February 9, 2011

Will the UDRS be proved a good thing?

The review system has, faults notwithstanding, the potential to be a boon for cricket. If Indian players and the BCCI warm to it during the World Cup, its future is bright

According to Professor Sherry Turkle's new book Alone Together - Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, Japan's lonely elderly have found a companion in Paro, a cuddly robotic baby seal that responds to the human voice and a kindly hand. The relationship may be utterly one-sided - the robot, of course, lacks the capacity to care - and the level of communication questionable, but the humans have felt the benefits. To dismiss this as self-delusion is to miss the point: owners believe they have found a friend. And perception, in this case, is all.

From cloning to chads, finding reasons to be fearful about automation and technology is scarcely a challenge. Professor Turkle is especially condemnatory about the way Facebook is eroding our ability to experience the full, rich gamut of human experience. But when the benefits outweigh the costs, why resist? Which is why, while much is hanging on this tenth World Cup, including the very future of the 50-over fray itself, nothing will matter more than the performance of, and reception to, the Umpire Decision Review System.

For the first time in a major global event the UDRS is about to be deployed, albeit without the infra-red nous of Hot Spot, which would have been such an asset amid the oft-deafening din and indifferent light. As with any modern cricketing venture, the future of one of the most potentially far-reaching concepts the old game has ever known will almost certainly depend on whether India can a) come to terms with it and b) exploit it.

Trouble is, mental roadblocks were erected in Colombo and Galle from the moment Sri Lanka trounced Dhoni and pals on the review count when the UDRS took its first tentative steps in 2008. The irony in the unfortunate unavailability of Hot Spot lies not with the fact that this military-tested gizmo has proven so effective in tennis, but that it was the one device favoured by both Simon Taufel and the BCCI itself.

To claim, nevertheless, that technological gremlins are reason enough to chuck out baby with bathwater is to misunderstand, wilfully or otherwise, the system's purpose. The aim is to eliminate, as far as humanly/machinely possible, something the ICC originally characterised, rather cleverly, as "howlers". This is not about attaining perfection but reducing imperfection. Only the latter is within the capabilities of mere mortals. Or even, bless 'em, those nifty machines.

LET'S REWIND to the hotly contested conception of the review system, for which Senaka Weeratana, a lawyer, believes we must thank/berate him - and not, repeat not, the ICC. He has been arguing for some time, and with some vehemence, that it was his letter to Colombo's Sunday Times, on April 6, 1997, the first of many such, that sowed the seeds. In an ocean of common sense, that letter likened the players' right to challenge to the appeal of a "dissatisfied litigant". As Simon Barnes put it recently in the Times: "Referral is not dissent, it is a legitimate process of truth-seeking."

At Old Trafford three months after Senaka's missive was published, Greg Blewett was given out to a horribly un-straightforward catch by Nasser Hussain - for which the available TV replays, foreshortening as they still do, proved inconclusive. Shane Warne went beserk; Alan Crompton, Australia's tour manager, dipped into Greek mythology. TV replays were already deployed for line decisions, he noted: how can you half-open Pandora's Box? That it took more than a decade to extend the principle is to be lamented, but better late than never. A decade and a half down the road and the big-screen test is finally here.

That there are inconsistencies and grey areas was underlined during the Ashes on an almost daily basis, descending to the unsightliness of Ricky Ponting and Aleem Dar's one-sided re-enactment of that Faisalabad fracas between Mike Gatting and Shakoor Rana. (Fines have clearly been no deterrent to Prickly Ricky, so bring on the red and yellow cards.)

More encouragingly, even while observing Michael Clarke swing effortlessly from Selfless Man of Principle to Cheating Bustard (for which, to give him his due, he did publicly and swiftly apologise), even a fully qualified cynic could sense a small revival for the occasionally noble art of walking. "There's less incentive to stay," as David Gower delicately put it on air after Clarke had thin-edged in Brisbane and offed himself. If you know you're going to look like a charlatan long before the morning papers slide under your hotel room door, why not buff up the image?

Technology has also, glory be, been a boon for spinners. "I wasn't a fan [of the UDRS] until I realised I could get 50 more lbws," chirped Graeme Swann. "It used to be so easy for left-handers to stick their leg down the middle and get away with it. I think reviews are the biggest single factor in the spinners' rise over the last couple of years."

On the other hand, as Sambit Bal has pointed out, whereas last year's haul of 32 successful reviews suggests the system has succeeded manfully/machine-fully in limiting those aforementioned howlers, the 89 unsuccessful ones infer that players are being manipulative, challenging "in hope rather than with conviction". Witness Ian Bell in Sydney as 2011 began. Given out caught off Shane Watson by Dar, he only requested a review after consulting his partner, Matt Prior. Something snick-like was certainly audible but Hot Spot detected nowt and, after a tolerable delay, Dar, having "gone upstairs", recanted. Whereupon Snicko, employed only for the viewers' benefit, appeared to confirm an edge, undermining Taufel's claim, on the manufacturer's website, that Hot Spot is "100%" effective. All of a sudden, our Belly bore rather less resemblance to the cherubic choirboy of common perception.

How in the name of Steve Bucknor's right forefinger can it possibly be right and proper that a batsman be adjudged leg-before in Perth yet survive the same delivery in Pune? It's not a matter of all or nothing; better some than none. It is a matter of principle and sound governance

Then there are those tactical/psychological reviews that seek only to boost a batsman or bowler's confidence, emphasising their value, or even as an early statement of aggression - "We're perfectly willing to waste one if it means getting under your skin…"

In the wake of the mini-firestorm in Brisbane after Ponting claimed he had caught Alastair Cook, the MCC World Cricket Committee, choc-a-bloc with illustrious ex-players, proposed that disputed low catches should not be sent to the third umpire because the cameras rarely clarify matters. Ah, but surely rarely is better than never? Ponting has long advocated that such catches should "stay on the field", i.e. be settled by some ancient, grossly exaggerated and ritually abused code of gentlemanly honour. Those WCC sages argued, quite rightly, that this would be fiendishly awkward to implement, so leave it to the umps.

I also heard an intriguing proposal from Alan Fordham, once an England A opener, now one of the wisest heads at the ECB. Rather than two reviews per innings, why not proffer a certain number per match, say half a dozen? That way, he reasons, there would be less chance of the more conspicuous breed of howler that spared Mike Hussey in Perth when England had run out of reviews. Make it four per side and I'm with him.

Enough food for thought, then, to nourish Archimedes. Happily the ICC is not indisposed to the odd tinker (though specifics are awaited). As chief executive Haroon Lorgat stressed mid-Ashes, just as temperatures and tempers were rising: "It is not there to get a wicket when you are struggling to find one, it is there to fix the obvious errors." (The decision to dispense with the less seemly "howler" was doubtless both conscious and corporate). Cook's referral on the fourth day in Brisbane, after being given out caught off an arm, was, according to Lorgat, a "classic" example, the very quintessence, of the UDRS. "That's exactly what it is for," he proclaimed, "and I'm quite confident we are near to the ideal. We will never have it 100% right." For once, it was hard to find much fault with a dispatch from Dubai.

Indeed, almost everywhere, for all the misgivings and gripes, the ayes have outnumbered the nays, and by some margin. "It's something that we all have to get used to, and it's taken us a while," admitted AB de Villiers, yet he'd like to see it "being used in all cricket". The bottom line? Has the UDRS made cricket juster? One proven edge would have achieved that; Hawk-Eye et al have delivered dozens more.

Of course, the gnawing problem of financing still looms as large and destructively as King Kong atop the Empire State Building. The principal quandary posed by the UDRS right now is neither its technical shortcomings nor ethical ramifications. Given the available solution, how in the name of Steve Bucknor's right forefinger can it possibly be right and proper that a batsman be adjudged leg-before in Perth yet survive the same delivery in Pune? It's not a matter of all or nothing; better some than none. It is a matter of principle and sound governance.

If the UDRS is deemed A Good Thing, then it is surely time to acknowledge that it is every bit as worthy of investment as stadiums and floodlights. And if Lorgat and his confreres can't persuade the broadcasters to go 50-50 on the cost of the technology, its priorities would be called into question even more fervently than they are already.

And so back to that final hurdle: India. All may rest on an early and successful referral by Sachin Tendulkar, or a profitable review against him. Simplistic and borderline insulting? Perhaps. Then again, for mankind in general and cricket-kind in particular, the future has a habit of hingeing on molehills of fate rather than mountains of reason.

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