June 14, 2012

Why can't match referees rule on bad light?

Paying viewers are short-changed when players go off in borderline poor conditions

You had to chuckle at Edgbaston on Monday. The place was close to flood alert but the umpires couldn't see it. Players, journalists, TV and radio folk, administrators, ground staff, security, catering, stewards, even 20 or 30 spectators, hung around until after three o'clock before sanity prevailed. It was symptomatic of umpire insecurity, and as daft as the afternoon before, when Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell were smashing it to all parts and the umpires twice took the players off for bad light.

Bad light is the damndest thing. Dickie Bird - paranoid about it, of course - once said that the answer was to play in all light, barring something close to Armageddon. He had a point.

Recent changes to Laws 3.8 and 3.9 mean that umpires no longer "offer the light" to the batting side. MCC felt that batsmen used this opportunity tactically rather than for safety or visibility. Thus the umpires now have sole power to suspend play when they consider it either dangerous or unreasonable.

It is clearly not unreasonable if the floodlights are on and the batting side is scoring at 4.23 per over, as were England. Nor do many modern batsmen appear endangered by the bowling of the age. Helmets and superb protective gear have added to the natural security provided by reflex and instinct. Light meters can be a curse - especially when a reading is taken one day and referred to as the marker for the next. Only the eye can truly tell the complications, or otherwise, provided by light, shade and backdrop, which are different at just about every ground in the world. Think Bangalore, Brisbane, Barbados and Birmingham and wonder if a meter reading can suitably determine the conditions. The variable quality and impact of floodlights further complicates this.

The only people getting it "unreasonable" are the specatators - at the ground, and watching or listening at home. And the only "danger" is to the wallets of those same people who have paid, in one way or another, for the privilege. The anger on Sunday afternoon at Edgbaston was stratospheric. One fellow had bought tickets for the first four days of the game. I hardly need tell you his thoughts, which were exacerbated a) by the first two days being lost to rain and b) by his love affair with Ian Bell, who he insisted "was going to be the first Warwick batsman to make a hundred in a Test match at Edgbaston… tell that to the ICC". It wasn't very dark either.

You cannot help but have sympathy for the umpires who make these judgements on the basis of safety first - safety, that is, for their jobs. The world closes in on them so quickly and with such overwhelming force that there must be times when the men in white coats feel as if other men in white coats are about to take them away. They should be empowered to make decisions based on common sense and, specifically, to continue play whenever possible. Or not, as was the case at Edgbaston by Monday lunchtime with the match dead and the Super Soppers exhausted. Umpires are encouraged to make positive decisions upon a fielding side's appeal, and after that the Decision Review System takes the hindmost. The ICC should provide the same unconditional support that is provided by the technology. (Ha, did we ever think we would say that!)

It might help if the match referees had more responsibility. They are all former international cricketers and certainly understand conditions of ground, weather and light as well as anyone. Better still, they have no vested interest in a game. Presently the referee's brief is to enforce the code of conduct, and the wider brief that surrounds it, along with supporting the umpires in upholding the conduct of the game itself, and then passing judgement on their performance.

Go to a T20 game and everyone is rushing about like dervishes. Follow it up with a day at a Test and it looks like rigor mortis is setting in

Perhaps the referee should be the match manager and should therefore able to override the umpires in the making of decisions that do not directly link to a single moment of play. At the very least, should umpires, in association with the match referee, not be given common sense as their trump card?

This is right up Dave Richardson's street. Richardson is the former South Africa wicketkeeper-batsman who is now CEO elect of the ICC. He knows the referees and umpires well, having worked so closely with them in his current role as general manager of cricket. Credit where it is due: he has pretty much conquered the tricky introduction of the DRS. Well, we all think so except India.

Moving on to over rates and drinks breaks. Age-old chestnuts, and the ICC has, at least, tightened up on the drinks thing. But the facts are that Test match days have slowed, often to a crawl. There invariably seems to be something to take away from the rhythm of the game. The players - the captains, really - are responsible. There is so little urgency. It is as if it is enough to score at a decent rate and get a result - the modern justification of a successful match. But few people go to a whole match; most go to a single day. They feel short-changed. I know I'm bleating on a bit here, but Test cricket's battle for survival is not helped by these minutiae. Go to a T20 game and everyone is rushing about like dervishes. Follow it up with a day at a Test and it looks like rigor mortis is setting in.

And finally, given mention of Richardson, a word about the biggest challenge he faces. On these pages a few days ago, Sidharth Monga wrote a must-see piece about the IPL, a piece that might become a reference for all who have yet to fully digest the extraordinary impact this tournament in particular - but increasingly all the T20 satellites as well - is having on the game. The IPL is so good, and now so influential, that the clear and present danger is overtaking the rest of cricket at a shocking pace. The ICC simply has to isolate it, for all our sakes and certainly for the sake of Test match cricket, which simply cannot take blow upon blow.

Think of Dave Richardson in the coming months and these myriad, complex issues that will dominate his in-tray. His quest to negotiate the political minefield and guide cricket towards a programme governed by common sense and care for the people who play it and watch it has the potential to shape the future of the game. Richardson is a top man but will the brief allow him to step outside the bureaucracy and spread his wings?

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK

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