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How about demanding honesty from the players?

As a system, the DRS is less than ideally set up. It's time cricketers policed themselves to some extent

Sambit Bal

July 16, 2013

Comments: 174 | Text size: A | A

Michael Clarke asks for a review, Australia v South Africa, first Test, Brisbane, November 9, 2012
If the objective of the DRS is to deliver as many correct decisions as possible, is cricket best served by leaving its use in the hands of the players? © Getty Images

In the 111th over of the final innings of this grand Test match, an event I have dreaded - the climactic moment of a game being halted, and decided, by a DRS referral - materialised.

Even though cricket is a contemplative sport, the central action occurs in moments - a blinding stroke, a lightning catch, a play and miss, an ear-piercing appeal, and in most cases, an umpire's verdict. A referral involves deliberation, examination and re-examination of evidence, interpretation, and then the delivery of the decision. I have always hoped to be spared it at a big moment in a game.

But this can easily be dismissed as the romantic fancies of a luddite. To the logical eye, the dismissal of Brad Haddin would appear to be the DRS' finest moment, one where technology transcended the failings of humans and delivered justice. The edge was so thin that even the bowler only threw in a feeble appeal, and England's referral was more in hope than a cry for justice. The initial not-out verdict was not a howler of the sort the DRS had been instituted to eradicate; it was the sort of decision cricketers of any age would shrug off with a wry smile before moving on.

In a sense it was an apt finish for the Test, for the DRS had been a central theme through its five days. It could be said that the final moment provided an opportunity for redemption and the system delivered perfect justice.

But a rigorous examination would reveal a more complex and unsatisfactory narrative. That Australia found themselves on the wrong end of a series of marginal DRS decisions can be put down - as graciously acknowledged by Michael Clarke - to their own poor judgement in their use of the system. Clarke used the DRS as a gambler would - as another tool to sneak a wicket when the situation was dire - and he got lucky once too, when Jonathan Trott was adjudged leg-before, when he shouldn't have been. Alastair Cook, on the other hand, was prudent and sound in his choices and thus had the option of a "tactical" review when England really needed one.

It does give rise to a fundamental question. If the primary, and in fact only, objective of the DRS is to deliver as many correct decisions as possible, is cricket best served by leaving its use in the hands of the players? It has been pointed out that the DRS should not be faulted for its wrong use by Clarke, but that argument ignores a vital point: that the referral is left to the fielding captain or the batsman, who are part of the system, not outside it.

Two instances in England's first innings revealed two glaring shortcomings of the system. In Trott's case, the right decision by the on-field umpire was overturned by a human error by the operator. In the case of Broad's non-dismissal, a big umpiring error was allowed to stand because there was no access to a referral.

It has been wrong from the beginning to bill this as a contest between humans and technology, when in reality it has always been a case of humans using technology and interpreting the evidence it provides. Hawk-Eye can, at best, provide an approximation of the ball's path, and while being relatively more accurate than human judgement, it is dependent on a number of variables, including overhead conditions, to deliver optimal projections. Hot Spot, while it has improved, can still produce misleading evidence, sometimes because of extreme conditions, but sometimes because of simple human error.

The purpose of this piece, however, is not to find flaws in technology but in the way the DRS is set up. Many of these are old arguments but they are worth repeating.

That the broadcasters are responsible for providing and administering the technology is both a dereliction of responsibility by the ICC and an unfair burden on the broadcasters. Imagine the Trott incident in reverse: an Australian batsman given out wrongly by a system controlled by the English broadcaster. Neutral umpires were appointed not because home umpires were cheats but to protect them from the suspicion of bias.

Also, imagine if the DRS had been in operation in India and a human error led to a wrong decision in favour of an Indian player. The BCCI doesn't merely sell television rights to cricket in India, it also produces the feed.

Equally importantly, allowing players to appeal inevitably results in opportunistic challenges on marginal calls, leaving room for subsequent wrong decisions to stand because the appeals have been exhausted. If justice is an aim, it should mean justice for all. It wasn't merely Australia who were denied a rightful wicket; Ashton Agar was also a victim.

Spare a thought, too, for Aleem Dar. It was a bad mistake, though it looked far worse because the ball travelled to slip via Haddin's pad. Dar failed to pick the first deviation and didn't have the opportunity to take a second opinion because the system allows umpires to consult their colleague in the box only to check on whether a catch was taken cleanly.

Dar, the ICC's umpire of the year for three consecutive seasons, has had a poor run recently, but in this match he had a perfect decision wrongly overturned on review, and couldn't himself review a decision that made him look ridiculous in the cold light of technology.

And imagine, too, the reverse of the Haddin dismissal. Had he not nicked it but been given out wrongly, he would have had no recourse to redressal because his captain had gambled away a review and Shane Watson had had a marginal call go against him.

The marginal lbws raise some uncomfortable questions too. The rationale of letting the umpire's call stay when the ball is seen to be grazing a stump, or pitching or hitting the pads fractionally in line, takes into account the margin of error in the projection. But it does end up delivering unequal justice. You can't let one man escape because of the lack of concrete evidence and let another hang by the same evidence just to grant the benefit of the doubt to the judge. (And as happened in this case, penalise the batsman further by taking away a review from his team's quota.)

It has been wrong from the beginning to bill this as a contest between humans and technology, when in reality it has always been a case of humans using technology and interpreting the evidence it provides

What's the way out then? Ian Chappell has suggested that reviews be handed over to the umpires. There are complexities there too. It might lead to every decision being reviewed and the rhythm of the game being disrupted at every appeal.

But there can be a common-sense approach. By letting technology rule only on what is visible - edges, the line of ball, and the point of impact - and removing from the equation the predictive part, the scope of the system can be narrowed to a more manageable level. The umpires, both the on-field ones and the man in the box, need to be empowered to use the system, which must lie under the direct control of the ICC. That would make for a system conducive to delivering more accurate decisions. It will still not be perfect, but it wouldn't be a case of justice for some.

Now for a more radical thought. Not a word more needs to be said about Stuart Broad's unwillingness to become the latest poster boy for cricket's morality. Jonny Bairstow feathered an edge and walked, bless the young lad. But Broad owes no apologies to anyone. He was entitled to stay: he is a professional sportsman, not a boy scout; his primary job is to win cricket matches for England, not to earn badges for righteousness.

The angst and the wrath his decision invited had everything do with cricket's confused, and often troubled, relationship with the concept of morality, and its idiosyncratic ways of defining it.

Michael Holding was perhaps being rhetorical when he highlighted the inherent double standards in cricket's morality. Denesh Ramdin, the West Indies wicketkeeper, was fined and suspended for not revealing to the umpires that he had dropped the ball immediately after taking a catch in the Champions Trophy match against Pakistan. He didn't appeal himself, but his silence was taken as complicity and he was found guilty of breaching the spirit of the game.

Batsmen, however, as the code goes, are innocent till they are declared guilty, and have the right to silence. And taking the criminal justice system analogy further, a fielder trying to claim a catch is the equivalent of a witness committing perjury.

But unlike batsmen, an acquitted person can be brought to trial and convicted in the light of new evidence in the criminal justice system.

What if cricket's convention was turned on its head and the onus was on the batsman to walk if he knew an edge had been taken cleanly? After all, being caught off an edge is no less out than being caught off the middle of the bat. It would require a drastic change of mindset because batsmen are brought up to believe that it is the umpire's job to give them out, but if the code of honour is changed and batsmen attracted the same censure as errant fielders, walking would not be a moral option but an obligation.

It is true that in rare cases batsmen don't feel the thinnest edges or are sometimes convinced that the ball has bounced off their bat on the ground before popping to the fielder. In such cases, like fielders who are in doubt about the legality of a catch, they could ask the umpire, who could then either judge it himself or refer it.

In any case, isn't demanding honesty from players a better option than encouraging them to gamble with reviews? It has nothing to do with morality and everything do with practicality. It will make cricket an easier game to administer on the field.

Sambit Bal is editor-in-chief of ESPNcricinfo

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Posted by VVSR92 on (July 20, 2013, 9:08 GMT)

remove umpires , put bouncers in place of them & give every decison thorugh technology .

Posted by Paul_Bramley on (July 20, 2013, 8:42 GMT)

Come on Mr Holding, the "Spirit of the Game" argument being used to beat Stuart Broad with rings a little hollow coming from one of the infamous West Indian paceman from their golden era of the 70's & 80's who used to intentionally intimidate and quite frequently deliberately inflict injuries and pain on opposing batsmen. Was the bowling served up to Brain Close in 1976 in the spirit of the game? To me that sounds like selective memory or to use a favourite term of Holding's "hypocrisy".

Posted by Busie1979 on (July 20, 2013, 7:30 GMT)

I don't think any of these issues are insurmountable. My solutions: 1) Suspend players who don't walk 2) Take out right of appeal and give players the right to request DRS 3) suspend players who make vexatious requests or over-appeal 4) umpires have a right to use DRS whenever they want 5) umpires KPIs are focused on not overusing DRS and keeping the game flowing 6) Third umpire can step in and overrule mistakes 7) Third umpire should double-check instantly for every LBW, caught behind and bat pad decision without being asked - so we don't have delays with players talking with each other deciding whether to review.

This would keep the game fluid, increase spontaneity, remove cheating, get the right result more often.

Posted by   on (July 20, 2013, 1:45 GMT)

Most of the ambiguity regarding appeals for dismissal surround the uncertainty of bat on ball. One person present at the ground knows with a very high degree of certainty the truth. He knows instantly, without any need for technology. There should be a system in place where the umpire, as a first resort when there is uncertainty, asks the batsman if bat hit ball. A yes or no are the only answers accepted. If his answer means he remains at the crease, then technology should be used to confirm his honesty. If he is a liar, he will be branded as such through the cricketing media. At present there is an accepted culture of dishonesty. A system put in place to correct this should be adopted.

Posted by Chris_P on (July 18, 2013, 1:45 GMT)

If it worked both ways (which it won't) perhaps so, but the reason is very simple why pbatsmen fdon't walk. They get stiffed the same number of times when given out (e.g. knowing they hit the ball but still given out LBW). Do they not leave the crease insisting they are being honest as they know they are not out? No, that is the balance of batting. Honesty plays little in the overall scheme. Umpires are there to do a job, the batsmen or fielding team are not the umpires.

Posted by SaintAubyn on (July 17, 2013, 19:42 GMT)

I recall that our High School senior team played the Teacher's XI and when the cricket master, a former regional player, got rapped on the pads first ball by the Boy's opening bowler, he immediately sprinted from the pitch before the umpire even had a chance to rule. I imagine the cries of controversy from the 1st Ashes test reflect a romantic nostalgia for a bygone era of sportsmanship, when entrenched in the game was a code of chivalry akin to the Nobility defending its honour with dueling swords.

We may as well accept that the more commercially successful a sport becomes, the less it will be about sportsmanship, and more about the bottom line. Win at all costs, has now supplanted win with elegance, especially if winning increases the bottom line. For better or worse, cricket is now a victim of its commercial success, and there's no going back to the era when it was a gentleman's game.

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Sambit Bal Editor-in-chief Sambit Bal took to journalism at the age of 19 after realising that he wasn't fit for anything else, and to cricket journalism 14 years later when it dawned on him that it provided the perfect excuse to watch cricket in the office. Among other things he has bowled legspin, occasionally landing the ball in front of the batsman; laid out the comics page of a newspaper; covered crime, urban development and politics; and edited Gentleman, a monthly features magazine. He joined Wisden in 2001 and edited Wisden Asia Cricket and Cricinfo Magazine. He still spends his spare time watching cricket.

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