A leap of faith in technology
Cricket is about to take a leap of faith in technology with the trial of a system that allows players to challenge the decision of the on-field umpires in the Test series between Sri Lanka and India. The umpire's word will no longer be final.
The system has been tried, somewhat unsuccessfully, and in the relatively obscure environment of county cricket. But,after a shelved proposal to use it in the current England-South Africa series, millions of television viewers now await the sight of the first-ever referral to be made in an international contest. The jury is out on whether the move is designed to undermine the umpires or to assist them, but the acceptance of the system will depend by the decisions it produces.
At one level, the referral process is likely to eliminate obvious umpiring errors, such as the reprieve of Andrew Symonds in the Sydney Test last year that led to India threatening to call off their Australian tour, but there are also apprehensions about the exactitude of technology, particularly in the area of catches close to the ground and in the case of faint edges. In light of the Sydney controversy, it was inevitable, however, that the referral system would be trialled in international cricket. The sooner the better.
There will be 22 cameras at work at the SSC to help eliminate doubt from the decision-making process and for first time Virtual Eye will be used for line decisions in judging lbws. Even though the predictive aspect of Virtual Eye will not be used, the third umpire will still have visual evidence of the pitch of the ball and the point of impact. Technologies such as Snickometer and Hotspot have been kept out of the pale. Even the broadcast companies that use these aids to enhance television viewing are unable to vouch of their infallibility.
Following the tradition set by tennis, the first spectator sport to allow players challenge decisions, each team will be allowed three unsuccessful referrals per innings, and men who will be making the decisions in the match have welcomed the move.
The trial has received positive responses from the captains of the two teams which will use it over the next few weeks. Mahela Jayawardene, Sri Lanka's captain, gave it an enthusiastic endorsement. "I am all for it," he said. "I think it's a very good system, what we are trying to eradicate is the obvious mistakes that happen on the field. We [the captains and umpires] had a chat yesterday and I think the umpires are in favour of this as well."
Anil Kumble, India's captain, pointed out that umpires must understand that technology is there to assist them. "I don't think we're trying to say that umpires are redundant," he said. "They are an integral part of the system and it is very difficult for them in the heat of the moment; it is just assisting them. It is not a question of taking something away from them. It is a mode of assistance."
But of course, there are flaws in the method. As Ian Chappell, who has opposed the referrals, points out, the system would bring justice for some but not for all. "If three referrals are deemed fruitless," Chappell wrote, "under the recommendations of the proposal a team would then have no further opportunity to ask for assistance from the third umpire. Consequently, the biggest howler ever perpetrated could then enter the scorebook unhindered. This would be classic ."
And technology is neither foolproof nor 100% conclusive. Two catches, or non-catches, in the recently-concluded Headingley Test highlighted the problem. Both AB de Villiers and Michael Vaughan claimed catches that were referred to the television umpire. In the first instance, the ball was conclusively grounded. In Vaughan's case, two camera angles presented different pictures and the batsman was given the benefit of the doubt. The next day, Nasser Hussain demonstrated with the help of the Sky television crew how the camera could lie.
But at the same time, there is acceptance that the game needs to adapt. Kumble's assessment sums it up in a way. "Traditions are important but you need to keep changing. Everybody respects that now. Now millions of people watch the game on television and it is accepted. In tennis, line decisions are accepted now - it is a part of every game. In cricket we have already accepted the third umpire ruling on run-outs and stumpings. It's moving forward, and we shouldn't just look at the history of cricket here."
Jamie Alter is a staff writer at Cricinfo