The main talking points in an IPL often have to do with the performance of match officials, decisions being challenged, player conduct, and matches finishing well beyond the scheduled time. This season, umpires have come under increased public scrutiny due to a couple of incidents that made instant headlines and continue to make for heated debate.
R Ashwin's run-out of Jos Buttler early on in the season was fiercely discussed by all stakeholders and commentators. Ashwin said it was instinctive. Buttler said it left a sour taste.
A few weeks later, another senior Indian player, in fact one of the most venerated, MS Dhoni, charged into the middle to challenge a no-ball call that seemed to be called and then revoked by the on-field umpires. Dhoni subsequently pleaded guilty to the charge and copped a fine.
Let us look at both incidents to try and understand the role of the umpires and the players involved, and who was right or wrong.
Ashwin's Buttler run-out had nothing to do with spirit of cricket
I was in India when the incident happened and I saw it on TV. Subsequently we had an MCC Laws sub-committee meeting and discussed the event. Also present on that call was Geoff Allardice, the ICC's General Manager of cricket, given that a World Cup is just around the corner.
My view on this particular issue is, it has nothing to do with the spirit of cricket. During our discussion, we spoke at length about Law 41.16. The intent of the law is that the non-striker should not leave their ground at the bowler's end before the ball is delivered. This is why the ICC has stipulated within their regulations and interpretations that the bowler can dismiss the non-striker run out up until the bowler's arm reaches the top of the delivery swing.
What I did say to the MCC was that maybe we could help people understand that this incident had nothing to do with the spirit of cricket but rather everything to do with the run-out rule (which is Law 38) by repositioning this clause about unfair advantage under that Law in future.
At Lord's in 2011 I sat on an ICC Cricket Committee meeting, across the table from Tim May, then the players' representative on the panel. May strongly advocated that he wanted to see this type of situation be under the purview of the rules governing run-out dismissals. The committee debated that at length and it was decided to tweak the ICC playing conditions so that it was no longer the back-foot landing that was regarded as the point of no-return in such cases but rather the point of normal release, which is when the bowler gets to the top of their delivery swing. As a result, the bowler would have a lot more opportunity to run out the non-striker. The representatives of the players were in favour of this type of run-out if the non-striker was backing up too far (intentionally or not).
"The intent of the law is that the non-striker should not leave their ground at the bowler's end before the ball is delivered"
I go back to the intent of Law 41.16, which is to ensure the non-striker stays in the crease until the moment of release. If the non-striker does not do that, he or she is breaching the Law. It is he or she who is gaining an unfair advantage.
All Ashwin did was appeal to the umpire for a run-out dismissal. He stopped short of delivering the ball and did not go through with his delivery swing. For him to be subject to adverse commentary that amounted to character assassination regarding his supposed contravention of the spirit of the game, is incredibly unfair in the way the Laws are written and the way they are to be applied.
Both the on-field umpire and the third umpire did not feel he deceived the non-striker by waiting too long before breaking the stumps within dealing with the appeal - the ball was deemed by them to be still within play.
Several years ago, before answering these kinds of run-out appeals, as umpires we checked with the fielding captain whether they wanted to continue with the appeal first. Around 2011, the captains collectively expressed misgivings about this process, saying they did not want pressure to be put on them about whether to continue with an appeal or not. As a collective, they asked the umpires to simply answer the appeal if one was made.
People also accused Ashwin of premeditation. My response to that would be: well, so what? Bowlers attempt to get batsmen out lbw, bowled, caught, or by any other form of dismissal. Aren't all these premeditated? So I don't see how that is a relevant argument at all.
I also found it interesting that many pundits and players have spoken about how Ashwin should have given Buttler a warning. Giving a warning is a myth; there is nothing in the Laws about it. Given that the ICC Cricket Committee and the MCC have made it clear how they want the game to be played, why is such a warning required? If the non-striker does not want to be run out at the bowler's end backing up, then they must stay in their ground until the ball leaves the bowler's hand.
From an umpire's perspective, it is a situation that is almost impossible to manage on their own, which is probably why the Buttler run-out was referred to the third umpire. It is interesting that it was referred, given that the on-field umpire didn't necessarily think the ball was dead, and at no stage did Ashwin actually get to the point of vertical delivery. It is subjective as to whether or not he actually got to the normal point of release. So it is very understandable that Buttler was given out run out.
There are several challenges in a situation like this for an umpire. It is an incredibly difficult Law (41.16) to enforce at the bowler's end. The umpire's challenge is to watch the back foot and/or the front foot, the point of normal release, the ball coming into view, and whether the non-striker is backing up. And then answer the run-out appeal, making a decision about whether or not the batsman was in their ground or short when the stumps were put down. You can imagine how difficult that would be because you can't watch everything at the same time. It is a very challenging and somewhat impractical law for an umpire to judge, especially without the support of a third umpire.
I believe good umpiring should be proactive. You solve problems before they happen. Personally, if I see a batsman backing up too far, I ask them to come back. If I see a bowler who is getting too close with back foot or front foot, I will tell them they are getting close, and if they continue to do this, it is likely a no-ball will be called. If I see a fielder who is getting pretty close to infringing the fielding restrictions, I would remind them to be in the right position, otherwise a no-ball call is likely. Good umpiring is about maintaining a policy of no surprises and keeping the focus on cricket. That was my style, but the game has moved on a little bit since I have retired.
I was in India and spoke to Ashwin soon after the incident. I reaffirmed to him that it was unfair and not appropriate for various people to pull him up for breaching the spirit of cricket. I made contact with him to make sure he was fine and not affected by the comments, and to support him on a human level. I told him he was within his rights to appeal and to attempt to run out the non-striker.
Dhoni crossed the line
My first reaction at the incident of Dhoni going on to the field to talk to the umpires was that of surprise because one of Dhoni's great strengths that I have seen over the years is his composure and his ability to handle adversity or difficult moments with a high degree of acceptance, to consider his options and then act in a measured, controlled way.
I get that these are high-pressure moments - lots of things are riding on these games, a lot of money is involved, and there is a lot of excitement and passion within the ground and outside it. I do understand this environment, having had first-hand experience officiating in many IPL finals.
But non-participating players or even coaches and managers entering the field of play to approach an umpire is not right. MS acknowledged this by accepting and pleading guilty to the charge imposed by the IPL match officials.
I would have preferred personally that the umpires did not even talk to him, and instead asked him to go away and not involved themselves in a discussion with him at the time. It is important that umpires don't let themselves be surrounded by players, and that they make their decisions without any perception of being influenced.
From what I observed, MS seemed to be pointing out that the umpire at the bowler's end had raised his arm to signal a no-ball and he later went back on that call. Now, the primacy of the call belongs to the umpire at the bowler's end. As a point of protocol, you do look at your colleague at square leg to help judge accurately the height of waist-high full tosses and bouncers above head height, before calling them.
While the square-leg umpire can raise their arm to signal a wide or a no-ball to their colleague, they are not calling it. Let us be very clear: it is the jurisdiction of the bowler's-end umpire, with support from the square-leg umpire.
In this particular case the no-ball was signalled by the bowler's-end umpire, who stuck his arm out without waiting to confirm the height judgement with his colleague at square leg. And the square-leg umpire himself had not signalled a no-ball. So the bowler's-end umpire perhaps second-guessed himself and (then) decided to retract or discontinue the no-ball call process. He did not revoke his original call, which was for a no-ball. Had he done so, it might have avoided some of the confusion.
Adding to the confusion, the stadium announcer signalled a free hit on the big screen, which obviously left the players further unsure as to what the situation was.
I would have much preferred to have seen the umpire at the bowler's end back himself and be confident with his original call, because from the officiating perspective, normally your first call or gut instinct is the right one. The replays I have seen seem to support the original call in this case.
Be that as it may, there is no reason for the batting captain to come onto the field and contest the decision or seek clarification while the match is in progress. In this case, Dhoni did cross the line.
The unrealistic expectations placed on umpires
High-quality camera work, technological advances in television broadcasting, and the presence of several commentators at each match have allowed TV audiences as well as fans at the ground to get closer to the action. The fans are now being provided a lot more information on the game than in the past. The heightened involvement of the broadcasters and the media in matches means there is more to be shown, more stories to be told, and more to be scrutinised.
Our game is perfectly imperfect. By that I mean that technology does not solve all of our problems. It is almost replacing one set of problems on the field with another. When you add a new element to the game, such as third-umpire technology, while that might seem to solve a couple of problems, it also creates a whole list of other challenges, involving training, consistency, and accuracy of match officials.
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Technology is not perfect. Hot Spot doesn't always show a mark. Real-time Snickometer or Ultra Edge don't always show a spike. Ball tracking has an in-built margin of error. The white ball doesn't stay white. The white line of the crease gets scuffed away where the bowlers' feet land.
Even when we have up to four umpires involved in a match - two on-field, a third, and a reserve on the boundary - they all don't necessarily seem to make the same decisions for the same reasons, or they may not always initially agree on one course of action. It is part of the beauty of sport.
But the best in the world make the fewest mistakes. Still, even the best umpire in the world will not have a great performance every day. You have to bear in mind that it is the human aspect that we need to remind ourselves of here.
People expect umpires to be perfect and somehow get better. That is an unrealistic expectation. Umpires cannot be perfect, but they can be excellent. We need to be a little more accepting, and appreciate that everyone is doing their best.
Simon Taufel is a former ICC Elite Panel umpire