January 2002: Features - Essay

Match referee RIP

When the history of cricket in the early 21st century is written, the Mike Denness affair will get a decent-sized footnote. Not because it represents a decisive moment in the development of the ICC's control over the world game - it doesn't. With luck, it will be remembered as the controversy that spurred the ICC to abolish the position of the match-referee, to enlarge the regulatory role of the slow-motion television replay and to return to the umpires their once-sovereign control over the game. If the ICC has any sense, 2002 should see the end of the improvised, arbitrary relationship between television technology and the umpires in the middle. The present arrangement manages to demoralise umpires, provoke players and infuriate spectators. In its place we ought to have a system that joins the near-omniscience of the camera to the traditional authority of the umpires.

Denness's critics argued that his decisions were opaque, harsh and arbitrary. Denness, however, isn't the problem. The problem is his office. Denis Lindsay, the South African nominated to referee the current India-England series, went out of his way to show that all referees weren't cowboys on a hair-trigger. Virender Sehwag, he said generously, wasn't a criminal and oughtn't be treated like one.

This is ironic because in the matter of draconian punishment, Lindsay is the Roger Bannister of match-refereedom. When he suspended Ridley Jacobs, the West Indian wicketkeeper, for three matches for cheating and bringing the game into disrepute, Lindsay rewrote the record books. Other referees might, in the future, hand out three-match suspensions but Lindsay got there first. He also got it wrong and set a terrible precedent.

Jacobs's suspension illustrates graphically the real problem in supervising contemporary cricket: the ad hoc relationship between umpires and the television camera. En passant it also makes the useful point that match-referees are worse than useless.

A three-match suspension is drastic punishment. Suspensions are normally given to batsmen who show dissent on being given out. Inzamam-ul-Haq was punished for lingering at the crease after Peter Willey had given him out lbw - and he only got a two-match suspension.

Jacobs's fault was that he claimed a stumping after breaking the stumps with the glove that wasn't holding the ball. Jacobs, the referee decided, had appealed in bad faith because his hands were so far apart that he must have known at the time that he was using the wrong hand.

The real reason for the severity of Jacobs's punishment was not that he had cheated (he probably had) but that he had conned the umpire into giving the batsman out. And the reason the umpire hadn't caught Jacobs out was that the slow-motion replay wasn't properly used to determine the legitimacy of the stumping. The umpiring was made to look bad by careless supervision; but instead of punishing the umpire, the match-referee punished the West Indian keeper.

But didn't Jacobs deserve his punishment? To answer that, you have to look at the way cricket deals with players who mislead umpires. Every batsman who nicks the ball stands his ground and waits for the umpire to give him out, caught. The batsman knows he is out, yet, I've never heard of a match-referee suspending a batsman for not walking.

Morally, there's no difference between a batsman who chooses to stay, knowing that he is out and a wicketkeeper who appeals against a batsman knowing he isn't. Even those who admire the hard men for standing their ground - arguing that things even out, that every time you're not given out when you are, there's a matching occasion on which you are given out when you aren't - recognise that this is an argument from experience, not principle, and, less charitably, a shabby piece of rationalisation.

If there isn't a moral difference, there is a procedural difference between Jacobs asking for a stumping he hasn't legally made and a batsman staying put when he knows he has been fairly caught. We can argue that Jacobs's appeal is like making a false claim in a court. It is a kind of perjury and it invites the exemplary punishment that perjurers receive. But a batsman who doesn't walk is exercising an accused person's time-honoured right to silence, his right to not be forced to incriminate himself.

There are intellectually respectable ways of justifying the punishment given to Jacobs but they don't really explain why he was so harshly dealt with. The question to ask is this: if the umpire at square leg had referred the appeal to the replay, as he was entitled to do, and if the third umpire had spotted Jacobs's sleight of hand and ruled the batsman not out, would Jacobs have been punished? My guess is no, just as nothing happens to appealing fielders when the replay shows that the 'catch' has been taken on the bounce.

You could argue that such catches are close calls and that the catcher himself doesn't know if he has taken them cleanly, whereas Jacobs's hands were so far apart that he must have known he was cheating. This is a reasonable argument but it takes umpiring into the murk of motivation. Jacobs could retort that stumpings are instantaneous acts where it is impossible for a keeper to know what he has done. Breaking the stumps and appealing is an instinct with keepers, not a considered decision.

This is not to claim that Jacobs wasn't cheating: it is to argue that the keeper should have been given the benefit of doubt that Michael Slater received when he appealed for a catch against Rahul Dravid. The appeal was referred to the third umpire who turned it down. Nothing happened to Slater. Jacobs, similarly, appealed to the umpire who should have used the available technology to decide the appeal. Had he done so, this spurious appeal would have had no cricketing consequences. That a batsman was wrongly given out was the square-leg umpire's doing, not Jacobs's fault. For the match-referee to have punished Jacobs for it was an act of judicial pique, not retrospective justice.

The trouble with cricket is that it has moved from a system of supervision based on an acceptance of human (read umpiring) error and the alleged honour of the gentleman cricketer, to an umpiring regime dependent on (and second-guessed by) the omniscient camera. Cricket's administrators have put technology at the disposal of the on-field umpires (in a limited way), to be used at their discretion. Having been given this discretion, professional umpires must be held accountable for the way in which they exercise it. It is the umpire - who upheld Jacobs's appeal without using the evidence of the slow-motion replay - who should have been suspended, not Jacobs. Umpires and referees should be told that their job is to make the right decisions during the match, not to hold court-martials afterwards.

Match-referees were intended to make the umpire's job easy by punishing insubordination. Players become mutinous when they think the umpire is wrong. Umpires have always made mistakes and players have always felt hard done by but now, thanks to the television replay, there's evidence of the umpire's fallibility. His authority has suffered and players have sometimes become openly insubordinate.

The invention of the match-referee has done nothing to fix this. Football's punishments are handed out during the course of play; the match-referee in cricket acts in retrospect. Red cards and yellow cards flashed by a referee policing a football match have authority because the referee is in the thick of things. The match-referee in cricket is a bureaucrat, remote from the action. Worse, his decisions are shrouded in the opaque authority of a military tribunal, immune to appeal.

What does the match-referee bring to the table that umpires don't? The answer is, nothing. Umpires pass exams, they specialise in the laws of cricket, they serve arduous apprenticeships; referees are ex-cricketers looking to improve their pension plans. If the match-referee's function is to glean information from television coverage that the umpires can't see (i.e. Sachin Tendulkar using his nail on the seam) then surely that's a job better done by the third umpire. The match-referee is no more than a couch potato with a big stick that he is meant to swing to defend the umpire's authority. That authority, however, has been eroded by the omniscience of the camera and it can only be restored by clarifying the relationship between the two, not by further diffusing the umpire's authority by installing this Big Brother, eternally watching.

The root-and-branch way of clarifying the camera-umpire relationship is by deleting the third umpire and the slow-motion replay and banning the use of giant screens on the ground. This solution would eliminate the match-referee by giving umpires real disciplinary powers that would extend to removing serious offenders from the field of play. This would eliminate the need for the match-referee. Having been given complete control, the umpires' performances would be reviewed using (ironically) the evidence of the television cameras and their job opportunities would depend on their performance. Both umpires would come from neutral countries. This is the soccer model of supervision, where refereeing errors are accepted as an occupational hazard. It would have the advantage of consistency unlike the present system where some decisions are referred to the camera and others aren't.

The problem with this route is that it's blocked, chiefly because cricket is made for television in a way that no other team game is - with the possible exception of American football. There are many reasons for this but the most basic one is that the cricket spectator sees the game better on television than he does in the stadium. You could argue that this is true for all sports but you'd be wrong. Take soccer. In soccer the action happens more or less continuously over the whole pitch; in cricket it is largely confined to a single set-piece repeated over and over again on a twenty two-yard strip in the middle of the ground: it's a bit like watching a tennis match from a distance of seventy metres. While the stadium spectator in football gets a view of the action that is broadly comparable to camera coverage because the ball is large and the action spread over the field, the cricket camera delivers pictures that are incomparably better than anything you could see from a stadium seat.

You can see the ball turn, you can watch the seam hit the ground upright or wobbly and you can watch Glenn McGrath's mouth shape obscenities. And then you can review it on the slow motion replay! What you miss most in the stadium is the luxury of seeing things again and savvy stadium administrators have begun erecting giant replay screens. Now spectators and players test the evidence of their own eyes against the omniscience of the camera.

Spin Vision, the Snickometer and the virtual strip used to assess lbw decisions are elaborations of the close-up and the slow-motion replay: they make an arcane game with complex laws, graphic and explicit. But doesn't this happen with every sport? Not to the same extent. In no other game is stadium spectatorship so difficult and limiting. Also, the continuous nature of football makes the action replay much rarer. In football there is no equivalent for the dead time between one ball and another in cricket, so a replay happens only after a goal or when the ball goes out of play. The slow-motion replay as a way of clarifying real-time action dominates cricket like it does no other sport.

The stop-start nature of cricket action has helped make the television camera authoritative. Thanks to Kerry Packer and Channel 9, the camera now not only records and relays cricket, it also regulates it. Since the South Africans pioneered the third umpire for adjudicating run outs, we have seen more and more decisions referred to the action replay: dubious catches, marginal stumpings, close boundary calls have all begun to fall within the purview of the camera.

In an astonishingly short time, cricket's audiences have begun to take the camera's jurisdiction for granted. The umpire sketching a rectangle in the air, so bizarre when it first happened, now seems so normal that we forget that cricket is exceptional in this use of the replay. In football the referee makes all his decisions without reference to video footage. To some extent this difference is explained by the tempo of football: it isn't possible to hold the game up while an off-field referee decides if the off-side call was good. But surely marginal decisions about goals (did the ball cross the line before it was intercepted? Was it Maradona's hand that knocked it in or his head?) could be referred to the camera without disrupting the game, since a goal creates an interval in play.

So why don't football and tennis use the camera's testimony in the way that cricket has begun to do? Why isn't the dodgy ace or the baseline-clipping ground shot quickly reviewed by the camera? It can't be the hold-up in play because play is routinely held up by players disputing line calls and by umpires climbing down to inspect ball-marks to check line calls. So why don't these games use technology in the way that cricket does?

The answer is that in cricket the camera's view of the game is a) so patently superior to anything the human eye can see, and b) so frequently aired via slow-motion replays, that people have been conditioned over time to accept it as conclusive. In no other game do these two conditions apply to anything like the same extent. The difference in the information conveyed by the naked eye and that relayed by the camera is not so vast nor is the camera given so many opportunities to rehearse its omniscience. In other games the camera hasn't had the scope to become hegemonic, the camel hasn't had the chance to take over the tent. In cricket the slow motion replay has become part of the cricket fan's common sense. For him, seeing it on television is believing - and there's no going back.

If this is true, the alternative solution is to achieve consistency by allowing umpires to call for replays for anything they choose. This would help on the discipline front because players tend to intimidate umpires over decisions that can't be double checked with the camera: bat-pad catches, lbw judgements, faint edges. The present convention which decrees that a catch can only be referred to a replay to discover if it was taken cleanly but not to confirm if the ball hit the bat, is absurd and ought to be junked. The umpires in the middle should have complete access to the testimony of the camera but the decision, in every case, should be theirs to make.

The third umpire should be an auxiliary to the men on the field. He shouldn't flash a light to convey his decision because the decision shouldn't be his to make. His task should be to relay the evidence of the camera and his opinion of it, to the umpire on the field. This is the method used to determine photo-finish boundaries, so there is no reason why it can't be used for dismissals. The other function of the third umpire could be to dial up the men in the middle, should he happen to see on television Mike Atherton sanding the ball or Tendulkar buffing his nails on the seam. It would be the job of the two umpires to advise Tendulkar that he ought to use a nail file instead, or to inspect the ball for signs of damage, or to decide during the course of play if he deserves summary punishment.

This is the way to go because it makes of the television camera a reliable eyewitness that umpires can call upon, not an electronic big brother whose inhuman omniscience shoves the umpires into the margins of credibility, diminished in the eyes of the players they supervise and derided by the audiences that watch them on television. It would keep the umpires in charge as they traditionally were, and always should remain. It would also (and this would be the priceless bonus) drive into extinction that sinecure-hunting carpetbagger, the match-referee.

Mukul Kesavan is an essayist and novelist based in New Delhi