April 2, 2014

Why do we over-react when changing cricket's rules?

Instead of helping umpires react instinctively to situations, we have burdened them with misleading technology that has turned them into second-class citizens

Last week I made a comment about Steve Davis, the veteran Australian umpire, that he was past it, over the hill, washed up as an international umpire. It was a poor comment. It was a cold, insensitive call.

Like many, I have become frustrated with the whole umpiring landscape. The shoddy DRS and its use; weather rulings; the frequent, often contradictory, changes in playing rules and regulations; and fair if not close catches being turned down as soon as the third umpire becomes involved.

The decision to give Mahela Jayawardene not out first ball, after he was caught by Michael Lumb at point - a decision made by Davis, the acting third umpire - was incorrect. It was caught, and any cricketer who has played the game knows that catch was genuine - Lumb's fingers were under the ball, and on impact he closed the hands to secure the catch.

There will always be a 2D television angle to disprove a catch taken low down, centimetres off the ground. It has happened for a while now, and we know that technology is not helping this aspect of the game. Yet we constantly, almost compulsively, head upstairs and put the television hat on. It has become irresponsible to the spirit of the game.

Apparently on the replay Davis was given an angle from square leg looking towards point, with the batsman in the foreground and the fielder in the background, that was different to any angle seen by the viewer. This is a dangerous precedent.

When the outcry came from all over the world, the ICC, typically, went into defence mode, and tweeted a new angle not seen by the masses, apart from by Davis himself. Apparently. In between the game and the new evidence released, all hell broke loose on social media, and my own frustration played a part.

As far as my comment was concerned, I should have known better. Davis is a long-serving official. He has done fine work. While he isn't a top-ranking umpire on the Elite panel, like Aleem Dar is, or Simon Taufel was, Davis has done the hard yards all over the world, giving his best in often difficult circumstances. He has been a solid umpire for a decade. Instead of reacting to one mistake with an insensitivity that I would have been upset to hear if it was directed at myself, I should have seen the system and not the umpire as the problem. Steve, I apologise.

The problem is, there is no integrity left. All batsmen now know that if a catch is close, they may have a 50-50 chance of getting away with it. No one is exempt from believing this, and no blame is pointed at Jayawardene for standing his ground. That's where the game has got to.

The ICC and its makers have deemed that television is way more accurate and reliable than the humans who are selected to stand and adjudicate for their superior expertise. The umpires are chosen for their years of performance to be in the middle at the highest level, yet they are now considered second-rate citizens to the technology that is meant to assist them.

Cricket has shot itself in the foot over this, more than any other sport. Due to the game's complex nature, intense scrutiny and long-winded duration, instinctive umpiring has slowly become a forgotten art. There was never this negativity when the likes of Tony Crafter, Dickie Bird and David Shepherd were in control. Life for these fine men was an enjoyable one. Simon Taufel followed in their footsteps and became the best umpire in the world. Then the DRS came along and he disappeared.

Instead of reacting to one mistake with an insensitivity that I would have been upset to hear if it was directed at myself, I should have seen the system and not the umpire as the problem. Steve, I apologise

The point is that we have reacted to the exception and not the rule. Just like the stupid front-foot no-ball rule was a reaction to the rare bowler who dragged and therefore gained a perceived advantage. The back-foot rule was the correct rule, because the front-foot rule encourages the fast bowler to get closer to the batsman in an attempt to reduce reaction time, leading to overstepping. This in turn distracts the umpire from his main role, which is to adjudicate on what happens down the other end. The rule should never have been changed. No-balls have increased manifold since the introduction of the front-foot rule. It is a hideous distraction to the game.

Consider the bizarre 15-degree rule, which came in as a reaction to a rare bowler like Muttiah Muralitharan, who captured our hearts with his joy for the game and his country. We all took time to understand the imperfections of his arm, but it did not mean the whole bowling rule should have changed. Murali was an exception to the rule and the umpires were dealing with it the best they could by questioning what was happening with his action, as had been done for generations when any exceptions came along. An indoor laboratory is the not the place to determine what is right and what is wrong with cricket.

We have reacted emotionally and irrationally, and it has changed the nature and integrity of the game for good. Now we see dozens of bowlers at the top level, and thousands at the grass roots, attempting to become international performers by trying to take advantage of the 15-degree rule. Where will it stop? In ten years' time, you will see a marked trend in the game and it won't be pretty.

The same applies to the technology used. It is wrong to embrace it all. It is not foolproof. It's slow. It's killing the flow of the game. And it's there because we all reacted to a few howlers by a few honest souls who have devoted their life to standing in the middle. Yet the root cause of the howlers was in moving to neutral umpires all over the world, the pressures placed on those umpires by the constant travel, and by the scrutiny they were put under because of the use of entertainment innovations like the predictive path. Hawk-Eye was not set up to officiate, it was created to entertain. The umpires are now pawns in a system that renders them almost unworthy.

And then I come along and spew rubbish because I am so frustrated. My over-reaction to the reaction was just as bad. And so it goes on. None of it is good for the game.

Davis deserves a good farewell at some point. He doesn't want to give it up yet, I am sure. And I don't want to see his umpiring slowly deteriorate either. I would like to remember him as a cool customer who gave good service. He must decide when the time is right to hang up the coat. And I apologise for seeming to pre-empt when that should be.

For goodness' sake, can we take a long, hard look at what we have done with this over-emphasis on technology and television, and remove the reliance on it? Instead we ought to restore and revitalise the umpire's ability to react naturally to what he sees at close quarters. Before they all disappear.

Martin Crowe, one of the leading batsmen of the late '80s and early '90s, played 77 Tests for New Zealand

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