June 28, 2011

The ICC's decision needs a review

The men charged with running the game have settled on a compromise as old as the game: the boy who brings the bat plays by his rules

Confronted with the opportunity to find a judicious solution to the impasse over the Decision Review System, the men charged with running the game settled on a compromise of the most spurious kind. It's also the oldest one known to anyone who's played cricket as a child: the boy who brings the bat plays by his rules.

The ICC's decision makes room for two varieties of officially sanctioned review systems: one by which India will play and one for the rest. Tennis has some tournaments with decision reviews and some without - and sometimes there are discrepancies within a tournament - but players don't get to choose their own terms.

Playing without Hawk-Eye doesn't, unlike what some naïve suggestions in sections of the English media say, grant India a special advantage. Nor are Indian batsmen cowering in fear of Graeme Swann's sharpness with the ball-tracking technology. However, playing conditions for a sport should not be tailored to accommodate individual likes, apprehensions and convenience. No sport can afford to have multiple playing conditions.

The ICC had the opportunity to get rid of the anomalies in the system that made for irregular application of the DRS: India didn't like it, some boards couldn't afford it, and the reliance on broadcasters to provide the technology meant inconsistent standards in every country. The challenge was to find a system acceptable to all the Test-playing nations so that it could be universally applied.

From the outset, the DRS has been flawed, which is understandable given the complications. It has also gone through several small and major refinements, and while some concerns have been addressed, many remain. Some of them were articulated in this piece by Sidharth Monga. However, the broad agreement among the Test-playing nations, barring India, was that the system's utility outweighed its flaws.

The BCCI has been a rigid opponent of ball-tracking technology, but it rarely bothers to explain its position beyond making cryptic and stern statements. Some of its officials who have made comments in the media have sounded ill-informed. A few days ago a former BCCI secretary was quoted opposing the system on the grounds that it cost $60,000 a day. The ICC clarified that it cost about $5000. It was suggested that India's two most influential players, MS Dhoni and Sachin Tendulkar, do not trust it. The BCCI president has himself said on record that ball-tracking technology was "a case of someone else's imagination versus the umpire's imagination". He perhaps meant judgement. And since the BCCI generally arouses fear and loathing in the rest of the cricket world, there has been a closing of ranks among opinion makers over the DRS.

Personally I have always held the view that in case of lbw decisions, the line should be drawn at the point of impact. Where the ball pitches and where it is intercepted by the pad are easily determined by visual evidence, and not dissimilar to the manner in which line decisions have been decided by camera pictures for years. To rely on the predicted path of the ball, though, is to make a leap of faith not only in the technologies - there are two purveyors at the moment - but also in the people who operate them.

The ICC also needed to address two other fundamental flaws. The funding of DRS has remained a contentious matter since its inception. The broadcasters are right to not accept the responsibility for guaranteeing the technology required to implement the system. The full package, including Hot Spot, is beyond the means of many cricket boards, which barely break even.

This leads to the question of control. The ICC pays and governs the umpires, whereas the broadcasters contract the technology providers, without exception. While they provide crucial inputs to decision-making, the broadcasters fall outside the direct supervision of the game's governing body. In effect, the DRS is a system that neither the ICC or the boards pays for or controls.

None of these issues were adequately addressed at the meeting. Instead an expedient formula was found. India has been given what it wants and the rest of the world can choose whatever they desire. There will be now two kinds of lbws in international cricket: ball-tracker assisted, and solely umpire-judged.

If they had a strong case, the BCCI had the opportunity and the responsibility as the undisputed leader in the game, to persuade other members with the force of reason. If not, the rest of the cricket world was obliged to force the BCCI to toe the line. By allowing a bad deal to continue, they have set a dangerous precedent

Has it occurred to anyone how ridiculous it might appear if a batsman in an India match appeals against an lbw decision, wrongly suspecting an inside edge, and the ball is found to have landed outside leg stump? Since the BCCI wants nothing to do with ball-tracking technology, which also incorporates the pitch mat, should the umpire disregard such evidence and stick to his original decision?

And for all those headlines about DRS having become mandatory, here's the red herring, from the ICC release last evening: "The CEC today unanimously recommended universal standards for the usage of technology in decision-making [Decision Review System] in all Test matches and one-day internationals subject to availability and commercial considerations." Since Hot Spot, which has been made a mandatory DRS tool, also happens to be most expensive and exclusive piece in the suite, who will make the DRS available and affordable to those who don't have the resources?

That they have seemingly found the middle ground on the DRS has been hailed as a victory for both the ICC and for the BCCI. That says something. Like most other decisions coming out of the ICC's boardroom, this isn't a decision based on sporting logic, but political expediency.

To have allowed the provision for varying DRS conditions in bilateral arrangements was a mistake to begin with. If they had a strong case, the BCCI had the opportunity, and the responsibility as the undisputed leader in the game, to persuade other members with the force of reason. If not, the rest of the cricket world was obliged to force the BCCI to toe the line. By allowing a bad deal to continue, they have set a dangerous precedent. The muddle over the DRS will continue.

Sambit Bal is the editor of ESPNcricinfo