Bugs in the system
The look of confusion on Anil Kumble's face epitomised India's predicament. With the embers going out on the second day's play - a day when Sri Lanka had piled on more than 300 runs for the loss of just two wickets - Harbhajan Singh appealed vociferously for a leg-before against Tillakaratne Dilshan. The fact he was bowling round the wicket would surely have registered in Kumble's mind, but the fervour with which Harbhajan appealed made him wonder whether he should take a chance, even though India had only two reviews left.
The seconds ticked by as Kumble went up to the umpire, exchanged a few words and then asked for the review. The dressing room would have got the bad news first, with the very first replay showing that the ball had pitched a couple of inches outside the line of leg stump. Dilshan finished the day unbeaten, and India were left with just one wild card and another six wickets to get.
An hour later, Mahela Jayawardene sympathised with his counterpart's situation. "That's something we've discussed at length in our team meetings," he said. "The 50-50 ones are going to be really tough. If the wicketkeeper and the bowler are not 100% [sure], I don't think we should go for it," Jayawardene said. "The umpire would give it not-out if there was some doubt. The wicketkeeper would be the ideal guy to get some information from for a decision like that, but with the 50-50 ones you need to be very careful because you only have three referrals. You're better off keeping one or two [in hand]."
Harbhajan had been in the thick of the action when history was created 23.4 overs into the morning session on Thursday. Again, he had been bowling round the wicket, but this time to a left-hander, Malinda Warnapura. With the pitch not affording extravagant turn, a delivery that pitched just on or around the line of leg stump was always likely to be drifting out of harm's way. But such was India's plight, with Warnapura and Jayawardene stroking the ball fluently, that they felt they had no option but to seek a second opinion.
Virtual Eye, which tracked the ball up to the point of impact with the pad, showed the ball hadn't straightened enough to hit the stumps. Warnapura, then on 86, went on to make a century, and the partnership swelled to 155 before Rahul Dravid's smart catch at slip briefly eased the frown lines on Harbhajan's face.
The really contentious decision was still to come though. Ishant Sharma had seen off Jayawardene and Dilshan had made just 1 when Zaheer Khan slanted one across his bat. There was a big plume of dust as the ball passed over the top edge of the bat, and a sound as well. As the Indians appealed, Mark Benson thought for a moment and then raised his finger. The celebrations had already begun by the time the Indians suddenly realised that Dilshan had no intention of leaving the crease.
As Benson signalled for the replay, all eyes turned to the TV screens. Replay followed replay, yet no one could be absolutely sure whether there had been the thinnest of edges, or if the sound heard was merely bat striking ground. The technology that's often used by broadcasters in such situations, the Snickometer, wasn't employed because doubts remain about its efficacy, while Hotspot, used by Channel Nine during the last Ashes series, has yet to be officially tested for accuracy.
|The one positive that could be immediately gleaned came from the nature of the appeals. There were far fewer nonsensical ones, and the distasteful recent habit of fielders crowding the umpire and pressuring him into mistakes was nowhere to be seen|
With Rudi Koertzen, the third umpire, as undecided as anyone watching, Benson, who had no access to the replays, had little option but to change the decision. In doing so, he opened up an entirely new can of worms. On the first morning of the Test, Dave Richardson, the ICC general manager, had spoken to the media, and emphasised the fact that the final decision would be made by the umpire on the field.
But how could anyone call it Benson's decision when it was Koertzen that actually got to watch the replays and then pass on his perception of what happened? How much is the on-field umpire allowed to ask his colleague anyway? The reversal was Benson's, but in reality, he was doing little more than the job the red and green lights do when the third umpire decides on a run-out or stumping.
The other thorny issue is that of technology. If the game is to embrace it, why not go the whole hog and use all the tools at your disposal? The fact that Snickometer and Hotspot can't be used in these cases is an admission that the technology isn't entirely reliable. Even in the case of Hawk-Eye or Virtual Eye, we know that the predictive element is dependent on the individual who operates it.
Whose responsibility is it to ensure the best technology is used? Does the broadcaster need to invest in it, or should the ICC take up the mantle to ensure the stated aim of minimising avoidable errors is achieved? A sub-committee featuring the likes of Anil Kumble, Sunil Gavaskar and Kumar Sangakkara will debate these issues at the end of the series before broad guidelines are laid down for future contests.
The one positive that could be immediately gleaned came from the nature of the appeals. There were far fewer nonsensical ones, and the distasteful recent habit of fielders crowding the umpire and pressuring him into mistakes was nowhere to be seen. Maybe some good will come out of it after all.
Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at Cricinfo