March 29, 2009

Bugs in the machine

A look at why the umpiring referrals system is flawed

So much for the adage, "the umpire is always right". The referral system has put paid to that theory.

The referral system is being trialled in an attempt to ensure the correct decision is reached, but it's been shown to have more flaws than the Empire State building. The fact that the maximum number of unsuccessful referrals was reduced from three to two is an indicator of why it's better not to conduct trials at the highest level of the game. Doing it in a Test match led to an embarrassing situation in Durban.

Phillip Hughes attempted a sweep shot, took a single, and the umpire signalled a leg-bye. Graeme Smith promptly asked for an lbw referral and the replay showed Hughes had edged the ball. Consequently Hughes couldn't be out lbw and South Africa had wasted a referral because of an umpiring error, leaving Smith with only one remaining challenge and Australia no wickets down.

If Smith had stated before the series that he preferred not to play under a system being trialled at Test level, he would've been justified in refusing to bowl the next ball until the umpire-induced wasted referral had been reinstated.

Unfortunately that's just one of many problems with the referral system.

There are far too many marginal lbw decisions being challenged. The standing umpire is in the best position to decide lbw decisions, not a camera perched on high, 100 metres from the action.

Fifty-fifty decisions don't cause on-field acrimony or affect results, because everyone accepts them and gets on with the game. As New Zealand captain Daniel Vettori said after first experiencing the referral system, "It should only be used to correct blatant mistakes."

Then there's the technology itself. The "mat" that's used to decide whether a ball has pitched in line with the stumps can accidentally move out of alignment and therefore should only be an entertainment tool for television, not something that decides a batsman's fate.

In the South Africa series Hot Spot was not available in the first Test because the television company didn't want to pay for the rights. They then had a change of heart and purchased Hot Spot for the final two Tests. That meant a series that was already being played under a different set of laws from the one running concurrently in the Caribbean, was suddenly being conducted under laws that changed between the first and the final two Tests. Not only does that make a mockery of Test statistics, it also devalues the game.

As good as Hot Spot is, it's not foolproof. For instance, a suspected inside edge in Durban was hidden from view by the batsman's follow-through. This just adds to the feeling of "justice for some but not for all" that the referral system creates.

There are far too many marginal lbw decisions being challenged. The standing umpire is in the best position to decide lbw decisions, not a camera perched on high, 100 metres from the action

This brings us to the matter of who is responsible for the technology used to assist umpires in making their decisions? It's cricket's job to ensure the technology is on site, and if the cost of it is to be in the television-rights package, then so be it.

If cricket is determined to have on-field decisions reversed by off-field evidence, then the third umpire must be made aware of the pitfalls in making such judgments off video. I know of two television producers with a long history in the business who believe it's more important the third umpire has a full understanding of video rather than the laws of the game.

If cricket must have a challenge system, it would be better it came from the video umpire noting a blatant error and reporting it to the arbiter on the field. This will eradicate challenges over marginal decisions and also provide a system that doesn't encourage captains and players to dispute umpire's decisions.

Another reason given for the introduction of the referral system was to relieve the pressure on the standing umpires and reduce criticism of their performance. Unfortunately what it has done is highlight the inadequacies of the less competent umpires, confirming my opinion that increased scrutiny only puts pressure on the less talented officials.

The ICC's objective is fine - trying to reach the correct decision. However, it would be better achieved by a combination of improving the umpiring standard and sensibly utilising reliable technology. By taking this approach there's more likelihood fans will at least consider that the umpire is always right.

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • stephen on March 31, 2009, 10:15 GMT

    Where else in world sport can a player challenge a standing official on a decision they have made. If this happens in rugby union or league the player is instantly sent from the field. For this reason the referral system is flawed, you should never have a game official being challenged by a player. I find it quite hypocritical that the ICC will fine a player for showing disappointment at being dismissed but on the other hand is gladly asking them to question an umpires decision. The idea of allowing the umpire to refer the decision himself if he is unsure, as is done in other sports, seems to be a far better proposal. This keeps the full control with the umpire and if they arent confident in making the right decision they can call on the 3rd umpire themselves to help come to the right decision.

  • Keith on March 30, 2009, 23:02 GMT

    Ian Chappell raises a new issue regarding the pitch map. This is defintely not an "entertainment tool" -- it is a crucial part of the review system, as it well should be! I expect that video experts can assure the pitch map's accuracy, just as they will need to assure the accuracy of HotSpot and HawkEye. "Chappelli" raises another interesting matter regarding the need for new sorts of training for third umpires utilising video evidence. This seems necessary and inevitable. Thanks to TV commentators in England and Australia, we now have a clearer understanding of the problems relating to assessing whether a slip catch close to ground is taken or grassed based on long-lens video. It will be important for elite umpires who will sit in the third man's chair to be completely abreast of things like this. It adds to the challenge of proper umpire training, but perhaps this is just what is needed to raise the quality of the elite corps about which Chappell is rightly concerned.

  • Jack on March 30, 2009, 20:27 GMT

    I agree with one view - that of Steve Bucknor's. If the umpire thinks it is marginal, he can call for the third umpire, and the third umpire has 3 minutes to make a decision. You don't want the whole game to stop for 10 minutes because 49% pitched outside leg. And whats this about not the whole hawkeye being used? Minutes are being wasted with the third umpire deciding, is it clipping, or going over the top? Yes it may be wrong, but its got more chance of being right that the real umpires. We have to take that chance that maybe there is still a bad decision, 1/200 times. If it saves time, its worth it.

  • Prashant on March 30, 2009, 18:21 GMT

    I fail to understand the perspective of some of the readers as well as Mr Chappell. Sure...we've had some errors from the referral system..but a lot of "errors" have corrected as well. To expect that technology we provide 100% results is naive. This is a work in progress and we should encourage technology to get better, by using it more. Whether Test cricket should be a testing ground or not is debatable, but surely not the use of technology itself. An interesting point comes out from Ian's example of the signal given by the onfield umpire of a legbye and SA asking for a referral. Just goes to show that the fact that the ball edged the bat was missed by the umpire as well as the SA fielders - surely Smith would not have asked for a referral if his fielders knew that the batsman had edged the ball! Technology is never perfect...but then so are human beings, if we can accept their imperfection, lets also accept technolgy's, but perhaps in combination, we can get better results?

  • Yogesh on March 30, 2009, 12:46 GMT

    As an umpire, I would love to be able to refer the marginal decisions to to the TV umpire if I could. There are those that I feel are marginal and don't give, eg, that 'might' have pitched outside leg, contact 'may' have been outside off. If I had the choice, I would definitely'go upstairs'. And then there are those that I plain get wrong, inside edges missed, faintest of nicks not picked up, the dodgy bat-pad decision etc., those where the batsman or bowler have been hard done by and should have a chance to get the right decision. As umpires, we should be thinking of getting it right, and damn our ego problems with being proved wrong. Technology is not perfect, but to say, lets get them all wrong till we can be sure we can get all right is absurd. Lets work through the teething troubles, get the system right and get as many correct decisions as possible.

  • Swami on March 30, 2009, 11:47 GMT

    Whats not clear about the referral system is whether the third umpire is judging to give the benefit of doubt to the umpire or batsman/bowler. Most of the confusion comes because ICC has not given a clear mandate on this to the third umpire.

  • raghav on March 30, 2009, 11:16 GMT

    well.I have been an avid supporter of Ian cHAPPELL.I respect him a lot.His views are always the best and logical,but i am afraid Mr Ian chappell has got his foot horribly wrong this time.I fail to fathom,how can u say that referral system has brought more umpiring decisions???If marcus north edged it then it only brought about the mistake of an on field umpire...who failed to spot an edge...also its early days for the trial system so there are bound to be some flaws!!!I want to dearly tell Mr.chappell that if technology is used for 10 50/50 decisions,atleast 7 would be right...but if incompetent umpires like mr buckoner continue to umpire well past their due date they will give 7 incorrect...Proofs 1)Use the referral system right now in the sydney test and the scoreline would have been 2-1 in favour of India...what a mockery?there were 7-8 decisions against India...i remember...had referral system been there,i need not tell what wud have happened.if the referral system cud have easil

  • Michael on March 30, 2009, 10:55 GMT

    The Technology has only been in use for a limited time, it has mainly been used by the people on Television and so they will know the limits of the technology. So perhaps instead of blaming the third umpires for certain decisions we should stipulate that the third umpires should be better trained in recognising the full extents of the technology they are using. Also to make the game better perhaps television broadcasters should be banned from showing slow motion replays, snicko and hotspots. Although they make for better viewing, they scrutinise the bad decisions that umpires make, but forgo all the correct decisions they do.

    Also the ICC has to ensure that more quality Umpires are used, and since the introduction of the Referral System and Technology then perhaps they should rethink the idea of using Umpires from Neutral countries at the game. Instead use the best umpires with the best correct decisions from around the World.

  • Rob on March 30, 2009, 9:31 GMT

    To continue with the last statement in the article, the adverse effects of using technology are already visible. On-field umpire's decisions are being influenced by the use of technology. Where once the umpire was right full stop, the umpire now is right...unless he's not right. Where once umpire's decisions 'evened out' between the two teams, now we decide that 'we want the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth and we want it now!' Well we've seen off-field umpire's struggle with the new methods. As stated in the article, and mentioned by me much earlier on a cricket forum, technology has its flaws offering only false security. The conclusion can be that although technology MAY be an improvement on decision making in cricket matches, the drawbacks are such, that it might be best to leave it as gadgets for improved televising of cricket matches then to actually be used for decision making. The umpire's always right. That is to say, the on-field umpire.

  • Sharad on March 30, 2009, 7:45 GMT

    I think we need to get away from this Luddite excoriation of all things technological. Nobody claims technology is fool-proof. But if it results in correcting even ONE incorrect decision, it is better than what we currently have. The problem with players is they see the 'romance' of the vagaries of on-field umpiring cock-ups. Unfortunately, the paying public suffer because of blatant errors that are natural when you have only eyesight to refer to. I think one needs to accept that errors will be made with technology as well but if we can use existing it to correct ANY on-field errors, we're better off. Which brings us to the real problem - it's not the technology that is the issue, it's the stupid rules that the ICC insists on placing on umpires. It shouldn't matter WHO see's the error - if there IS an error, it must be corrected immediately. And this includes correcting the number of batsmen given out on no-balls. The only time this is checked is when there is a referral!

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