this shows why it is wise to have the MCC as an independent law-giver. If the poobahs and MBAs in power elsewhere had their druthers, bats would soon be as wide as gates and grounds the size of tennis courts.

The MCC, for all its reputation for gin-soaked doddering, does at least have some coherent idea of cricket's greater good. If only the same could be said of the ICC, presently without a CEO, CFO, in-house counsel, and point: the decision to aim for the half-pregnancy of three referrals per innings to the third umpire is risible even by their own debased standards. As Ian Chappell put it with characteristic pith: "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." But given that to "stand in the way of progress" nowadays invites being thought of as a luddite or obscurantist, it may be worth turning over some of the reasons why improving the precision of decisions by technology is thought worthwhile.

There is, for instance, the old chestnut that a cricketer's career could be cruelled by an umpire's mistake. Ahem - can you remember one? Arguably, if it should transpire that a player's whole future hinges on one decision, then he has only himself to blame should it go against him. And on the whole, in fact, cricketers are far more reasonable about decisions than fans. Mike Atherton has put this most succinctly: "Life is unfair. Why should cricket be any different?"

At the same time, it is confidently asserted that the introduction of technology will eliminate room for doubt. Yet this assumption that analysis leads at all events to greater clarity is not actually a given: sometimes further analysis introduces doubt previously absent. There was an interesting example of this in the Super Test that wasn't at the SCG in October 2005, where, if you recall, umpires were empowered to refer all decisions to an upstairs VJ. The first such reference followed Matthew Hayden opting to pad up to the third ball after lunch on the first day, which pitched in line and carried on to hit the knee roll. A club umpire would have given Hayden out without hesitation; Hayden admitted later thinking he was "absolutely dead". Receiving the referral from Simon Taufel, however, Darrell Hair, brooded deeply on multiple replays, somehow located a scintilla of doubt, perhaps about the height, and allowed Hayden to carry on to a fat hundred. Asked after that game if the technology had improved the quality of the officiation, World XI captain Graeme Smith said simply: "No."

The referrals system makes the umpires' thankless task more thankless still by adding on the likelihood of public humiliation © Getty Images

An attitude has insinuated itself into cricket that umpires exist purely and simply as part of the game's machinery - as necessary, but also about as worthy of consideration as the heavy roller or the Super Sopper. This is lamentable. Umpiring involves a knowledge base and set of skills every bit as demanding as playing - in the respect that they are never off duty, even more so. Why should their thankless task be made more thankless by the possibility of public humiliation because they are not possessed of supernatural powers, because the naked eye cannot magically capture what it has just seen and replay it at slow motion?

It is fascinating that such angst should attend the possibility of a mistaken decision in a game of cricket: a glimmer of human fallibility and we carry on like 9/11 Truthers. There was a time when we regarded cricket as a test of character, one of the challenges it posed being the manful acceptance of a decision not correct but made in good faith. At grassroots level, this is still the case. Which is why when Kumar Sangakkara accepted the fallibility of Rudi Koertzen at the Bellerive Oval last season, he grew in stature as a man as surely as his innings had enriched his standing as a player; which is why when Rahul Dravid swallowed his gall in Sydney a month later, he won many admirers. TS Eliot once wrote that "it is impossible to design a system so perfect that no one needs to be good". Yet this seems to be the ICC's aim: an arrangement under which there will never be any ground for disappointment, so that nobody need ever cope with it.

Tellingly, the people who theoretically stand to benefit most directly from this new policy are ambivalent about it. Michael Kasprowicz, who had rather more reason than most to complain of umpiring error after his misfortune at Edgbaston three years ago, commented: "It's all a part of the game. Part of the beauty of cricket was that there was room for human error and sometimes it went your way, sometimes it didn't. It all evened out in the end." Then he added, very shrewdly: "Today, with all the money invested in cricket, the shareholders are going to demand the right decision all the time. You don't pay $800 million for a cricket team to let an umpire's error ruin it for you."

Aye, Kasper, there's the rub. For this decision concerns not the welfare of cricketers at all, and certainly not that of the game. It is primarily about money. At some stage in the future, millions of dollars might ride on the lbw decision given against the star batsman of the Mangalore Miami Vices, where the ball might have pitched an inch or two outside leg stump. This, it has been resolved, cannot possibly be left to a mere human being. But when cricket is thought too important to be left to mere humans, then it is in danger of mattering too much to be enjoyed.

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • James on May 18, 2008, 10:55 GMT

    A referral system has already been trialed in England and it failed. The players didn't want to use it and it was widely slammed. Anyone who has played the game knows that accepting the umpire's decision is a fundamental part of the game. Does anyone really want to encourage a situation where players are in umpire's faces (like in football)questioning their decisions? This is the thin edge of the wedge. How do you explain to children that it's alright for international cricketers to question decisions, but it's not alright for them. The ICC needs to realise that the decisions they make and the actions of international players flow down to every level of cricket. Their loyalty should lie with the game, not with professional sportsmen and businessmen who have too many vested interests to make the right decisions.

  • dennis on May 17, 2008, 20:01 GMT

    "There is, for instance, the old chestnut that a cricketer's career could be cruelled by an umpire's mistake. Ahem - can you remember one?"

    Actually yes I can - Damien Martyn got a series of stinkers in the Ashes series in England when he looked to be one of the few Australia players to be in some kind of touch. The kinds of decisions that went against him were exactly the type that could be referred.

  • Ramesh on May 17, 2008, 6:43 GMT

    Mr Haigh, I'm with you on bats, but not on referrals. First, the "Human Element" is for the players, not Umpires. Judges in court are not expected to "be human". Umpiring should not influence the game if it can be avoided. Second, the TV Umpire would be expected to rule on issues of fact,(did the ball pitch outside leg, did it strike the batsman in line with the stumps), and not predict where the ball would have gone afterwards. The viewpoint from a raised camera does not enable the TV Ump to make that judgement, it is for the onfield umpire to judge, for he is in the best position. Third, I don't see how presenting all the FACTS to the umpire to enable him to make an informed judgement can detract from his authority. Surely, that is preferable to making a decision that looks stupid later. I would much prefer that Umpires referred thing of their own accord, rather than have the players do it. Now, THAT is detracting from an Umpire's authority.

  • Jake on May 17, 2008, 3:27 GMT

    Most people who buy a house would love an exterior to look traditional, but would prefer it to have new amenities, like central heating, cooling, ducted vacumn. By that same reason people who pay for a team would love to make it more interesting with fours and sixes. This could be the best reason for new fans of cricket in the soccer mad and ice hockey nations to watch. And no disrespect intended, players from those wooden era tennis matches do not match 70% of the athleticism shown today. This proves players have not gotten slack with all the new technology. With respect to the issue about referrals I would just like to add, ask any english soccer fan what they think of Diego Maradona and his 'hand of god' goal, How they wish they could have had a referral for that one. Umpires like soccer referees are quite often not spot on and in games played with high passion, it is best to have a check on dubious decisions capable of changing the course of a game.

  • Bob on May 17, 2008, 2:55 GMT

    The umpires role may be reduced and so may be bit of the games "charm" but how much charm was in evidence last summer? I think we could all do without the angst created by events at Sydney and some feelings are still raw. Everybody lost the plot including a few journalists. Such events harm the game more than tinkering around the edges of umpiring laws could ever do.

    Perhaps those who want to play under the old laws could still have the option to agreeing before the series, so that those who're less 911 Truthers about this (and more concerned with history and charm) can still play the way they want to.

  • qazah on May 17, 2008, 2:54 GMT

    My and my friends play for fun, and more than often, whoever is batting domintes for the simple reason that the bats are way too strong. someone who is given an old bat, which is simply relied on timing would have a hard time adjusting..

    and to make bats even stronger!? are the icc out of their minds, i mean, first small grounds (65m), then intro of T20, and now larger bats?

    a couple of weeks ago symonds complained because the pitch was not upto "T20 standards". well cant one match go on without realling testing the batsman abilities? is it all about hitting

  • Chatty on May 17, 2008, 1:58 GMT

    Mr. Haigh brings some ludicrous arguements against third umpire referrals. 1. Life is unfair, therefore cricket should also be! First of all he is quoting the convicted cheat, Atherton. Secondly, it would be stupid not to try to make things fairer. 2. He cites an incident where Hair chose to give Hayden not out! Da! Is that so surprising. Hair is an umpire reviled by everybody, and banned by the ICC. If Mr. Haigh has to quote/cite the worst of the cricketing personalities to support his arguments, then it is likely his arguements are false themselves.

  • omer on May 17, 2008, 0:55 GMT

    The argument that the umpires in the middle are the best people in position to make the right decision is not only generally flawed, but also borderline insane. The nub of the argument is that there are a few decisions that can't be precisely corrected with technology because of its limitations. However, the crux of the argument in favor of technology is far more relevant, because a plumb lbw not given or a clear miss given out are far more common. As far as we can ever 'know', the few decisions that are unreliable because of technological limitation still stand unreliable even if the umpire makes them with the naked eye. What justice is there to lose? The title of Autherton's book misses the point. Life is unfair, but we in our capacity 'tend' to make it fair so long as we can. That stands as our primary motivation, or there wouldn't any redistribution of wealth. It's the same point that is also missed so often by people against further use of technology.

  • Raghuram on May 16, 2008, 23:49 GMT

    I wonder who in the world appreciates human error in any form of life, let alone sports. I don't agree that human error in cricket makes it more exciting. This brings up one more question: how do you know if a mistake was a genuine mistake or intentional mistake. If I'm in the crowd, rooting for my favorite team, how frustrating it'll be if a "human error" costs my fav team the match? Most of the sports in the world are embracing technology so that the real human ability is on display. Hope, the use of technology in cricket is successful!!!

  • abhishek on May 16, 2008, 22:09 GMT

    I totally agree with the first half and completely disagree with the second half. The argument that tennis is different from cricket is quite right. Faster racquets may have made tennis more interesting (I doubt that though) but there the contest is between racquet and racquet. Cricket's contest is between ball and bat. So if you are making bats more powerful, why not make balls heavier? If you load bat and hence batsmen, why not bowlers? Think about cricket being played by 11 batsmen and bowlers being replaced by a bowling machine. That day may not be far. So I agree that to preserve skill, bats can be powered but there has to be a ceiling. Now the argument that since "life is unfair. Why should cricket be any different?" made me laugh. Can you make any more stupid argument? Yes you can. "Life is unfair. Why should courts be any different?" "Life is unfair, Why should .... be any different?" I will leave it up to you to fill in the blanks but that the most stupid one I have seen :)

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