January 6, 2001

TV - A panacea for umpiring ills

The venue was Chitambram Stadium in Chennai, and the teams were Pakistan and the hosts, India. It was the first innings of the First Test of the 1998-99 series between the two archrivals of the sub-continent. In the Indian first innings, Nadeem Khan, the left arm leg-spinner and elder brother of the current Pakistan captain Moin Khan, was bowling to the middle order batsman, Saurav Ganguly. The match was evenly poised with both teams trying their best to take a first innings lead. (This particular battle was won by India, as they took 16 runs lead courtesy of the following incident, although the match was eventually won by Pakistan.)

The ball from Nadeem took the inside edge of Ganguly's bat, after which it ricocheted off his boot, and not the ground, and went into the hands of Yousuf Youhana at silly point. Obviously it was hard for anyone, let alone the umpire (Steve Dunne from New Zealand) standing more than 22 yards away, to follow the exact path of the ball before it went into the hands of the fielder. That was why only Moin, the sharpness of whose reflexes is beyond any suspicions, appealed and, understandably, the umpire gave the decision in the batsman's favour. Moin Khan could do nothing but to vent his frustration on his colleagues for not joining him in the appeal.

The second innings of the same match saw an almost exact repeat of the incident. Although Saqlain Mushtaq was the bowler this time, the batsman and the umpire were the same. This time Ganguly cut, only to see the ball rapping the silly point fielder on his shin and going into the hands of a diving Moin, but not before it had bounced off the ground. Learning the lesson from the first innings, all the fielders along with the bowler appealed for the catch, and to the frustration of justice, Dunne signaled the batsman out.

Now we travel to Faisalabad for the second of the recently concluded three match Test series between Pakistan and England. This time the batsman on both occasions was the England skipper, Nasser Hussain. Many of you would have seen how he was a victim of poor decisions by umpire Steve Bucknor in the first innings and Nazir Jr. in the second. Nasser rued his luck rather than blame the umpires, because he knew that after all they were human and that their judgement can never be foolproof.

My purpose is not to impair the authority of the umpires. But I want to stress that they are human, and therefore have some inherent weaknesses that prevent them from making correct decisions every time. There are two kinds of bad umpiring decisions. One results from human error; and the other, secondary in importance to the first, is a result of human bias, when the umpire has a personal prejudice or liking for home players or dislike for the members of the opposing team. There is no cure for this ailment (if I can call it so). Such decisions can only be avoided by replacing the umpire with a neutral one. This can at least ensure that the decision, right or wrong, is not a result of bias.

The main issue concerns bad decisions due to lack of judgement. There is only one cure for this particular ailment, and that is the use of technology involving TV cameras.

If we are sincere in our efforts to free the game of cricket of all umpiring controversies, there should be no doubt that the use of technology would be better than relying on the judgement of a person who is liable to commit mistakes despite trying his best to be fair and unbiased.

I am surprised that in spite of all the hue and cry (the England coach and skipper are the latest entrants) in favour of using TV cameras, cricket's governing body (ICC) is still reluctant to make necessary laws to this effect. Why not? When we have an alternative for a system that has fallen into disrepute, why are we hesitant to make use of it?

I have heard people in favour of not using technology say that cricket is a gentleman's game, hence correct behaviour, good sportsmanship, and decorum are more important than professionalism. I hope this is not why the ICC are not employing technology in umpiring. Today, the level of professionalism, commercialism and competition has taken control of cricket, like almost every other game. TV and the Internet have facilitated access to matches played thousands of miles away. Emotions, interest, and money are involved on a much larger scale. In these circumstances, if one bad decision reverses the situation in a match, the consequences are bound to be crucial.

If technology is facilitating in so many other fields, why isn't it in the field of cricket? It is time we shunned the ancient traditions of the so-called "gentlemanliness" and sportsmanship that hamper the cause of fairness and justice and start making use of the best available alternative.

Some argue that TV cameras are not yet fit to judge lbw decisions. They contend that the man standing 22 yards from the batsman is in the best position to give lbw decisions, as he, and no one else, can see the actual height of the ball when it hits the batsman's pad. In my view cameras can do equally well, if not better, in adjudicating lbw decisions, as they have such a variety of angles that nothing is missed. The side view angle, already used for run out decisions, can determine the height of the ball when it hits the batsman. And we know that most controversial lbw decisions involve not only height, but also direction - whether the ball was going down the leg side or missing the off stump. Such controversies mar many lbw decisions. By introducing technology, we can ensure that such decisions are correct and acceptable to most batsmen.

Consider the fact that the use of the third umpire has removed the controversy in run-out decisions. Of the remaining lbw decisions, roughly 10% involve doubt about whether the ball has hit the bat before the batsman's pad. TV cameras can also resolve this issue. (If you have any doubts about that, ask Nasser Hussain after his horrible dismissal in the first innings of the Faisalabad Test).

Consider, for instance, the 1998 Headingley Test between South Africa and the hosts England. It was the decider of the series. We saw memorable performances from players of both sides, but the performance of Javed Akhtar overshadows all others. This umpire raised his finger in response to lbw appeals on no less than eight occasions, six of which can be classed as doubtful. The irony is that he belonged to a neutral country.

So much for lbws. The technology can be used for caught behind decisions as well, mainly because of the introduction of the snickometer (which shows snicks in the form of audio graphs). Here, even those who do not favour the idea of using cameras for lbws would surely agree. The umpire on the field has only a moment or two in which to make his decision, and he might have other considerations before him that do not allow him to make the decision objectively. Dunne's decision in the Chennai Test would serve as a good example of this point. After giving Ganguly not out in the first innings, he must have watched replays of his decision. In the second innings his conscience might have caused him to immediately raise his finger, although the batsmen was not out. Who could have made a better decision at this stage than the third umpire, making use of the TV technology?

In view of these arguments I would like to enumerate below my recommendations for the ICC:

1. Field umpires should be allowed to refer to the third umpire for all decisions about which they have the slightest doubt. These decisions should include lbws, caught behinds, and bat/pad. I am sure that the field umpires would prefer that the onus of taking most of the decisions falls on the third umpire.

2. If the third umpire is 100% sure that the field umpire has made a wrong decision, he should be allowed to intervene. For example, if a no ball has been overlooked or a batsman has been wrongly given out, he can intimate the same to the field umpire with the help of walkie-talkie. There still might be cases when even the third umpire is not absolutely sure about a decision. In such cases, the benefit of the doubt shall, as always, go to the batsman.

I hope that the introduction of these revolutionary changes would help the cause of fairness in cricket without undermining the authority or status of the umpires on the field.

[1998-99 Chennai Test] [ 2000-01 Faisalabad Test>] [1998 Headingley Test]