August 13, 2008

Rope for reviews

The system may have thrown up more questions than foreseen but it deserves a fair go

The human factor: the review system is only as good as the men who run it © AFP

Without quite intending it, cricket's lawmakers may have unleashed a process that could change the game profoundly. The outcome of the provision to review umpiring decisions has been startlingly different from what was intended. It was meant to get rid of obvious umpiring mistakes - the kind in the Sydney Test that threatened to derail India's tour of Australia - but it has ended up ruling on marginal calls.

The review system didn't influence the result of the series - Sri Lanka were palpably the better side over the three Tests - but it threw up more possibilities and implications than anticipated.

The first batsman to be given out under the experiment was Virender Sehwag, in the second innings of the first Test. It was a leg-before, the kind that would, pre-review, invariably have gone in favour of the batsman: only half of the ball landed on the line of leg stump. As it turned out, the decision was wrong, involving two mistakes, one from the third umpire and one from the projection system.

Those endorsing the trial - and that included Anil Kumble - probably were hoping for clarity when it came to such instances as the thick deviation off Andrew Symonds' bat in Sydney, which apparently everyone apart from Steve Bucknor heard. As it turned out, only one obvious mistake - involving a thick inside edge by Rahul Dravid in the first Test that the on-field umpire didn't spot - was corrected under the review system. There was also the top edge off Sachin Tendulkar's bat behind his pad that was given out under the review, which the on-field umpire couldn't justifiably have been expected to spot. It was justice done for Sri Lanka, but had the decision gone in the batsman's favour, it would have been understandable.

However, it turned out that a majority of review appeals involved lbws: 39 out of 48 to be exact. More interestingly, of the 12 successful appeals, seven involved lbws, and it became increasingly apparent that the umpires were willing to overrule their original opinion after they received additional information from the camera. In most of these cases, batsmen had been ruled not out apparently because the umpire had been unsure about where the ball had pitched or about the line of impact. In the process, an age-old code of cricket, unwritten but unfailingly honoured, was overturned. The benefit of doubt was no longer extended to the batsman.

That is not necessarily a bad thing. The balance of the game has kept shifting in favour of batsmen. Every piece of legislation drawn up in the last few decades has been designed to facilitate strokeplay and run-scoring. Bats have grown thicker and boundaries have shrunk. So a system of justice that is designed to deliver more guilty verdicts against batsmen is only welcome. Potentially a more stringent lbw regime can do for bowlers what covered pitches and helmets did for batsmen. It's about time.

But, and this is a big but, for that to happen, the implementation will need to be uniform, and it is difficult to see how that can happen. In this series alone there were obvious inconsistencies. Ignoring the Sehwag dismissal, which was a blatant mistake, there was the case of Thilan Samaraweera being adjudged not-out when the replay showed him to be as plumb as Dravid was shown to have been on two occasions. But the umpire - Mark Benson, who had a poor series overall - chose to stick to his original decision. You can bring in as much technology as possible, but as long as it is down to human interpretation, inconsistencies are inevitable, and so are controversies.

Top Curve
Reviews: the numbers
  • Total reviews 48
  • Successful 12 (Sri Lanka 11, India 1)
  • Unsuccessful 36 (India 20, Sri Lanka 16)
  • Appeals for lbw 39 (Successful 7, Unsuccessful 32)
  • Appeals for caught-behind/close-in 9 (Successful 5, Unsuccessful 4)
  • Bowlers involved in review calls
    Mendis 14, Muralitharan 12, Harbhajan 8, Kumble 5, Zaheer 3, Prasad 2, Sehwag 2, Ishant 1, Vaas 1
  • above includes batsman and bowler appeals

Bottom Curve

Prima facie it would appear that Sri Lanka profited under the system. They won 11 out of their 27 appeals - an extra innings, as it were. India won a solitary appeal out of 21. But to hold the review system out as the decisive factor in the series will be to obfuscate. Sri Lanka were deserving winners, and they won because they had Ajantha Mendis, a spinner very few Indian batsmen could read. And that they won so many appeals points to the fact that they created many more chances and that their captain was sharper and more alive to the possibilities.

It would not be a surprise if Kumble and Mahela Jayawardene offered different opinions to the ICC sub-committee formed to discuss the future of the process, but the decision should not be based on what happened in this one series. The review process must be further trialled during the Champions Trophy, which will allow all international teams to sample it. Learning from the lessons of the Test series, the ICC must ensure that the best technology available is used.

Virtual Eye's projections were shown up to be blatantly wrong at times: to cite one example, on review of an appeal by Prasanna Jayawardene, who had been adjudged leg-before - wrongly as it turned out because the ball had hit him above the flap - the impact was shown to be well in front of the crease when he had actually been hit on the back leg, inside the crease. There is no guarantee that similar will not happen with Hawk-Eye, because ultimately it is down to those installing the cameras and operating the systems, but it might be a question of greater experience.

There are no guarantees when it comes to HotSpot either. Mark Boucher seemed happy to walk off after being adjudged caught behind in the first innings at The Oval, but HotSpot revealed no impact. Still, of the technology available, there isn't anything more foolproof than HotSpot.

But more than anything else, there must be clarity over how it works between the on-field umpire and the third umpire over leg-before decisions. It will be too radical to suggest the communication between them be broadcast for the sake of transparency, but at the moment there is too much scope for speculation. Should the review be limited to merely judging where the ball pitched? After all, that's a line call - provided they get the pitch mat right.

Before a final decision can be taken on the way forward, the system must be given the best available opportunity to succeed, or fail. After that it is down to all those involved - players, administrators, and umpires - to decide which way cricket must head.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo