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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Peter on February 6, 2010, 11:40 GMT

    The solution to all of this is quite simple - do not use Hawkeye at all. Snicko, HotSpot and good old fashioned replays are all that is needed to remove the howlers from the game. It has been a shame watching batsmen going straight for a referral on an LBW in the hope that Hawkeye will show it missing the stumps by a few millimetres - this is not fair on the umpires and will as mentioned turn them into "self-protecting not outers". The howlers we want to see gotten rid of from the game are the massive nicks into the pads that are given out LBW (as in last night T20 between Aus and Pak) or the nicks that are missed by the umpire that everyone else on the field has heard - these are both situations where either the batsmen has hit it or not, and Hawkeye has no role to play in these situations. Use replays for run outs or stumpings as has always been the case, use the best available technology for the bad decisions, and get rid of the technology that is ruining this system.

  • Stephen on February 5, 2010, 11:19 GMT

    I agree, but I'd go further. First, giving players the power to challenge the umpire lessens the umpire's authority so the review should be automatic and instigated by either the onfield or third umpire and not the players.

    Secondly, if the purpose is to get bad decisions out of the game why limit teams to two unsuccessful reviews? If two close calls were turned down and left with the on field umpire and then he makes a howler why can that not be reviewed?

    Thirdly, to encourage walking when the ball has been hit, and to discourage laughable appeals, batsmen should be docked runs if a review reveals that they nicked it and didn't walk, and bolwers should have extras charged against them if more than a set percentage (say two thirds) of their appeals are turned down.

    Finally, the technology must be the best available and it must be at all games, and it must be fast.

  • Michael on February 4, 2010, 22:41 GMT

    @popcorn: "Hawkeye is NOT accurate, and should not be used.Hawkeye ONLY calculates the trajectory,not the resultant reaction between ball and pitch". Hawk-Eye can determine, based on the data that it is fed, the path of the ball (height + direction). If data is provided to it of the ball's path after pitching (30cm or so according to Hawk-Eye's inventor), it can extrapolate that information to predict the path of the ball - because barring some freak gust of wind the conditions aren't going to change between pitching and passing the stumps. Physics dictates that the ball will continue on the trajectory set in those first 30cm after pitching. Yet somehow a computer model, tested, is less accurate than a human eye with parallax error (ie not in the same plane as the ball) that has a fraction of a second to interpret whether there is a skerrick of movement or bounce? Give me a break!! Hawk-Eye all the way!

  • Arnab on February 4, 2010, 20:26 GMT

    In your scenario the umpire would get habituated to waiting for a buzz.

    I agree that 'using up' referrals is stupid. The role of the on-field umpires should be that of tennis line judges: empowerment but overruled by the third umpire in the case of obviously poor decisions. This would also reduce the need for neutral umpires in the middle - one could be neutral, the other local.

    So, the on-field umpire takes the decision for a dismissal, the bastman HAS to walk and, worst case scenario, waits in a holding area if the 3rd umpire feels there is doubt.

    For a non-dismissal, once again the 3rd umpire has to react quickly enough before the next delivery. This will be easy for obvious decisions such as inside edges on lbws or bump balls to short leg or pitching outside the line. For marginal catches, overrules are difficult anyway due to uncertainty and the decision would stand.

    So - use the tennis model.

  • Michael on February 4, 2010, 17:38 GMT

    I like the referal, I think it adds an interesting dynamic to the game. I would prefer though that each player be given one referal per test.

    I also feel that the 3rd umpire should be in communication with the on field umpires. I also like the suggestion made of rotating the 3rd umpire with the onfield umpires.

  • Shrinivas on February 4, 2010, 15:03 GMT

    I guess the standard of umpiring can go up only if they are paid well, and if they are taught the nuances of umpiring. If done so, the use of UDRS doen't arise. And that seems to be the best solution to the problems of umpiring errors.

  • Rajaram on February 4, 2010, 10:19 GMT

    1).The Batting Side AND the Bowling Side should not be alloed to refer decisions.2). Players should BELIEVE that the Umpires are fair and honest.3). They will do so when the On -Field Umpires consult each other - as they do now, for a catch AND consult the Third mpire when THEY think there is ANY element of doubt.4).The On Field Umpire should be empowered to freely call for a Referral to the Third Umpire for ANY lbw or nick decisions that he feels is doubtful.5). The Third Umpire should be empowered to inform an Onfield Umpire that his decision is incorrect,EVEN WITHOUT THE ONFIELD UMPIRE REFERRING IT TO HIM. This will endear to cricketers,support staff,media,and spectators alike,that fairness to the batting side or fielding side is indeed happening.6) Only proven technology such as Cameras for Run -Outs, Hotspot for nicks /edges/lbws should be used.Hawkeye is NOT accurate, and should not be used.Hawkeye ONLY calculates the trajectory,not the resultant reaction between ball and pitch.

  • Mark on February 4, 2010, 5:40 GMT

    a little off track here but, i have always thought umpiring for 5 days must be hard without a break, so why not rotate the umpires between on field and 3rd ump? It gives them a break and may cut down of fatigue related errors. One session in the box and two in the field!

  • Cameron on February 4, 2010, 4:15 GMT

    Riverline, why is it ideal for the game to be played without the need for on field umpires. What you say is an absolute joke. If we did away with on field umpiring in any sport, there would be no control of the game, you would have both sides sledging each other and a possible fight may occur on the ground. Can you imagine what would have happened with Dennis Lillee and Javed Mihandad if umpire Tony Crafter wasn't there to separate them? The onfield umpire's job is not just about making decisions, its about overseeing the behavour of players and to ensure the game is played in the right spirit and to ensure that everyone is safe on the field.

  • Rajasundram on February 4, 2010, 3:15 GMT

    You are quite right Bob. Technology should be used in ALL TEST MATCHES. Giving more power to third umpire is great - can help the on-field umpire make better decisions on marginal cases. Do away with the UDRS but give more power to the third umpire. This way the umpire's decision is final - you cannot challenge the umpire's decision - the purists will be happy - but at the same time we embrace technology, with the proviso that all available technology must be present in all test matches - the home board to be held responsible! Siva from Singapore

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