December 20, 2012

Use the DRS to get rid of howlers, not to strive for perfection

Cricket is not a perfect science, nor is television coverage. The quest should not be for perfect decisions but to eliminate appalling ones

The overriding reaction in the Australian dressing room after Tuesday's last-gasp win against Sri Lanka will have been "Phew."

To win the toss, declare the first innings at five wickets down, then bowl last on an up-and-down pitch was to lay down the law. Failure to enforce it would have tested everybody's patience - captain and coach, selectors and supporters alike. So exasperated was Michael Clarke that he instructed Matthew Wade to whip off the pads and gloves and bowl an over of mediums that were as much instructional as anything else. Wade's pre-tea adventure, with Sri Lanka only four wickets down at the time, included attempts at a bouncer, a yorker and a grubber, i.e. guys, yes, you guys picked to bowl for Australia, pull a finger out.

Clarke admitted to thoughts of Adelaide and the ghost of Faf du Plessis. How could he not? The parallels were there. A match seemingly in the bag but on a pitch offering precious little sideways movement, with a bowler out of action, a chance or two gone begging and a stubborn opponent sensing a miracle. Of course, Sri Lanka are not a patch on South Africa at the momeht. But the mind does funny things.

Unshaven beneath the famous green cap, wrapped in long-sleeve wool and with hands often warmed by his pockets, Clarke's animation through the afternoon was a show of its own. He had Adelaide within him, eating away, the damn injustice of it. Head thrown back in disbelief, the ribbed irony in moments of misfortune, the hidden furiousness at sloppiness by his own men, then the umpires, the DRS, the slow pitch, the scattered showers, the ticking clock... Adelaide, Adelaide, drip, drip, Adelaide.

Thank the almighty for Peter Siddle, he of the coal face. Splendidly embattled, Siddle kept coming, like the Black Knight on horseback in Monty Python's Holy Grail: "Think you've got me now, do you?" says the Black Knight, approximately. "Listen, you idiot," replies King Arthur, who is cutting him to shreds, "you've got no arms left." "Just a flesh wound," says the Black Knight.

Never mind the dry mouth, the tight hamstrings, the aching joints. This Victorian has a soaring heart and a deep soul. Siddle is as likely to give in as Julia Gillard. Even Mitchell Starc could see that. Inspired by the spiritual leader of the attack and stung by the humiliation of Wade's six balls of high-octane dross, Starc suddenly bowled fast. A wind of change blew through him. He bowled so fast that batsmen were ducking and weaving and calling for attention. Simple as it sounds now, the full ball - good length, half volley, yorker or full toss - took on an entirely new meaning. "Hey buddy, wanna lunge forward to me now?"

As far as a spectator can feel sorry for a cricketer, you felt sorry for Rangana Herath. All those big names afore him and only one proper strike to the body. Angelo Mathews' body. Now here was little, portly Herath fending for his life and the match. He didn't last, nor did the match. Starc was brilliant, and from the time that became clear, his captain took it a little easier on himself. Phew.

It was a good match, if something of an anti-climax after the hardcore series against South Africa. The Sri Lankans did particularly well to prolong it given the mood of the pitch. For Australia it answered few questions and brought more injuries

It was a good match, if something of an anti-climax after the hardcore series against South Africa. The Sri Lankans did particularly well to prolong it given the mood of the pitch. For Australia it answered few questions and brought more injuries.

The weather was, well, English. The crowds were anything but crowds, more sprinklings of spectators among whom were schoolchildren bussed in for the buzz. Hobart has much in its favour but that alone does not justify the ownership of a Test match. The ground will surely be full for the one-day game in January. Familiar?

And it was a poor match for the DRS through no fault of its own. Sri Lanka used it badly, or supposedly tactically. Australia used it when all else failed. Once, Clarke could be heard on the stump microphone saying, "It was going over" or "He hit it", or some such thing, but still bowed to the pleas of his bowler. Clarke was right, incidentally. Jayawardene appeared almost amused by his team's uselessness with it. In the first innings poor Herath, yes him again, was on the wrong end of a shocker because the great and good before him had used up the quota.

The DRS was introduced to rid the game of really bad decisions - "howlers" as the cliché goes. Sportsmen are notorious for seizing the main chance, and cricketers are doing so - at least most of them are - in an attempt to mitigate their own error, not that of the umpire. It is a default position for the good player and an offer of hope for the mediocre. Kumar Sangakkara turned to it three times. He had to. It is an obligation to the team and the nation. If the best batsmen can have two or three lives, they must. This is common sense. Imagine Sir Donald Bradman's average with the DRS. Twice it went with Sangakkara, the third time it did not. Others, less worthy, pay the price. The system stutters because of it.

Just as disconcerting is the time the DRS takes to reach a verdict. "Dot every i, cross every t" seems to be the instruction. It's a dog's dinner. Cut to the quick. If it is an lbw shout let us first see if the ball is hitting the stumps and work back from there, not spend an age scrutinising Hot Spot. Hot Spot should be lbw's last reference, not its first, unless the on-field umpire specifically says to the third umpire that the batsman might or might not have hit the ball.

It is unlikely that the game will go back in time with the use of technology, so the challenge is to improve what it has. Cricket is not a perfect science, nor is television coverage. The quest should not be for perfect decision-making, rather for the elimination of appalling decisions that may unfairly determine the outcome of a match. If the ICC works within that parameter, it may establish more satisfactory outcomes. Who knows, even India might welcome it then.

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

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