June 1, 2011

It's India v the rest of the world

Most Test nations and their players are in favour of using the DRS in international cricket. But will the BCCI succeed in influencing the ICC to decide against it?

As edges go, it was the wafer-thin mintest. Audible to cordon if not umpire and viewer - or perhaps even striker (you never know) - yet detected by an almighty burp and a teeny speck on the side of the bat, courtesy those brothers in charms, Snicko and HotSpot. No alternative explanation (bat hitting ground, ball kissing shirt/thigh/pad/passing fly) proffered itself. Sure, when Aleem Dar crossed his forearms and reversed the original not-guilty verdict, Kumar Sangakkara could hardly be described as the jolliest bunny in the warren, yet according to his captain, Tillakaratne Dilshan, not only did the dressing room survive unscathed but the victim had "no complaints" after seeing the evidence for his own eyes.

Wales may have been witnessing it for the first time, but here was merely the latest episode in the soap opera otherwise known as the Decision Review System. If 90% of the Test nations had their way, the umpires' friendliest foe would be as imperative as the stumps. Beyond India, and perhaps Kevin Pietersen, precious few shareholders would argue that it should be terminated with extreme prejudice, yet the challenge, for a sport run by committees representing a towering Babel of diverse tongues, remains stiff.

Ah, committees. Fred Allen, the American comedian, once defined them as "a group of the unprepared, appointed by the unwilling to do the unnecessary" - and he wasn't far off. Nevertheless, cricket currently has two that warrant plaudits rather than pisstakes: the MCC World Cricket Committee and the ICC Cricket Committee. Both are establishing a robust reputation for refusing to put tradition before innovation, and for acknowledging that the game, if it is to continue to withstand all the myriad obstacles thrown up by 21st century life, must be receptive, above all, to the wants and needs of players and spectators. Both, needless to say, firmly support the DRS and have contributed to its evolution.

Let's consider the members of these august bodies. The 19-strong MCC committee boasts 15 ex-captains from nine Test nations, including Mikes Atherton and Brearley, Rahul Dravid, Majid Khan, Courtney Walsh and Steve Waugh, an umpire with more than 100 Tests on his CV in Steve Bucknor, and Dave Richardson, the ICC general manager, whose versatile backside also sits on the Laws sub-committee. Their remit, critically, includes ensuring "that governing body decisions never put cash or country interests before the good of the game". You don't get much worthier than that.

Not the least of the MCC's causes has been the World Test Championship, now just years from belated reality. Another hobby horse is the scarcity of former players in key administrative roles (in contrast with UEFA, say, whose head honcho is that most resplendent of Gallic muddied oafs, Michel Platini), hence the members' palpable delight at Anil Kumble's recent election as president of the Karnataka State Cricket Association. If we ever see a pink new ball taken at 10pm in a Test, these blokes will be smiling.

"Given the power and influence of BCCI on ICC decision-making, it is more than likely that ICC outcomes will be once again a decision based on what is best for the BCCI rather than the greater interests of the sport"
Tim May, the FICA chief executive, isn't optimistic about a favourable decision being taken on the DRS

While the ICC panel has more vested interests - witness a brace of ICC bigwigs in Sharad Pawar and Haroon Lorgat - it represents a vastly broader range of perspectives. Two of the most astute captains any sport has known (Clive Lloyd, Mark Taylor), one of the sharpest minds in the contemporary game (Sangakkara), the most successful coach India have ever had (Gary Kirsten), a top-class umpire (Steve Davis), a highly respected match referee (Ranjan Madugalle), a prominent chief executive (Justin Vaughan), the principal advocate for players' rights (Tim May), leading lights from women's (Clare Connor) and Irish (Trent Johnston) cricket, a couple of renowned players-turned-commentators (Ian Bishop, Ravi Shastri), and a top-notch number-cruncher (David Kendix). Anglophobes and connoisseurs of cricket's body politic alike will note that the only English voices - Connor and Kendix - are probably (and this is not meant to be in any way patronising or disrespectful) the least influential.

Assuredly no shirkers, Lloyd and Co unveiled a host of imaginative proposals last month (Powerplays for overs 16-40 in ODIs, suspending captains for a game if found guilty of two minor over-rate offences in the same format in a 12-month period), even radical ones (dispense with runners, allow bowlers to legitimately "Mankad" any batsman backing up too far without being obliged to warn the cheating bustard). Most newsworthily, they unanimously recommended that the DRS be mandatory in Tests and also used in ODIs and Twenty20 internationals (the proposal to halve the number of reviews per innings, which could curb the tactical abuses but make the process more of a lottery, was less deserving of celebration). However, that unanimity, illuminatingly, did not encompass the absent Pawar.

What, though, of another, rather larger committee? Tuesday saw the publication of the latest wide-ranging FICA members survey, showing, among other things, that players are not generally in favour of the DRS, nor largely in favour, but overwhelmingly so: 82% of the 45 respondents said it "assisted in better decision-making" at the World Cup; 85% support its adoption for all ODIs; 72% advocate deploying it in the World Twenty20 (an apt note of caution, given the time constraints); and a whopping 91% feel it should continue to be used in Tests. Of that 91%, furthermore, 97% think it should be compulsory. Which is where India begs, nay demands, to differ.

The most encouraging response to the ICC Cricket Committee's stance on the DRS came from Richardson, who finally broke with his previous insistence that the governing body would not sanction any financial contribution to the sometimes prohibitive costs currently borne by the broadcasters. "I think if we get to a stage where all Full Members are happy to adopt the system for all Test series," he conceded, "there would be the increased possibility that ICC could help fund the technology." Unfortunately, the chances of the BCCI performing a u-turn seem, at present, to be negligible at best. It is hard not to suspect that Pawar missed the meeting concerned in order to avoid embarrassment, or worse.

One wonders whether the BCCI fully appreciates the benefits of all this hardware. Shortly before he was promoted to the Elite Panel last month, Richard Kettleborough told the Cricketer that the DRS takes the pressure off umpires: "It takes the aggression out of situations. If they want to refer it, let them refer it. The umpire is proved to be right a high percentage of the time."

Hawk-Eye, meanwhile, has sparked a sorely needed correction in the imbalance between bat and ball. In the spring issue of the Cricket Statistician, produced by the endlessly inquisitive Association of Cricket Statisticians, Douglas Miller reveals that 22.1% of all dismissals in county cricket last summer were lbw - not just double the proportion in the 1950s and 60s (prior to the law change removing the need for the ball to pitch in line) but the highest in a century and a half of inter-shire competition. The pattern has continued apace: in the first six weeks of the current season the record for the most leg-befores in a Championship match (18) was equalled three times. In Providence, 20 Pakistanis and West Indians fell lbw, smithereen-ing the extant Test record of 17.

For Miller, tracking technology is the cause: "Umpires have acquired a better understanding of the likely path of a ball after striking a pad." Robert Croft, the former England offspinner, still twirling for Glamorgan at 41, is a more passionate if predictable supporter, reinforcing Graeme Swann's recent estimate that the DRS had doubled his prospects of gleaning leg-befores: "Umpires are prepared to give more lbws on the front foot, especially to spinners. I think Hawk-Eye has shown them how many balls are going to hit the stumps." The DRS has also exposed umpiring deficiencies and cost some their jobs - Daryl Harper and Asoka de Silva were both ditched from the Elite Panel after a poor World Cup. And that was without any input from HotSpot.

The main objection, as raised for the umpteenth time by MS Dhoni after Ian Bell was controversially reprieved during the World Cup, is that the system is imperfect; as a rationale, this is some way short of perfection itself. With correct decisions demonstrably on the rise, the evidence of a marked improvement in justice, surely the aim of this particular game is incontrovertible. Besides, the aim is not to attain perfection but merely, by minimising "howlers", to reduce imperfection.

The ICC mandarins will convene in Hong Kong this month to decide, among other weighty issues, whether to enforce the DRS. Unsurprisingly, May, the chief executive of the Federation of International Cricketers' Associations, is by no means optimistic. "Given that the BCCI only holds one vote at the ICC table, and with the knowledge that all other countries want to use the DRS for Test matches, you would expect the outcome to be a no-brainer," he reasons, not unreasonably. "However, given the power and influence of BCCI on ICC decision-making, makes it more than likely that ICC outcomes will be once again a decision based on what is best for the BCCI rather than the greater interests of the sport." The refrain is horribly familiar.

The DRS is the first issue to polarise the ICC quite so starkly. For once, race and Old World v New are utterly irrelevant: this is India v The Rest. If it wants to win the war for hearts and minds as well as peckers and pockets, this is one battle the BCCI should be prepared to lose, and gracefully. Besides, what better way to leave a legacy than to facilitate cricketkind's most important advance since Kerry Packer started paying the players what they were worth?

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