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.

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