June 18, 2011

The ridiculous resistance to the DRS

The BCCI's opposition to the review system is inexcusable; and the ICC isn't blameless either

A series of phone calls and emails to investigate whether Sachin Tendulkar was indeed the Great Satan in the DRS debate, the leader of the Indian resistance to the referral system, led to a startling discovery. That the world's most seasoned international cricketer and one of the leading sports graphics technology providers agreed with each other. Tendulkar and Virtual Eye actually see, well, eye to eye.

Tendulkar believes the DRS will be more effective and consistent if the best technologies available can be used together: Hot Spot and Snicko supporting the ball tracker, for instance. Virtual Eye CEO Ian Taylor told ESPNcricinfo in an email yesterday: "We have always argued that the DRS is not solely about ball tracking, and that every tool available should be used. More importantly, we should be looking at tools that work together."

This is two ends of a spectrum: the techies who get vector graphics and point the 230-frames-per-second cameras towards the pitch, and the cricketer who's waiting for the third umpire to respond to the man on the field want the same thing. The best available technology converging millimetre by millimetre to provide an accurate depiction of what just happened inside six or so milliseconds.

Why, then, is there so much trouble in between the two ends?

The absence of the DRS has this week become the central point of interest in what is a drool-worthy series regardless. Should the DRS be used for England v India? Of course, absolutely yes. Isn't the BCCI's refusal somewhat Dark Ages? Yes, but on to them later (patience, guv'nor, patience).

Will the absence of the DRS be the single dominant factor that will bring in the crowds or empty seats of bums? No. Will it decide the eventual outcome of the series? Over jelly beans, you mean? How can that be possible?

Does all this mean cricket's one-man multimedia entertainment industry, aka Graeme Swann, wuz robbed before a ball has been bowled? His Mirthfulness will snigger at such kidology. Is VVS Laxman heaving a sigh of relief about leg-befores now? Twenty-one lbws in his 198 Test innings - does he care? If Chris Tremlett and Jimmy Anderson are annoyed, you think Zaheer Khan's not glowering somewhere too?

The England players are completely entitled their bewilderment at the BCCI's refusal to accept the DRS. Tendulkar's measured response on Thursday certainly contained none of the two pet phrases floated into discussions to do with DRS and SRT: there was neither "apprehension" nor "vehement opposition". MS Dhoni's is the more forceful opposition to the DRS, and in England he will get many a chance to expand his metaphors beyond life jackets and adulteration, in the cause of dissing the DRS. Unless he's changed his mind.

The strife that exists in the space between the technology providers and the cricketers is shared between two lots of governors. The BCCI's inflexibility is nothing other than more of their customary unsavoury muscle-flexing. Tendulkar's comments have certainly taken away one excuse. The one about the expense involved is laughable: the BCCI could be the global sponsors of DRS technologies, their logo popping up on TV screens around the world during a referral.

Muted grumbling about monopoly technologies do not apply to the ball-tracker they so despise: Hawk-Eye is not the only predictor path available on the market. But travelling to Australia to see how the rival worked during the Ashes was just too hoi polloi. The most revealing is the BCCI's reluctance to speak to the senior core of players about their views on the current system. It is what autocrats do before claiming they act in the interests of the masses.

Then there's the ICC, whose venerable cricket committee has strongly recommended pushing the DRS across all international cricket. They have been unable to follow through due to political constraints and economic self-interest.

When Snicko, Hawk-Eye / Virtual Eye and Hot Spot were introduced, they were part of the entertainment, not the rules. Like manhattans and wagon wheels, they were targeted at TV viewers, not cricketers or umpires. Today these enhancements find themselves in the playing conditions. It is only fair the ICC invests in some of the R&D that will eventually help in the enforcement of the rules these technologies now serve. Else, it is only fair to let them remain part of the entertainment, paid for by broadcasters. The current hands-on, expenses-off approach to the DRS reflects poorly on an otherwise well-meaning governing body.

Their gently-gently bilateral approach makes little sense today; it exists only to make room for the BCCI's objections to the DRS. The ICC executive board, made up of representatives of every full member board, meets later this month in Hong Kong. If they are unable to make referrals mandatory, from piecemeal, the blame will be on world cricket as much as it will on the BCCI.

In the DRS' twilight zone, where the ICC dithers, the BCCI bullies, and there is politicking all-round, the techies remain diligent, the broadcasters supportive, and most of the world's cricketers - Dhoni among the exceptions, as of today - eager to see how the system can work for them.

Ten years down the line there's a damn good chance folks will wonder why it took so long to get the DRS going everywhere, and what the hell the BCCI was thinking

The BCCI's favourite whipping boy, Hawk-Eye, made it through a World Cup without cricket being torn asunder. The Hot Spot guys have now bought two new, faster cameras. Their total of six means that two concurrent series can both offer Hot Spot, one with the higher-end four-cam version and the other with two square cameras.

During the Ashes there were pictures of the merging of Hot Spot with the Virtual Eye tracker under a new name, Hot Track. Virtual Eye's Taylor says the system was able to "bring another level of certainty for the umpires and the players". The BCCI could have seen the system at work in Australia but chose not to. Tendulkar and Co. would be interested.

The best DRS geeks accept that their technology is not 100% accurate, and keep pushing it as close as possible to perfect. The best umpires admit to having bad games occasionally, accept that technology sometimes rescues them, and walk out wanting to have their most flawless day every day. The best cricketers in the world understand that the DRS will have a few iffy moments, and that replays of close catches can be hellish, but anything's better than seeing dismissals off no-ball bat-pads, or lbws given to balls pitching outside leg.

Ten years down the line, with a range of technologies working seamlessly through replays, there's a damn good chance folks will wonder why it took so long to get the DRS going everywhere, and what the hell the BCCI was thinking.

Cricket's been through such obduracy in various forms, covering the full range of mankind's pig-headedness. Boycotting apartheid South Africa was stridently resisted. Day-night cricket was sacrilege, wearing helmets was considered wimpy, neutral umpiring was blasphemy, and reverse swing an unspeakable crime. The resistance to DRS belongs to that category of ridiculous.

Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo