Decision Review System June 26, 2011

Let's talk about the DRS

Is the DRS implementable in its current form and has it moved too far away from its initial purpose of eliminating howlers?

As has been the case with cricket of late, a debate as important as the implementation of the Decision Review System (DRS) has degenerated to India v the world. The BCCI's my-way-or-the-highway approach and the shrill response from some of the other countries threatens to stand in the way of a reasonable discussion about the genuine issues regarding the DRS in its current form.

Making DRS mandatory is a move that has huge consequences for the game, and we can't talk enough before implementing it. No matter how persuasive the argument for DRS is, no matter how heavy-handed the BCCI can sometimes be, in its present form the DRS needs discussion. On various levels.

The first might be naïve, and can be got out of the way quickly. The DRS does not sit right with a sport that prides itself in fining people for showing dissent over umpire's decisions. And what of the poor bowlers; now they can't celebrate spontaneously, a raised finger no longer guarantees them a wicket. They have to watch the striker discuss painstakingly with the non-striker whether he looked not-out, and whether it would be fun to challenge the decision despite being plumb because he is the last recognised batsman. Such things are irritants, yes, but a crucial inside edge that wasn't spotted is a bigger problem for the public that pays to watch cricket.

There are other issues, ones that concern the tools being used for the system, that should strike a chord, concerns also aired by Sambit Bal and a few informed blogs. At the heart of the argument lies the unease with the blurring lines between devices for entertainment and decision-making, with the broadcasters' licensees assuming the umpires' role, especially when the ICC neither pays nor controls them.

The handling of ball-tracking technology by humans has produced some silly moments. One such example was when Virender Sehwag, quite symbolically, became the first batsman to be given lbw after a bowler challenged the original not-out decision. The ball had hit his front pad barely in front of leg stump, and then deviated onto the back pad in front of middle stump, but the tracking device failed to note that deflection and joined the dots directly, hardly evidence you would want to be hanged by.

There are other examples, too, and the doubts specifically revolve around the predictive element of the technology. Neither of the two common brands of tracking technology, Hawk Eye and Virtual Eye, is perfect or immune to human mistakes. Our leap of faith, however, is absolute - so absolute that commentators and spectators have stopped using their brains. Virtual Eye admits that entertainment and decision-making are horses of two different colours. It prefers to provide the umpires with facts until the ball strikes the batsman, and then leave the rest to the on-field umpire, who knows which way and how hard the wind is blowing and how the pitch is behaving, better than the system whose camera is not even placed right behind the stumps.

Hawk Eye is more optimistic about being able to replace the umpire, and is also keen to point out flaws with Virtual Eye. The BCCI remains unconvinced. Why the BCCI is not convinced is not clear, just like it is not clear how every now and then a projection looks improbable, or how it is perfect at 2.4 metres but unreliable at 2.5, how it judges the amount of spin when an offbreak hits a batsman on the full, or the bounce when a batsman is hit on a half-volley, or why we don't get to see simulations of some balls at all, or why - if it is used as an umpiring tool - it is not minded by the ICC and the ACSU, or why we have to blindly believe its accuracy and not assess it independently, or why the ICC doesn't say so if it has assessed it independently.

All these doubts may seem like splitting hairs, complicating the game, but complicate is exactly what DRS in its current form does. The original purpose of the system wasn't to predict whether the ball would have clipped the leg bail. Its purpose was to spot edges (or their absence), balls pitched outside leg and balls hitting the batsman outside off when offering a shot for lbws. It was introduced for umpires who have trouble grasping basic umpiring rules, and for the odd big mistake made by the good officials. It wasn't meant to be a contest between Ian Gould reckoning that the offbreak would have hit leg stump and Hawk Eye's prediction that it would have missed it by centimetres. When the ICC meets in Hong Kong, it is pertinent that it establishes a distinction between entertainment and decision-making tools, and also reminds itself that the DRS' original purpose was to eliminate howlers.

One of the howler-eliminating tools that the players - among them Sachin Tendulkar - and fans appreciate is Hot Spot, which is based more on fact than conjecture. Rare exceptions aside, it detects edges accurately, and enjoys more support from players than ball-tracking technology. Without Hot Spot, the DRS can be self-defeating. Consider, for example, Virat Kohli's caught behind dismissal down the leg side in the recent Sabina Park Test. Going by Kohli's reaction, he would have challenged the call had the DRS been available, or in India's case thrust upon them. The replays, however, were not conclusive either way because of a lack of technology. Such cases rob sides of reviews without actually proving them wrong, and lend validity to Tendulkar's view that the DRS is no good without Hot Spot.

Which brings us to the important question: who will pay for Hot Spot? The ICC, which doesn't make much money from bilateral series, does not want to foot the bill because it might eat into its development budgets. The broadcasters have already paid exorbitantly to buy television rights. The home boards are not rushing to part with their profits. Still, these aren't valid reasons for waiving the minimum technology requirements for the implementation of the DRS. There are unconfirmed reports that when new broadcasting contracts are awarded, Hot Spot will be one of the minimum requirements, which is bound to reduce the value of television rights and affect the boards' revenues. Good luck convincing the BCCI to sell rights at a lower cost, and in countries where Test cricket doesn't invite lucrative TV deals.

It will be nothing short of a coup if the ICC can ensure the availability of Hot Spot in every international match once every host country has signed new TV deals. It will be great common sense if ball-tracking technology is used only until the point of contact, so that we stay true to the original purpose of the DRS, which is to eliminate howlers.

While on the subject of howlers, why stop the elimination of mistakes against a team after it has exhausted its two reviews? On one hand it seems fair punishment for a team's poor use of the system, but it remains denial of justice. It is impractical to ask the television umpire to review every decision, especially in not-out cases because the next ball is delivered quickly. Still, we need to keep looking for a way out.

There are other teething issues that need to be discussed, for they have the potential to turn matches. In a World Cup game, India challenged an lbw call because the umpire's signal of leg-byes eliminated the only thing they thought could come in the way of the lbw: an inside edge. The replays showed an inside edge, the umpire went on to change leg-byes to runs, but India were docked one review, even though the umpire's error, established through replays, was what made them go for it.

During another World Cup game, Abdur Razzak was given out lbw before he successfully reviewed the call, but while the ball was counted, the four leg-byes weren't, which is the current regulation. The team was deprived of a scoring opportunity by an umpiring decision, which was proved to be wrong. In tennis, such points are played again, and fairly so. The ICC is lucky that incident occurred at a relatively innocuous time. Imagine a similar situation with two runs required off the last ball of the World Cup final. These examples are anomalies and should have been dealt with at the first available opportunity. The first available opportunity was at the ICC cricket committee meeting soon after the World Cup. Did they even study such minor but potentially controversial incidents before passing the DRS in its current form?

Nothing in life is perfect, though, and all these doubts about the DRS don't deny that, in principle, the system is good for cricket. Yet the ICC's - and the cricketing world's - obsession with getting India on board, as opposed to making the DRS as foolproof and as true to the cause as possible, is rather unhealthy. Perhaps part of the reason is the BCCI's unflattering reputation. Perhaps the BCCI's reasons for opposing the DRS in its current form are different from those stated above. You never know with the BCCI, do you?

On the other hand, we have the rest of the world not open to discussion because it is the BCCI that is raising the issue against DRS. It is evident in how the otherwise terrific commentators in England and the West Indies have moaned more in the last month than they have discussed the DRS since its inception. Newspapers in England have written that India don't want the system because Tendulkar and MS Dhoni don't want to fall lbw to Graeme Swann when not offering shots. Go figure.

To misquote Elvis Presley, we need a little more conversation … "all this aggravation ain't satisfactioning me."

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo