June 25, 2014

'It's hard being me,' says DRS

Cricket's unholy offspring tries to explain the benefits and challenges of the review system to Americans (and fails)

Good evening. I'm Joe D'Angelo, this is Balls and that's what we talk. Tonight we're coming live from a bar in Iowa packed with drunken lowlifes and we're ready to take the biggest risk in American TV history: we're going to talk cricket. I realise tens of millions of God-fearing Americans rank cricket even higher than a date with Kim Kardashian as a cure for insomnia, but bear with me.

Friends of mine have long banged on about the similarities between baseball and cricket. And they do have a point: bats and balls, innings and outs, runs and catches; ball-tampering, literary pretentiousness and an undentable superiority complex - they share so much. Cricket, moreover, is the only sport that matters a bean in India: a billion people can't all be wrong, not all the time - or can they?

As the years hurtle on, so the parallel lines merge and cross. Witness how both sports constantly try to convince spectators that the bat is almightier than the ball - in vain, thankfully. Witness the shrinking of cricket, via T20, the latest attempt to appeal to normal attention spans, to the length of an average baseball game. Witness, above all, the challenge system Major League Baseball instigated this season. Cricket, which began using technology to aid umpires more than 20 years ago, introduced its version, the Decision Review System, aka the DRS, back in 2008.

And so to tonight's guest, the soul of this revolution - laydeez an' gennelmen, a round of applause for Mr Dee Ahress himself.

A dishevelled figure takes the stage to a chorus of boos. The front of his t-shirt reads "I [Heart] Duncan"; the back reads "It's review not referral, stupid". Three barflies are especially voluble. "Bring back KP!" roars one. "Cricket's for f*****s," yells another. "Boy George is a f*****!" bellows another.

Joe: Many apologies for that, but welcome to Balls.

DRS: Thanks. You should read the replies whenever I email the BCCI about a trip to Ahmedabad.

Joe: Er, thanks, we'll come back to that fascinatingly obscure tidbit, if that's okay. You're Anglo-Austro-Afro-Asian-Caribbean, right?

DRS: Actually, it's Anglo-Austro-Afro-Asian-Caribbean-American. Don't forget I reign over a corner of your southern extremities.

Joe: So, how are you?

DRS: Pretty darned fit, thanks. It's hard being me, really hard, but I had a few quiet weeks leading up to the Test-match season and now I'm indispensable again. Which might explain why my command of your language is so much better than usual, so set them up, Joe.

Joe: We'll be the judge of that. But seriously, Tom Boswell of the Washington Post submitted a somewhat sarcastic rave about baseball's challenge system: "MLB had a brilliant idea. It's so perfect you wonder if it was an accident." Two problems there: it wasn't their idea and it isn't perfect.

DRS: Say it ain't not so, Joe. Yes, replays are scrutinised at the ground rather than a Replay Command Centre in New York - which sounds like something Ronald Reagan cooked up while wet-dreaming about his Star Wars project - but the most obvious difference between cricket and baseball challenges is the number available. I know this because my cousin picked my brains when he got the baseball job. On my watch, if an inning lasts long enough - i.e. two days rather than 20 minutes max - you can cock up six reviews, but my cousin only allows you two cock-ups per game. Sure, outs come ten times as easily in baseball and runs are 100 times scarcer, but it's much harder to know what or when to challenge because there are so many close plays and so many innings.

Joe: But that's not the worst flaw, is it?

DRS: Ain't that so, Joe. In cricket we have a form of out, leg-before wicket, lbw for short - or, as the journalists variously call it, trapped, pinned or stapled. It's our version of judging whether a pitch is a strike: if the ball hits the batter's body, the umpire has to decide whether it would otherwise have entered the strike zone. I'm there to help, but that's something my cousin doesn't bother with, which seems about as sensible as inviting Bill Clinton to chair the IOC.

Joe: The International Olympic Committee?

DRS: No, the International Order of Celibacy.

Joe: Didn't you have a word with your cousin?

DRS: Yippidee-doo-dah, but apparently there's less chance of MLB assenting to reviewing strikes than of Lady Gaga marrying Prince Harry's frog. Yes, you have the technology, but deploying it would only highlight how useless baseball umpires are. I've been accused of disempowering ours - one uncommonly literate critic even suggested I'd disembowelled them - but all I've done is improve the efficiency of decision-making from 92% to around 97%. Of course, it helps when the target is visible to the human eye.

Joe: Is it a case of Pandora's box - once it's ajar, there's no going back?

DRS: You betcha by golly wow. What really amazes me is that baseball umpires aren't allowed to request technological assistance. That will change, I assure you.

Joe: Consider another Boswell quote: "The greatest benefit to the game -- and to our fun -- may be the addition of the second-guess of the challenge. You can almost hear the hubbub, as video screens in parks will be allowed to show controversial replays." Isn't there a chance of fans reacting like those legendary Limey soccer hooligans?

DRS: You must remember that the sort who cause trouble at soccer are far too poor to afford a ticket to a Test match. Spectators could watch replays on the big screen long before I was even a gleam in the eyes of my many alleged fathers, and the most hurtful criticism I've ever had was a tweet from, if memory serves, a Mr B Gates.

Joe: Bill Gates - really?

DRS: My badness. I hadn't made that connection, but now it makes more sense.

Joe: What did he say?

DRS: "On behalf of the world's computers, I hereby sue you for shoddy plagiarism."

Joe: Hah, hah! Now if ever there was a justification for your existence, the penultimate pitch of the first Test between England and Sri Lanka last week surely provided it. Had Sri Lanka's Nuwan Pradeep not challenged a poor decision, a glorious draw would have been a defeat. Sure, we Yanks think a draw is as much fun as kissing your sister's sister, but that was a big deal, wasn't it?

DRS: Hell, yeah. We cricketfolk don't get too hung up on the whole win-lose thing. In fact, what happened in that match was my proudest moment yet. Afterwards, despite his intense and understandable frustration, Alastair Cook, the England captain and a man under severe pressure, gave me the biggest thumbs-up I've ever had. "I have always been a big fan of the DRS," he said. "It is there to stop the howler." How right he is. In 17 words, two sentences and one stroke, he finally persuaded myself and many others that his potential as a leader of averagely good cricketers was not purely a figment of his bosses' imagination. I call him Mr Nice: finishing first is never his be-all and end-all.

Joe: Tell us more about your relationship with the Indians.

DRS: It's crazy, man. I love them, they hate me. The odd thing is, if it wasn't for the Indian team's difficulties in Australia in 2007-08, when they were repeatedly scammed by lousy umpiring, I'm not sure I'd be here tonight. That was the nastiest, most politically charged tour for 75 years and I was invented expressly to stop an umpire being lynched. Trouble was, when I made my debut soon after, the Indian captain decided it simply wasn't cricket - and even cricketphobes don't need a translation for that - to diss the umpire. The Sri Lankans were much savvier and won the series, since when I've been as popular in Kolkata as Mel Gibson is in Tel-Aviv.

Joe: But hasn't this been a problem?

DRS: You're very darn tootin'. The thing is, teams can decide unilaterally whether or not I'm a waste of time and/or money. Fortunately, nine of the ten major franchises have liked me on Facebook; unfortunately, India are the lone exception. Which is a bit like saying the only threat to world peace is the weapon business.

Joe: Let's get this straight: the people who run cricket are happy adopting a different rule depending on the venue? Sounds like the stupidest idea since Mr and Mrs Bieber decided they needed a son.

DRS: Hang on, I know enough about baseball to know that the designated hitter rule works the same way - yes, in the American League, no in the National League.

Joe: But at least it works both ways in the World Series.

DRS: Point taken. Trouble is, India is a lot like your wonderful country: beautiful, optimistic, industrious, democratic and bursting with entirely justified grudges about the scandalous way they were treated by the British for centuries…

Joe: You schmoozer… carry on!

DRS: On the other hand, the more money you guys make, the more you do exactly what you want, as often as you want, and to whomever you want.

Joe: But isn't that precisely the purpose of money: allow choices, freedom, more fulfilment, less compromise?

DRS: Ah, but when you play international team sport, as you guys are so reluctant to do, compromise underpins everything.

Joe: Well folks, there you have it. We're getting to grips with soccer, but cricket is now officially un-American.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton. His latest book, Floodlights and Touchlines: A History of Spectator Sport, will be published in the summer of 2014