July 16, 2013

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

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