May 23, 2008

Of referrals and romanticism

As far as innovation goes, there is in accelerated phases of evolution as much danger as in obstinate rejection of all change
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Not only is the umpire's word no longer final, one suspects that under the ICC's new referrals system it will become increasingly preliminary © AFP

Cricket's Great Leap Forward began just over a month ago and already the world seems to have changed irrevocably - for some, entirely for the better, the stifling pall of tradition having been blown away by the cool zephyr of all-star entertainment and common-sense economics. Listen to these people, in fact, and cricket beforehand must have been almost hell on earth. "Typical traditionalist", they complain if you suggest that perhaps not every development is to be welcomed. "Hopeless romantic", they huff if you speculate that the future is not entirely bright and shiny. Strangely, this injunction against romanticism is not thought to apply when Ravi Shastri gratuitously garlands Lalit Modi as "the Moses of cricket" - nothing romantic about that, of course, just cool, dispassionate and financially disinterested analysis.

Even my esteemed colleague Peter Roebuck has been taking "these stiff collars" to task. "The trouble with traditionalists is that they present themselves as protectors of the game's values but are actually doomed romantics," he argued. "They lament the present state of affairs yet resist innovation." He has a point, as ever, with one qualification. Cricket must indeed be wary of "romanticising" that which has gone before; but cricket without "romance" would be sterile indeed, and not worth buying and selling for millions of dollars either. The idea that there has been some sort of fuddy-duddy backlash against the IPL, meanwhile, is a fantasy: on the contrary, the IPL has been received with utmost cordiality. Those who've wished have partaken, those unmoved have exercised their prerogative not to watch, and time will tell on its effects. What held up the rush to embrace Twenty20 cricket was not the dead hand of the game's jeremiahs but the conservatism of the BCCI, loath to jeopardise its 50-over money machine.

As for innovation, there is in accelerated phases of evolution as much danger as in obstinate rejection of all change. Sketching an argument last week against the ICC's decision to allow three referrals to the video booth per innings at the captain's behest was actually worth it for some of the more incontinent responses. "Stop being such a Victorian writer and come to reality." "It's the same old, predictable traditionalist's reaction." "The trouble with historians is that they are romantics that live in the past and don't look ahead to the future." Again with the T and the R words! For a few, medical attention seemed advisable: "Some of these errors are so blatant that it makes the TV viewer want to puke." And at the risk of an even more emetic response from the Cricinfo commentariat, it might be worth here a slight further elaboration, with no thought of persuading anyone, but the intent of reflecting on what an attachment to the past is good for - and what, perhaps, it is not. Argument against the ICC's recommendation only partly concerns technology in cricket. There's no doubt that use of the replay in line calls has been extremely efficacious, both in terms of justice done and skills rewarded. The dividends for a direct hit, an act of excellence, grew considerably; the potential cost of failing to judge a run correctly, a mistake, rose sharply.

The ICC's new system is of a different character. Undoubtedly it will prevent the occasional howler. But how many of these are there? And how great would the improvement really be? The usefulness of technology for caught-behinds and lbws is unclear. The Snicko involves a retrospective marriage of sound to picture, and sound is in any case not an entirely faithful indicator of contact. Hawk-Eye parades beguilingly perfect parabolae while keeping from us its margin for error. What, furthermore, is the cost? For nothing, even the relentless march of logic, is without cost.

One of cricket's most important statutes is Law 3.7: "The umpire is the sole judge of fair and unfair play." It is no longer possible to argue this in an absolute sense. At home, where vastly more people consume cricket than in person, the umpire proposes but television disposes. On the field, however, the umpire is in charge, despite the concern expressed by one commenter last week: "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." Obviously when insanity is congenital, it begins to seem like normal behaviour.

Under the ICC's proposal, that is no longer the case. The umpire's word is no longer final, and the way the game is moving, one suspects it will become increasingly preliminary. As is widely known, the referral system trialled in England last season was an abject failure. Obviously, in the great tradition of Soviet science under Josef Stalin, it is intended that the experiment be repeated until the right result is achieved.

But let us say there is a problem with umpiring standards. And let us say that an innovative solution is required. Very well, then: let us ban appealing, which has reached operatic and minatory extremes that favour not the most honest players but the most calculatedly histrionic. I mean, have you tried doing your job with 11 belligerent men shouting at you, then cursing you under their breath?

Always accepting the debate-ability of the ICC's figures of 90-plus % accuracy in decision making - which suggest that the figure would improve to 110% if they simply got shot of Rudi Koertzen - it is perhaps surprising that umpires get as much right as they do. Who can say that the chief reason for Steve Bucknor's awful gaffe involving Rahul Dravid at Sydney earlier this year was not the intimidating spontaneity of the Australian appeal? If the ball had passed Dravid's edge amid a cordon of pious mutes, what are the odds Bucknor would have given it out?

 
 
The referral system further entrenches television's dominion over the game, while appealing is part of the colour and movement that make cricket telegenic. What's the bet, in fact, that those dimensions of cricket best serving its home-viewing spectacle will be protected and nurtured in future, while those that do not will become vulnerable regardless of the potential cost?
 

Everybody knows that players go up with razor-edged conviction for anything in the same postcode as out, then assume martyred postures, staring disconsolately into the middle distance if and when they do not get their way, the purpose being to seed doubt in the umpire's mind. Thus would a ban on appealing not just improve the working conditions for umpires but also reduce the ethical wriggle room that players have arrogated to themselves.

Yes, logic demands it, hard-headed realism brooks no argument. But - hang on a moment - cricket has always had appealing. It is so exciting. It is so dramatic. It is part of the romance of the game. Damn these footling traditions! Damn these hopeless romantics standing in the way of progress!

It'll never happen, of course - fair enough too. But one suspects that the reason it won't will have nothing to do with cricket; rather will it be because of cricket's increasing thrall to television's values. The referral system further entrenches television's dominion over the game, while appealing is part of the colour and movement that make cricket telegenic. What's the bet, in fact, that those dimensions of cricket best serving its home-viewing spectacle will be protected and nurtured in future, while those that do not will become vulnerable regardless of the potential cost? This bears watching at least as much as the IPL.

The opposition being set up between imagined progressives and malign reactionaries, then, is little better than name-calling. Ideas are either mainly good or mainly bad, and the cry of "innovation" is no more compelling than the invocation of "tradition" - actually, sometimes less, when what is being replaced is flawed but essentially workable.

Nor is the opposition all it sometimes seems. Consider two views of umpiring: the view that cricket is still a game, that if the worst thing that happens to you is your favourite player being given out dubiously but in good faith by an official under extreme pressure, then yours has been a blessedly sheltered life; and the view that mistakes made by umpires are calamities of world-shaking proportions and flagrant offences to justice worth any price to prevent. Which of those is the romantic position, and which the realistic?

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer