Contrary to general perception, there is no law, rule or playing condition in cricket that states the batsman's right to the benefit of the doubt. The benefit of the doubt is a premise based on the long held legal position of a defendant being innocent until proven guilty. In the case of cricket, the batsman is considered the defendant against the bowler's appeal. But there is nothing written down and certainly no law.
The technology used for the coverage of modern-day cricket has changed this premise. The application of the Decision Review System, which allows players the chance to challenge umpire's decisions, is set up to give the umpires the benefit of the doubt. Witness the power of "umpire's call" in lbws, for example, where a ball indicated to be hitting the outside of a stump by the relevant technology will he ruled not out if initially judged so by the umpire. In general, the original decision made by the on-field umpire stands unless technology conclusively proves it otherwise.
This would be simple to absorb - and to stomach, in some cases - if it ended there, but in many cases of a review the third umpire, positioned in a room overlooking the play, is asked to become the final arbiter. The further element of confusion here is that he is not making his own judgement, but instead has to decide whether the pictures presented to him by the host broadcaster provide clear evidence from which he can overturn the decision made on field by one of the two appointed umpires.
In last night's match at the Sydney Cricket Ground, Steven Smith was caught at the wicket by Jos Buttler off Mark Wood's bowling at an important time in the Australian chase. Immediately, Smith's disappointment at getting out was apparent. He appeared at first to make for the dressing room but then either his native instinct for survival or the advice of his batting partner, Mitchell Marsh, or both, caused him to stop and suggest to the umpires that the catch might not have carried to Buttler.
At this point, the on-field umpires have four options: 1) to tell him to accept the decision and be on his way (possible); 2) to agree with him, change their mind and reverse their decision (unlikely); 3) revert the decision to the third umpire with their initial decision, out in this case, as the default position (likely); 4) revert to the third umpire with a default position of not out (less likely).
"The camera foreshortens the image and flattens it, meaning that cricketers who have taken clean catches an inch or two off the ground watch the replay and see a picture that suggests otherwise"
They chose No. 3, which comes with a signal called a "soft out", at which point the process transfers to the third umpire, who must use the technology and pictures provided by the host broadcaster to either support the original decision or find clear evidence to overturn it. After what seemed like an age, and having examined every angle and close-up offered by the Channel Nine cameras, the third umpire decided there was not enough evidence to overturn the original decision. This is an objective decision and open to interpretation. Many people thought the pictures clearly showed the ball come into contact with the ground. Many others thought the opposite. There was doubt but it went the way of the original decision by the on-field umpires.
Cricketers are divided over the use of technology. Though most agree it is valuable and, if not perfect, accurate enough for line decisions, lbws and the impact moment of bat-pad catches, a number remain unconvinced that it should be used for the question of whether or not catches have stayed above ground.
This is because television provides a two-dimensional image of a three-dimensional fact. The camera foreshortens the image and flattens it - hand, ball and grass appear to be on the same plane - meaning that cricketers who have taken clean catches an inch or two off the ground watch the replay and see a picture that suggests otherwise and leads to embarrassment. This situation is made more challenging by magnification, which tends to blur the picture and give the impression of further foreshortening it. The reason that umpires are instructed to give a "soft" out or not out when reverting catches to the third umpire is to encourage them to guide the process with their own immediate, three-dimensional perspective. More often than not, the television image complicates the issue and, in the law of unintended consequences, is the prelude to mistrust and ill-feeling.
Thankfully, in last night's instance there was no suggestion of Buttler cheating. When a wicketkeeper dives to take such a catch and his gloves make contact with the ground as he falls, it is perfectly possible that he has little sense of the ball making contact with the ground too - even if it has done so.
Cricketers tend to base their judgement of such catches on the feel that comes from years of playing the game, rather than on the pictures that they believe have the ability to mask the facts.
During the Melbourne Test, Usman Khawaja took a catch in the deep but lost control of the ball as he rolled over. Myriad replays failed to show whether the ball had touched the ground and therefore the "soft" out decision made on the field remained after examination by the third umpire. There was no suggestion of Khawaja cheating, only that, like Buttler, he might not have known the exact whereabouts of the ball during the completion of the catch.
Opinion of such examples can lean towards subjectivity and even to subconscious emotional attachment. Last night, as Michael Slater was explaining to the Channel Nine viewers that he believed the Buttler catch had not carried and was therefore not out, Michael Vaughan was in the BT studio in London having tweeted "That is OUT!" A skim over the various media platforms had the Australian and English view split loosely, though not conclusively, in this way. At the SCG, the crowd was understandably furious as the replays on the relatively low-quality big screens further confused the issue and pointed to a reprieve for Smith. When it didn't come, Buttler and Eoin Morgan felt the sting of communal rebuke. Smith was sanguine when interviewed afterwards, though not happy. Later, he advanced the case for technology with his opinion that the "soft" aspect of the decision passed to the third umpire should be abandoned and technology must take over the whole process. If that was to become the case, he might be disappointed by the technology.
The host broadcaster provides the technology free of charge to the ICC, which then uses it to make decisions. In the early incarnations of cricket television technology, the idea was to improve the experience for the viewer, but then it dawned on everyone that the viewer was a step ahead of the umpire. So the ICC explored the possibility of improving umpires' performances by adopting television's new toy. Once it was established that the technology mainly worked, it became a no-brainer.
The ICC claims statistical evidence that umpiring decisions have improved since the introduction of the review system. Partly, more has been learnt about the intricacies of the game and partly, umpires have grown in confidence through the support of the system. Most umpires are up for the right decision being made, whatever the journey to get there; a few feel compromised by the nature of the system and the way in which it exposes human error. A byproduct of this is the trust the players now have in the game and its officials, along with the absence of rancour that too often accompanied controversial decision-making.
Technology will continue to advance at speed and the ICC would do well to take responsibility for it. This would be expensive but would exonerate any suggestion of vested interest for the home broadcaster, while at the same time allowing low-key matches, televised by low-key productions that operate without the necessary technology, to benefit from its advantages.
This column was written in answer to a question about the benefit of the doubt and why Smith did not receive it last night. In general, though not as point of ongoing useful reference, the batsman is no longer the only beneficiary of the benefit of the doubt - a notion that does not anyway exist. That may or may not be a good thing, but it is a fact.