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Let's hear it for the ump

These days players challenge umpires' decisions as a matter of course Cricket Australia/Getty Images

"How the bloody hell was that?" went one of the more memorable yet printable appeals to which I have borne witness. We've all been there - the intractable umpire, the dead-in-the-water appeal, the shake of the head, the muttering. Then there was the one that resulted in a long silence from the umpire, followed by the words "I was waiting for you to walk." It may be a friendly game, but when the batsman is caught flat-footed and back in the crease as the ball raps the pad, plumb as plumb can be, and is yet again given not out, tempers can begin to fray.

But then again, any lbw decision is always a travesty so far as one side is concerned: for the bowler, it's always out; for the batsman, never. In between these two certainties is the grey area of discretion in which the poor and increasingly beleaguered umpire must wallow, knowing full well that while one side will congratulate them on an excellent decision, the other will scowl and mutter vague imprecations. Not only this but their decision will continue to be questioned during tea, over a pint, the breakfast table, even the end-of-season dinner.

At school, maybe (oh lordy) 40-odd years ago, I was told, "The umpire is right whether he's right or wrong", but the times they are a-changin'. Not only has master Zimmerman become a Nobel Laureate, players now challenge decisions as a matter of course, there are plans afoot for a red-card system, and apparently they even let women umpire now.

There has been much criticism of the spurious appeals made during the most recent Test match between England and India. Some armchair commentators have gone so far as to call such behaviour cheating, which it plainly isn't - gamesmanship, yes - but the umpires are pretty much on top of things (Bruce Oxenford's reaction to Jonny Bairstow's ultimately successful review in the fourth Test notwithstanding).

According to Charles Davis, some 77% of appeals in Tests over the past 16 years have been for the humble lbw, of which 19% have been successful. As he suggests, "the low success of lbw appeals can be put down to optimistic bowlers and the complexity of the law: even when bowling teams are confident enough to review under the DRS system, only 20% of 'not out' lbws were overturned".

"At school, I was told "the umpire is right whether he's right or wrong", but the times they are a-changin"

Of course, it is only in internationals that the DRS is available - or so you'd think. We have it in club cricket too, it just isn't binding. This second opinion is sought to provide a sort of moral arbitration, a justification after the fact to countermand perceived injustice. And it's sought after practically every decision: it's a rare batsman who returns to the pavilion mouthing the words "I was plumb." Whether or not the batsman is given out, the question "How did that look to you?" is invariably put to those two players on whose advice, at the highest level, the review is either invoked or forsaken: the non-striker and the keeper. And both involve great dollops of confirmation bias; that is, only seeing that which accords with the outcome we desire.

Now I know this will stick in the craw, but other than in the case of travesties of judgement that occasionally manifest themselves, neither keeper nor non-striker really has a clue. The umpire really does have the best view in the house.

First let's take the honest stumper. The only thing you can be sure of from behind the stumps following an lbw appeal is that the ball hit something. You can have a reasonable idea that it wasn't the bat from the noise, but this isn't infallible. When it comes to the line, keepers mostly take their stance outside the line of the off stump, only moving in line if the ball looks to be going down the leg side. Think about it. To be lbw, the ball has to hit your pads in line with the stumps and be going on to hit them (and not have pitched outside leg). As a stumper, you can only ever make an intelligent guess at either of these because - wait for it - when you're in line, you can't see exactly where the ball collided with the pads because there's one of them there batsmen in the way. So much for the keeper. And yes, they may know when it's pitched way outside leg, but they're hardly likely to let on.

As for the non-striker, most of the time (and Joe Root at the Mohali Test was a conspicuous exception to this) they are to be found standing outside the return crease as the bowler delivers the ball. That's about four feet to the right of middle stump. The ball is 20 yards away from them when it hits the pad. The non-striker is therefore at least four degrees off from the line of the ball. Those four degrees equate to approximately four inches: the non-striker's line of sight to the point of impact is at an angle of about four inches to the right of the striker's middle stump. Or, put another way, a ball appearing to strike the pad in front of middle stump is actually shaving the leg stump. If it's gun-barrel straight. The non-striker must therefore adjust what they see to take account of their margin of error if they're to have a hope. And that's before considering angle of delivery or movement, whether it's seam, swing or spin, the probability that they weren't really paying attention... Oh, it appears that the non-striker doesn't have a clue either.

I managed to squeeze a few words from the excellent Fiona Richards, a Sussex Premier League panel umpire (I know she's excellent because she's never given me out lbw). This was what she had to say on the subject: "The umpire can only make a decision based on the information at hand. While a DRS retrospective might find that not all decisions were accurate, you can't say that 100 umpires in the same position would not have made the same decision, and that is both the failing and beauty of a human game. Be supportive of your umpires, many of whom are unpaid volunteers. They have been thoroughly trained in how to apply the laws and usually have a lot of experience. Just as you, the players, are out there playing the best cricket you can, they are making the best decisions available."

We owe it to the game to respect the umpire's role, and their decisions, whether we're batting, bowling, in the field or standing. It's not only what cricket's about, it actually makes sense.