A game in flux, 2002

An eye to the future

Simon Hughes

Reruns of Botham's Ashes, broadcast to coincide with the arrival of Steve Waugh's Australians for the 2001 series, made enjoyable, revealing watching. Enjoyable for the sheer satisfaction of seeing rampant Aussies for once cut down to size; revealing because they brought the great advances of television technology into sharp focus. Those pictures from 20 years ago looked so primitive: single-end coverage, so that every other over was viewed from behind the wicket-keeper; four cameras at most; grainy, jerky replays; and stationary shots of scoreboards to update the match situation.

Compare that with what we take for granted now. More than 30 cameras, some in stumps that can pan with the bowler as he's running in, some capable of zooming in so close you can see the stubble a player missed when he shaved that morning, one on rails that whizzes up and down the boundary like a dog-track hare. Countless (sometimes too many) replays of a wicket, the pictures pin-sharp, stump microphones, Snickometers, clever graphics that superimpose red mats on the pitch, statistics galore and the score permanently displayed in the top corner of the screen. The viewer is left in no doubt as to what has occurred, and why, from ten different angles.

Britain had already established itself as a world leader in sports television broadcasting before last summer's revolutionary, and controversial, development: the introduction of Hawk-Eye on Channel 4 and Sky Scope. Based on missile guidance systems, Hawk-Eye uses six small cameras positioned round the ground to monitor the flight, trajectory, speed and movement of the ball, both out of the bowler's hand and off the pitch. This information is then fed into a computer that almost instantly produces an exact replay of the ball in virtual reality, adding in the ball's predicted path if it hadn't cannoned into the batsman's pad, or been hit by his bat.

Suddenly television was not only relaying what had happened in explicit detail, but also what would have happened in different circumstances (i.e. if the batsman hadn't been there). It was predicting a probability as well as portraying the past. This was very new and very daring and not everyone liked it, fearing it would irreparably damage the fabric of the game, remove its glorious uncertainty. Umpires cowered in dark corners muttering, "Soon I'll only be there to count to six... it'll be the death of us."

They are anticipating the day when there will be cameras in the bats, balls and fielders' helmets, and a speaker in the stumps delivering a computer-generated "That's out" verdict (in a North Country accent if so desired) to send the batsman on his way. In fact, an electronic device, similar to the bleeper in tennis, that signals instantly to the players that a no-ball has just been bowled is already available. Paradoxically, it would probably pose more problems than it solved: "Wasn't that a no-ball then?" "No, it was a car horn in St John's Wood Road." Reassuringly, from an aesthetic point of view, it will be a while before cricket's international body feel they can sanction its use.

But are the umpires' fears justified? Is cricket soon to be presided over only by wired-up men in little boxes? Will bowlers of the future be yelling "Howzat?" to a set of traffic lights rather than an umpire? Well, Hawk-Eye hasn't yet been programmed to see that far ahead. But the short answer to the umpires' understandable worry is that they are likely to be there, doing roughly the same job, 20 years from now. In the same way that closed-circuit TV hasn't made the local bobby redundant, so too television's all-seeing eye does not spell the end of the umpire.

As the technological side of TV coverage develops further, it will just alter the style of his decision-making. Instead of him making instant, hairline judgments, a voice in his headset will give him a bit of guidance. "Pitched outside leg," the voice will say, or "a bit high". These morsels from the third umpire in the TV control unit will take less than five seconds to transmit; the delay will be imperceptible. In fact, the umpire will probably have made up his mind a good deal quicker than Steve Bucknor usually does. But most importantly, the umpire in the middle will still have the final say. It will be up to him to sift all the information he receives, as he does now, and then make his decision. Machines are supplying the information, but, vitally, humans are still interpreting and applying it.

Many supporters of the game will find this scenario disturbing. But you can't turn the clock back. Technological aids generally enhance the viewer's appreciation of the event and will increase in number and sophistication as rival television companies joust for reputation and airtime. For the viewer to have seen exactly what has happened, while the umpire remains more or less in the dark, is unacceptable. Players, too, expect every decision to be as right as it can possibly be.

One problem that needs addressing immediately is the way officials are allowed to use technology. At the moment, cameras can be used to arbitrate whether a ball has gone for four or six, but not whether it has hit the batsman's glove or elbow before being caught. In other words, a relatively minor decision in the scheme of things - deciding whether the ball cleared the rope - is made to appear more significant than a potentially vital one, namely a batsman's dismissal. With more appropriate use of technology, Mike Atherton would have been reprieved in both innings at Trent Bridge last summer (he was given out caught off his arm guard to the second ball of the match) and Australia might not have taken an unassailable 3-0 lead.

The ICC's decision to declare a shortlist of elite umpires worldwide and to employ members of that panel whenever possible is absolutely the right approach. Because one thing Hawk-Eye, the Snickometer, the Red Zone and all the other gimmicks reaffirmed was the supreme quality of the best officials. Men like Peter Willey, David Shepherd, Steve Bucknor and Rudi Koertzen get 95 per cent of the hairline decisions right, often under extreme provocation. They should be paid a prince's ransom and then supplied - as subtly and quickly as possible - with all the televisual information necessary to ensure they aren't made to look fools to the viewer at home.

Television has illuminated and enhanced cricket. All the intricate skills and mysterious strategies of the game have been explained and explored, making it easier to understand and appreciate. Players young and old have benefited from the highlighting of their art. Ultimately, umpires will as well. They think they're the fall guys, but television should help them become even better snap-decision makers.

The technology people are on their side. The men in white coats are part of the fabric of cricket, maintaining its human factor. The day umpires are abolished, leaving the running of the game to people watching monitors, is the day cricket ceases to be sport and becomes, instead, more closely associated with the security industry. Law suits would be filed for "wrongful dismissal" and Test matches would be sponsored by legal firms rather than finance houses and power companies.

It will never happen. It is vital for cricket's credibility that the game played by highly paid international stars is still vaguely recognisable as the same recreation that 22 players indulge in come Saturday afternoon on Putney Common or beside the M62 at Milnrow. What would life be without the sight of a batsman staring incredulously at the umpire's raised finger? Or the bowler glaring at the umpire's implacable gaze and grunting, "But it were knocking all three down." A game without emotion is no game at all.

Simon Hughes writes for the Daily Telegraph and is the match analyst for Channel 4's cricket coverage.

© John Wisden & Co