DRS breaking spirits of players and fans
In the third umpire's room at Old Trafford, Kumar Dharmasena got it wrong on Usman Khawaja's dismissal. In a van in the car park, Nigel Llong might have got it right. Llong is the unofficial official at the Manchester Test, trialling a new system that puts replays at his fingertips. While Dharmasena asked Sky Sports producers to cue up video and audio, Llong was sequestered away from the action with a wall of replay screens at his immediate disposal.
If he wanted a side-on view, he could have it. If he wanted a rear angle, he could play that himself. Dharmasena's deliberation took aeons; with quick judgement, Llong's process might have been much shorter, though his decisions carried no weight. "Might" is the key caveat. He might have been quicker, he might have overturned Tony Hill's decision. He might have had audio that synched with a view that showed Khawaja's bat brushing his back leg.
Or he might not. More replays will help with some reviews, but the real answer to the ongoing DRS debacles is better interpretation of what the third umpire already has. Dharmasena saw what every television viewer watching the match around the world saw: nothing on Hot Spot, no apparent deviation. A noise, yes, but isolating the source of sounds is maddeningly difficult.
Hot Spot is not infallible, of course. It can detect edges but not misses, and very faint tickles can fail to show up. The DRS has a built-in benefit of the doubt that goes not to the batsman but to the on-field call. But the combination of absent factors should have led Dharmasena to be guided by the raw vision, which seemed to suggest the ball passed Khawaja's bat untouched. It is possible to see how Dharmasena reached his conclusion, but impossible to accept that this is the best cricket can offer.
It's not the first time, either. At Trent Bridge, Marais Erasmus overturned a not-out lbw decision against Jonathan Trott despite the raw vision seeming to show an inside edge. These mistakes are not the fault of technology but of the men using it. The ICC knows the DRS is leaving players, viewers and administrators bewildered. Cricket Australia even went so far as to seek an explanation from the ICC for Khawaja's dismissal.
So what is the answer? Handing the DRS over exclusively to the umpires might seem like a good idea but it creates a whole new set of issues. Just look at how many obviously legal deliveries Dharmasena asked to be checked in the first two Tests to see if the bowler had overstepped. Imagine if he had the ability to ask the third umpire for help on lbws and edges. There would be more reviews than in Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide.
Giving the third umpire carte blanche to step in if he has seen a clear error is also unworkable. That was demonstrated when Cricket Australia trialled such a system during last year's Ryobi Cup. Not only was the overturning of decisions inconsistent but it led to actions from players that, according to the Queensland wicketkeeper Chris Hartley, bordered on dissent.
"Umpires are placed under undue pressure by players who try to persuade them to have a second look," Hartley wrote during the season. "The issue here is obvious. At present, the third umpire is coaxed into reviewing a decision by the players' reaction. Players, as they always have and always will, use gamesmanship. But what is happening at the moment is a case of players hanging around after being dismissed, which is technically bordering on dissent."
Test cricket doesn't need that. Perhaps there is another answer. Pilots fly planes. Air-traffic controllers use technology to help them. Pilots and air-traffic controllers are not interchangeable. Khawaja knows this, for he is a qualified pilot. If his cricket career fails he might fly the Brisbane to Melbourne route one day, but he won't sit in the tower interpreting blips on radar the next.
As Khawaja trudged off on the first afternoon at Old Trafford, shaking his head with disbelief, he probably wasn't thinking of planes or flight paths. But he might have had screens and technology on his mind. He might have been wondering at what kind of garbled radio communication brought his downfall. Of course, TV umpires and on-field officials do not hold people's lives in their hands. But the principle is the same: different jobs using different tools require different experts.
Over the past three weeks, Dharmasena has stood in the middle of a buzzing Trent Bridge and Lord's for nine days, concentrating on 4,471 deliveries. That means inspecting the crease for no-balls, listening for edges, watching for deviation, judging lbw trajectories, counting deliveries. It means doing all of these things in real time and in person. As the third umpire, he is now relying not on his view but that of a camera, and his interpretation of technology.
Training and employing a whole new species of match official, the specialist TV umpire, is an option the ICC must strongly consider. They would be men who do not stand in the middle but understand the technology and its limitations, and can use it to help the on-field umpires. If that doesn't work, there's always Nigel Llong in a van. Perhaps the system he is trialling will improve the DRS.
Of course, scrapping the DRS entirely would also work. There can no longer be any concern about umpires looking silly when they make a mistake that is shown on TV to be incorrect. Even with the assistance of technology they are looking foolish.
More importantly, while the DRS might not be broken, its implementation is breaking the spirits of players and fans. Without the DRS, Khawaja would still have been out, caught Prior bowled Swann. Everyone would have accepted it as an on-field mistake, one of those errors that umpires have made for 135 years. But getting it wrong with the assistance of replays cannot be tolerated.
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here