February 3, 2010

Make the third umpire proactive

It may disempower the two men on the field but failing to do so could make them unbending, self-protecting not-outers instead

"First an ugly, growing roar of protest, then a storm of boos, finally, from far back in the open stand to the right of the pavilion, the bottles. Lobbed like hand-grenades, the opening volleys bounced separately along the boundary edge. Within seconds these had grown into thick showers, not from this stand only, but from all round the ground … The whole playing area was a confusion of darting figures, of gesticulating mobs, of isolated but brutal fights…"

Such were Alan Ross's lyrically wincing recollections of the riot that disfigured and interrupted the second Test in Port-of-Spain half a century ago this week. Those of England's captain, Peter May, were typically understated and characteristically stiff-upper-lipped, but no less unnerving:

"It was quite frightening. Fred Trueman grabbed a stump and placed himself in front of me. 'They won't touch you, skipper,' he said. I appreciated the thought but was not quite sure that this was the way to restore peace. By then, however, it was clear that the situation was hopeless. The ground authorities had been caught completely by surprise, so we had no alternative but to retreat and await the riot squad."

Unsurprisingly, the trigger for the riot - if not the underlying cause, which ultimately lay with the social and political problems that accompanied the laudable but doomed attempt to federate and unite the Caribbean islands - was an umpiring decision. West Indies were heading for defeat and the latest wicket, of Charran Singh, had been a reasonably clear-cut run-out. "The umpire's decision is final," proclaimed Learie Constantine, ashamed at the violent fall-out. "Without that there is no cricket."

We have come a long way in the 50 years since that sorry day, mirroring as it did the bottle-throwing at Bourda in 1954 and anticipating another riot at Sabina Park in 1968. No longer is the umpire's decision final - or at least not his first decision. Not only is it open to endless reinterpretation; it is also merely a starting point for negotiation. That, in itself, is not to be bemoaned. Far from it. As the stakes have grown, so the price of inefficient adjudication has risen.

Regrettable as it is to see the perpetrators of unintentional errors crucified as if they were criminals, the Umpire Decision Review System has performed the game a considerable service by exposing Daryl Harper's manifest and manifold shortcomings. It has also exposed the fraudsters who stand their ground, mouth oaths and glare daggers when they know full well they have edged or gloved the ball. Over the past month I've seen more batsmen vacating the crease briskly, even walking, than during the past four decades. You know that can't be bad.

Dave Richardson, the ICC's admirable general manager, claims that, courtesy the UDRS, the proportion of correct decisions has surged from 91% to 98%. Even the massed ranks of sceptics and cynics cannot object to that. Yet reservations linger. And niggle.

Surely HotSpot, Snicko and the gang should be available for all or none. If the aim is to improve the game at large, how can the casting vote be permitted to rely on the depth of the broadcasters' coffers? For Richardson to defend the ICC's refusal to finance the technology because it would deprive the Associate nations of funding seems ingenuous

SPORT IS CURRENTLY in the throes of a technological love affair, rendering the obstinate resistance within the most popular game, soccer, ever more inexplicable. It all began with horse racing and steward's inquiries. Tennis, rugby and American football have all embraced HawkEye, alternative camera angles and/or the slow-motion replay, and reaped the benefits. In the Canadian Football League, the referral system, which the cricketing model otherwise replicates, rewards successful appellants by granting them an additional challenge. Baseball, so long a haven for human error, has recently taken the tentative step of utilising replays, initially at least, to assess the legitimacy of home runs. Even boxing is contemplating deploying technology to rule on illegal blows and injuries. And justice for all … and all that.

Because of the multiplicity and diversity of decisions involved, and the slenderness of the margins between right and wrong, between narrowly in and fractionally out, cricket's long march into this brave new world - it is now almost two decades since television was first employed to arbitrate on run-outs - was always going to attract the most controversy (similar as baseball is, wickets are far more elusive than outs, the strike zone stipulated but strictly invisible and hence highly subjective). Foremost among the debating points, and the most pressing issue for the impending independent review by Clive Lloyd and the barrister Brent Lockie to address, is the blatant unevenness of the playing field.

After all, how can it possibly be fair and just that a batsman can be reprieved in Durban but not Dhaka, given out in Birmingham but not Barbados? Surely HotSpot, Snicko and the gang should be available for all or none. If the aim is to improve the game at large, how can the casting vote be permitted to rely on the depth of the broadcasters' coffers? For Richardson to defend the ICC's refusal to finance the technology because it would deprive the Associate nations of funding seems ingenuous. At best.

Yet what vexes even more is that players can now openly question umpires, are entitled to question them, even encouraged to question them. For years, Dennis Lillee and many others could express dissent at will, but then legislation was introduced and fines imposed, albeit arguably not frequently enough, nor heavily enough. Now their heirs have licence to challenge, to potentially demean. Goodness knows what example this sets to younger generations, unattended as school and club games are by the all-seeing camera.

In American football it is the coaches, who have instant and constant access to replays, who do the challenging. This seems far more decorous and proper, and more likely to result in success. Out on the greensward, referrals, as often as not, are requested in the turbulent heat of the moment, in anger and/or disbelief, without the support of televisual evidence.

Such are the constraints of the referral system, moreover, that once a team has exhausted its challenges, whether through ill-luck or poor and/or hasty judgement, there remains plenty of scope for the sort of howlers Richardson and his chums pride themselves in having slashed if not quite exterminated. As Mike Selvey pointed out in the Observer, an erroneous not-out decision has always been deemed a lesser sin than incorrectly sending a batsman on his way. The danger, he concludes with all the passion of a frequently-wronged former bowler, is that the UDRS will breed a new generation of Dickie Birds, of unbending, self-protecting not-outers. It is a legitimate concern.

Is there a way to resolve this unsatisfactory state of affairs? Perhaps. Rather than being regarded as a third party, an optional extra, a last resort, the third umpire must be incorporated as part of a fully-fledged, inter-dependent, mutually supportive and equal team. He must be permitted to be proactive rather than merely reactive.

Consider the following scenario, one that cropped up time and again during the recent Basil D'Oliveira Trophy series and one that will probably materialise again in Nagpur (aside from the fact that the series will not have UDRS) this weekend. Zaheer Khan angles an inswinger into Graeme Smith's pads, whereupon the ball straightens and strikes South Africa's captain on the knee-roll as his forward press takes him to the farthest edge of his crease. A lusty, concerted appeal rents the afternoon air.

However, instead of hoisting an educated guess of a forefinger, Ian Gould demurs, alerted by a brief yet insistent buzzing in his ear. Up in the pavilion, the third umpire, who did the buzzing, believes there is room for doubt. Would the ball have singed the stumps or crept over? He scrutinises the replays for a minute, maybe two, then relays his verdict to Gould.

Yes, Gould may well feel a trifle disempowered, a bit less manly. Yes, the time taken might even rob the paying customers of an over. Then again, if any sport can afford to take its time to get things right, it is assuredly cricket. We already hold up play to rule whether the ball has crossed the boundary.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton