December 4, 2015

Anatomy of the Lyon howler

A behind-the-scenes look at one of the more controversial DRS calls of recent times underlines the need for umpires to work closely with the providers of the technology involved

Nigel Llong's request to see ball-tracking evidence after he felt Hot Spot and RTS didn't show enough took the technology operators by surprise © Getty Images

Specialist third umpires, better representation for technology operators and a DRS funded and run by the game's governing body were just a few issues to be raised by Nathan Lyon's errant reprieve in Adelaide.

Day two of the Adelaide Test and Australia are in trouble. The No. 10, Nathan Lyon, is batting ahead of the injured Mitchell Starc and trying to sweep everything twirled down at him by Mitchell Santner.

Lyon's first attempt results in a bottom edge that scuttles away on the leg side. Unperturbed, he tries again next ball, this time to a Santner offering that is higher, shorter and further outside off stump. Lyon is not to the pitch, and his bat swishes ineffectually at a delivery that then thuds into his shoulder and loops to Kane Williamson at slip.

New Zealand appeal in unison, and Lyon looks decidedly guilty. Unconvinced about an edge he did not hear, the umpire, S Ravi, says not out, and is soon signalling for technological support as Brendon McCullum asks nearly instantly for a review. Lyon, wandering down the pitch towards his partner, Peter Nevill, felt some sort of contact on the way through, and then the dull sting of the ball striking his body.

It is only when he looks down at his bat that he sees it: a pink cherry stain, clear as day, at the join between the edge and the back of his bat. "I'm gone," he thinks.

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Up in the third umpire's room, Nigel Llong has had a straightforward match so far. It is his first stint in the chair for seven months, and his 19th overall. As the Nine telecast picks up his voice, he is calmly going through a process well established. He is engrossed by the pictures being beamed to him and the world, and in dialogue with the producers.

[No-ball check] "Front foot... yeah, okay, I'm happy with the front foot, let's move to front-on, thank you."

[Front-on slow motion] "Okay, I'm going to need to come back and if you can get me as close as you can, that would be great, thank you."

[Slip view slow motion] "Right, can you slow that down at all for me?"

[Front-on slow motion] "Okay, have you got a Hot Spot on that, we can have a look and see if there's a little top edge or a glove? Thank you. Front-on Hot Spot, I think, is going to be the one."

[Side-on Hot Spot, off side] "Take me back for that slightly, there's a little mark as it goes round..."

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At the moment of the first Hot Spot replay, a mark is visible on Lyon's bat, standing out as clearly as the pink cherry the Australian offspinner can see. Plenty in the crowd can see it, and an audible cheer goes up around Adelaide Oval.

Downstairs, in the bowels of the Riverbank Stand, the technology operators of Hot Spot, Snicko and the Eagle Eye ball-tracker give each other a look of recognition: this is out.

Out in the middle, Lyon decides the world has now seen what he has known since he looked at his bat, and starts to walk off the field. Llong, staring hard at his television screen, is not made aware of Lyon's movement.

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The crowd are still reacting, both to the Hot Spot and Lyon's pre-emptive departure, as Llong asks for another shot.

Umpires are seldom seen downstairs among the television trucks, monitors, control rooms and technology operators. They are seldom seen when those operators are setting up the day before a match

"Can we go have a look at leg side Hot Spot, I think? As he turns the bat over we might be able to get a better angle."

[Side-on Hot Spot, leg side] "Just take that back slightly, I'm just out of frame on the bat, let's go to RTS and see what that brings up for me, if we can have a split screen on RTS, that would be great."

On its introduction in 2013, Real Time Snicko was described as an insurance policy for Hot Spot, picking up edges with sound that the heat-seeking cameras cannot always discern. It is generally excellent for snicks procured by pace bowlers, and also by spinners when a batsman is playing back.

But a slow, turning ball met down the pitch and softly brushing the bat may not always be picked up by the highly directional stump microphones - especially if the batsman's body is blocking the path of the sound, as Lyon was. There is no spike when the ball passes his bat, but likewise there is none when it thuds into his shoulder.

[Front-on RTS] "Just come back, just come back. Okay, I've got nothing on RTS, have you got that split screen?"

[Front-on Hot Spot] "There's a mark there. Can I have a split screen on RTS, just to see, please? Just to see when the ball passes the bat and if the [RTS] spikes."

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All three Hot Spot angles have now shown a mark on the bat when the ball passes it, but still more replays are sought. There is evidence of disquiet as Llong asks for the split-screen RTS, which does not appear. A request for a slowed-down run-through of the camera pointing towards leg slip is only acceded to after another replay is shown. The men operating the technology were by this stage two and a half minutes into the referral, wondering why they were still producing replays for a dismissal they thought was clear.

If umpires had greater knowledge of how the technology crews work, that would help their decision-making © Getty Images

"We'd already seen the mark on the back of the bat," says one member of the technology team. "So downstairs in that room, everyone was convinced that it had run across the back of the bat. They were just waiting for him to see it and recognise it. When he said 'I haven't seen enough', everyone was caught by surprise."

Lyon, still hovering at the boundary's edge, is starting to think about wandering back to the middle.

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There is a concern, well established among the contractors hired by broadcasters such as Channel Nine, that they do not have the best possible relationship with the umpires. Most of them are cricket lovers, but they come to the game through the lens of highly trained and skilled technical operators. They have a deep understanding of the devices they use to enhance the broadcast, and by extension, help the match officials make decisions.

Simon Taufel, the former umpire and now ICC umpire training manager, has always said that the relationship between the decision-makers and those who provide their pictures is absolutely critical. "Now that we have got DRS, it has opened up a new challenge to the role of the third umpire and how the on-field umpire deals with it," he said in 2012. "It is almost becoming a different skill in itself.

"Some would also argue that being a third umpire in a DRS environment is almost the most important umpiring role. So to be able to interpret, communicate and work with [TV] directors to get those decisions right is super-challenging. Part of what I am looking at doing is developing accreditation material to help umpires prepare and develop their skills to be able to work within an environment that involves the cooperation of broadcasters, that involves the cooperation of the providers of technology."

Yet umpires are seldom seen downstairs among the television trucks, monitors, control rooms and technology operators. They are also seldom seen when those operators are doing the critical task of setting up their cameras and microphones on the day before a match, attempting to calibrate their devices in order to get accurate decisions. Few, if any, technology operators feel they are permitted to put their gadgetry in its optimal positions for results.

As such, those responsible for Hot Spot, Snicko and Eagle Eye or Hawk-Eye are often left debating the positions of their cameras with the ground staff, who have no official requirement to cooperate with them. A third umpire who works more closely in this set-up process would spend time with the technology operators and establish better relationships, leading to greater understanding.

He would also be able to speak more authoritatively to the ground staff, who must work with umpires on playing conditions and accede to requests about boundary ropes, sightscreens and crease lines, among other things. There has been talk, as well, about the creation of a DRS team accreditation course that all umpires and operators alike must take, so every person involved with a DRS judgement has undergone the same training.

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Llong, his voice rising slightly, is settling on the view that he cannot make a decision.

[Side-on Hot Spot, off side] "I'm going to go back on field. I can't definitely say he's hit this. I've got no convincing evidence he's hit this ball. I want to check for ball-tracking and make sure this ball's not going to go onto the stumps for lbw, because he hasn't hit it. Then we can give the decision."

It is now about four minutes into the referral and the crowd has started to boo. Llong's mention of ball-tracking is the first time he has raised the possibility of an lbw, and he has done so within a sentence of saying "I can't say he's definitely hit this."

Downstairs, expectation of a prompt decision had been replaced by raised eyebrows at the extra requests for replays. Now the call for ball-tracking catches everyone on the hop. It is a delivery that no one expected to be referred to ball-tracking. It commonly takes between 15 and 20 seconds to cue up a delivery for tracking. But these circumstances are like being jolted awake with the terrible realisation of having slept through an alarm. Nobody has even thought to set it up, and now it is being demanded immediately.

Fifteen seconds after Llong mentions ball-tracking, the Eagle Eye picture appears. Santner is bowling and Lyon is sweeping, but the ball scuttles off the bottom edge to the leg side. It is the wrong ball. Llong, by now sounding a little flustered, does not appear to notice. "Okay, so it's definitely not lbw."

Lyon, seeing the wrong ball on the big screen, saunters back to the middle. "What are you doing?" Nevill asks. "They're not going to give this out," Lyon tells his partner.

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One step along from the question of appointing specialist third umpires is the matter of who controls and pays for the technology used by the DRS.

The call for ball-tracking catches everyone on the hop. It is a delivery that no one expected to be referred to ball-tracking. These circumstances are like being jolted awake with the terrible realisation of having slept through an alarm

The makers of Virtual Eye, Animation Research, are familiar with recent events surrounding sailing's most prestigious event, the America's Cup. For the 2013 edition of the event, the organisers bankrolled the building of a US$9 million adjudication system that tracks the yachts and allows all decisions to be made off water, rather than by the traditional method of spotter boats.

This technology is thus used by the race officials but is at the same time available to the broadcasters. The whole exercise was overseen by a director of technology, Stan Honey. He was helped by the Cup's unique funding model, whereby the defending champion is also responsible for hosting the event. In a 2013 article, Honey explained why this made the "big data" adjudication of the race possible.

Naturally enough, the greatest obstacle to DRS technology being taken on by the ICC or members boards is cost.

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After taking one final look at Hot Spot, Llong hands the decision back to Ravi, who has waited implacably these past five minutes. Lyon has returned to join Nevill, while New Zealand's players have long since become bemused. They have not been able to hear the dialogue accessible to television viewers - a major breakthrough in the development of the DRS, which made umpiring decisions more transparent.

"Ravi, are you there? Ravi, I've got no conclusive evidence about this. I've looked at everything I've got, I can't find anything to say he's definitely hit this, no RTS. There's a mark on the bat but it could come from anywhere, from a flash, so give it not out, stay with your not out."

The most telling face at the ground in this moment is that of McCullum, who wears the most forced of wry smiles while shaking his head. There were similar expressions down among the operators of Hot Spot, Snicko and Eagle Eye, who wondered, not for the first time, how the umpires might be brought closer to their wavelength.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig

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