March 3, 2011

Grey is the colour of the DRS

The review system is still mired in controversy, as the Ian Bell reprieve and its fallout show

By some cosmic design, it was India's lot to be on the wrong end of one of the peculiarities of the Decision Review System (the "U" has been dropped in deference to the sentiments of the umpires) in the World Cup, to ignite the first umpiring controversy of the World Cup.

Ian Bell looked so out on the giant screen, he had started walking. Apparently none of the players - certainly neither MS Dhoni nor Andrew Strauss - were aware of the regulation that reprieved Bell, who was originally given not out to a leg-before appeal, a decision that was challenged by the Indians. Though the replays suggested the ball was heading towards middle stump, by rule this evidence wasn't deemed conclusive since the impact had been 2.5 metres down the wicket.

Do you have to read that all over again for it to make sense?

Now consider this: this regulation was apparently introduced on account of misgivings expressed about the tracking technology by the players.

Of course Dhoni should have known the rules, which are the same for every team, but his lament about the "adulteration of technology with human thinking" had a philosophical resonance to it. That it has led to a mild skirmish between the ICC and the BCCI is perhaps predictable, but it would be unfortunate if the issue snowballs into yet another instance of the Indian board trying to impose its might on global cricket.

It is ironic that the BCCI, and an influential section of Indian players, should be the biggest opponents of the review system, which owes its genesis to a few glaring errors in the Sydney Test in 2008, which a majority of Indians perceived as a miscarriage of justice.

And while it is unacceptable that the same form of the game should played under different regulations - as is done in Tests involving India, or those played in Pakistan, where the broadcaster is unable to afford the required technology - it shouldn't obscure the case that the DRS, which is still evolving, has some serious questions hanging over it.

For the sake of clarity it is important to consider a couple of basic issues. What is the fundamental objective of the system? If man and machine are both liable are produce controversies, which kind are we more prepared to live with? What is more acceptable: mistakes produced by machines from which expect perfection, or from men whose fallibility is like our own?

The answer to the first question is straightforward. The review system was introduced to eliminate howlers of the kind seen in Sydney. But what it has led to instead is random, whimsical, and on many occasions ludicrous, challenges based on hope, desperation and sometimes just for the sake of it.

Anyone who has played or followed cricket seriously will agree that players and fans feel most aggrieved when mistakes to do with edges are made. When crowds are noisy, umpires are genuinely disadvantaged in this regard. But yet, a majority of challenges, in this World Cup and otherwise, have involved leg-before decisions. In some cases, blatantly wrong decisions have been corrected, but many cases have been marginal. The fundamental truth is that, given the predictive nature of the decision, both players and fans, however aggrieved they may feel at the time, are willing allow some latitude to the umpire. The machines are yet to convince anyone that they can, in absolute terms, separate black from white. There are challenges from the conditions, equipment, the men who operate the machines, and the distance between the point of impact and the stumps. Once we accept that grey exists, both in the case of man and machine, it comes down to a question of percentages. And what's more acceptable: errors by human or errors by machines.

It's always been my case that the makers of the DRS have it wrong in entrusting the predictive part of decision-making to machines that can neither deliver absolute results nor convince anyone that they are foolproof. Instead of asking the players and the fans to take a leap of faith, the game will be better off if the review system is restricted to areas where incontrovertible evidence is available. Tennis, the only other sport that uses ball-tracking technology, bases the review on visual evidence. Cricket has long used the camera for other line decisions without any grief. So should it be for lbws: pitch mats can also go wrong if the cameras are not positioned right, but that is something that can be controlled. Limiting the review to where the ball pitched and the point of impact would take conjecture out of the equation.

As Nasser Hussain pointed out on television after the Ian Bell incident, Indian fans must figure out which side of the line they stand on: they can't support their team's scepticism about ball-tracking technology, and also use the projection provided by the same technology to fulminate against the Bell decision

Of course the matter is not so simple. Fans and the media will see the projections and judge the umpires by them. And fans and the media, and indeed the players themselves, can be notoriously fickle. As Nasser Hussain pointed out on television after the Ian Bell incident, Indian fans must figure out which side of the line they stand on: they can't, on the one hand, support their team's scepticism about ball-tracking technology, and on the other, use the projection provided by the same technology to fulminate against the Bell decision.

The DRS has many other problems too. HotSpot, the technology players seem to trust more, isn't available everywhere, and is so expensive that many broadcasters can't afford it. There is still no resolution about who should pay for the technology (the broadcasters are right in their stand that their obligation is to the television viewer, not the ICC). Catches close to the ground are impossible to judge with the camera. And most fundamentally, the system isn't designed to deliver justice for all (two injudicious reviews by his team-mates can deny a player the chance to seek justice for himself).

The final question the administrators must themselves is: do they want to make a complex game more complex? What is the use of creating a new set of complications in trying sort out old ones? Let's take this clause as an example of how muddled things can get:

3.6. Dead ball
a) If following a Player Review request, an original decision of "Out" is changed to "Not Out", then the ball is still deemed to have become dead when the original decision was made (as per Law 23.1(a)(iii)). The batting side, while benefiting from the reversal of the dismissal, will not benefit from any runs that may subsequently have accrued from the delivery had the on-field umpire originally made a "Not Out" decision, other than any No Balls penalty that could arise under 3.3 (g) above.

But what happens if the ball crosses the boundary before the umpire decides to declare the batsman out, and the decision is then overturned to not out? Should the batting side then be denied legitimate runs? Or should, for sake of justice, the ball then be re-bowled, just as points are replayed in tennis?

The larger point is that the game can survive the odd mistake from the umpire. It faces far greater challenges with regard to the scheduling of the international calendar, on which the very future of the game depends, and in the shape of match-fixing, which threatens the integrity and the very soul of cricket.

Sambit Bal is the editor of ESPNcricinfo