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Come to Think of it

Are umpires giving more lbws now than they did before the DRS?

Spinners may have a case to believe so, but fast bowlers? Not so much

Long stride? That doesn't work against lbws so much anymore  •  Getty Images

Long stride? That doesn't work against lbws so much anymore  •  Getty Images

In our series Come to Think of It, we bring new perspectives to bear on received cricket wisdom. This week, we look at whether umpires are quicker on the draw when it comes to giving batsmen out lbw than they were before the DRS.
To anyone watching this video in the year 2020 - thanks, @robelinda2! - the second wicket would seem like the plumbest of lbws. The ball from Shane Deitz pitches on an off-stumpish line and straightens ever so slightly. Stuart Law strides forward to defend, playing for the legbreak, and the ball hits his front pad below the knee roll. It looks like it will hit middle stump, two-thirds of the way up.
It looks plumb in the here and now, but at the Gabba in December 2000, Law looks disgusted with umpire Tony McQuillan's raised finger, and the commentators aren't entirely unsympathetic.
Neither says it's the wrong decision, but Law's front-foot stride has made an impression on both. Keith Stackpole is surprised McQuillan has given it out, given the length of the stride and the time the umpire took to make his decision. Dean Jones is more inclined to think it's out, but he chooses his words carefully - "worth a shout" - and pauses to consider whether Law played a shot or not. How, you wonder, does it even matter, when he was struck in line?
This was the culture of lbws at the turn of the century, when a decent front-foot stride could plant doubt in the minds of umpires as well as of those watching and commentating. Plant enough doubt and you stood a chance of benefiting.
It's widely accepted now that ball-tracking technology and the DRS have made umpires more willing to give batsmen out lbw on the front foot, especially against spinners. It's also widely accepted that this greater willingness to give batsmen out has changed the game. Spinners bowl straighter lines now, offspinners go around the wicket to left-hand batsmen as a rule, and batsmen defend with bat in front of pad rather than next to it.
While it's hard to prove causation, you can't argue with the idea that the arrival of ball-tracking technology and the DRS has coincided with spinners gaining significantly more lbws than they used to. Compare the Test records of Saqlain Mushtaq (35 lbws out of 208 Test wickets) and Saeed Ajmal (59 out of 178), or Harbhajan Singh (68 out of 417) and R Ashwin (77 out of 365).
But this has often led commentators and cricket writers to extrapolate and say the DRS has made umpires more willing to give lbws in general. To take an example from this very website, Sidharth Monga - sorry to pick on you, bro - mentions, while arguing (excellently, otherwise) the case for giving serious thought to the idea of four-day Test cricket, that "DRS has emboldened umpires to give more lbws than ever before".
Has it? Well, here are some numbers.
The first Test match with player reviews for lbw was at the SSC in July 2008, between Sri Lanka and India. In the ten years before that match, 17.67% of all bowlers' wickets were lbw. Since then, the percentage has barely changed - falling marginally, in fact, to 17.29. But, I hear you say, the DRS wasn't universal for quite a while; the percentage of lbws must surely have gone up in the last five years. Nope. It has gone down further, albeit marginally once again, to 16.96.
Breaking it down by type of bowling, we get a clearer picture. Lbw has become a far more central mode of dismissal for spinners - accounting for roughly 21% of their wickets now, up from 17% pre-DRS - but fast bowlers are getting fewer lbws - around 15% of their dismissals, down from 18% before DRS - or more dismissals of other kinds.
There could be any number of reasons for this, before we even get to umpiring. Batsmen's techniques have changed. A lot of them have adopted trigger movements that ensure they aren't closed off - front foot further across to the off side than back foot - when the bowler releases. Most of today's batsmen stand taller at the crease than their '90s counterparts did, holding their bat up behind them rather than tapping the ground, and one reason for this is to guard against their head falling over to the off side and leaving them vulnerable to lbw. Michael Hussey, an early adopter of the bat-up technique that is now de rigueur, stopped tapping his bat for precisely this reason.
But the increased technological scrutiny around lbw decisions, and the impact that has had on umpires, has also played a role.
Go back to the semi-final of the 1996 World Cup between Australia and West Indies in Mohali. Watch the first wicket: Mark Waugh, shuffling across his stumps to the second ball of the match, going neither forward nor back, is pinned on the back pad by a Curtly Ambrose in-ducker. Umpire S Venkatraghavan gives him out instantly, and in the commentary box, Tony Greig and Michael Holding agree that it's not only the right decision but an obvious one.
Greig: […] What a delivery that was. Quick, dead straight, beat the defences of Mark Waugh, and he was absolutely plumb lbw.
Holding: There was absolutely no doubt about this. The ball pitched outside the line of off stump, came back in quite sharply, hitting him right on the roll. Right on the roll of the pad there, plumb in front.
Neither even mentions the line of impact. If you watch the replay now, you see that Waugh's back knee is bent at impact, and that the ball may have struck him marginally outside the line of off stump.
Here's another wicket, from another World Cup semi-final. I did ball-by-ball commentary for it last week, as part of our #retrolive series of old matches. Here's how I saw Mushtaq Ahmed's lbw of Andrew Jones at Eden Park in 1992.
Got him! He'd been troubling Jones considerably, and this was on the cards. Another legbreak, quicker and skiddier this time. Superb length once more, and Jones, playing for the trajectory and playing back, was looking to work it against the turn. Beaten comprehensively on the inside edge, struck on the back leg, and umpire Bucknor's finger goes up with no hesitation. A great ball, and a batsman made to look quite clueless, but did that pitch in line with leg stump? I'm not entirely sure
Greig, once again, saw it differently: "Have a look at this, pitching around about leg stump, straightening down the line, whack on the back leg, that would have hit middle and off, no doubt about that."
A lot of batsmen have adopted trigger movements that ensure they aren't closed off when the bowler releases. Most stand taller at the crease than their '90s counterparts did, holding their bat up behind them
The footage was analog, lo-fi, from back in time, but if you've watched a lot of cricket, every ball you watch is a palimpsest of that ball and every other similar ball you have watched before it - and, in this case, after it. My 2020 eyes didn't see this skiddy Mushtaq Ahmed legbreak the way Tony Greig's 1992 eyes saw it. Where Greig saw certainty, I saw doubt, and where Greig's certainty may have stemmed from doubt (choosing to trust the umpire's decision), my doubt stemmed from a sense of certainty (that you couldn't say with complete confidence that the ball pitched in line with the stumps) built up over hours and hours of watching similar deliveries replayed in HD and ultra-slow motion, with a stump-to-stump mat superimposed on the pitch. I see the pitch mat in my mind's eye; the 1992 Greig had never heard of a pitch mat.
More than anything, though, "around about leg stump" was enough, because it was a great piece of bowling. Mushtaq's previous ball had been slower and wider, and Jones, looking to drive through cover, had been beaten by a mile. The wicket ball was pushed through quicker and straighter, but not a whole lot shorter, and Jones had misjudged the length completely.
The wicket was reward for the bowler beating the batsman comprehensively. Back then, before pitch mats and ball-tracking transformed the way we watched cricket, this sort of subjectivity probably played a greater role in lbw decisions. Marginal decisions (and the occasional outright bad one) were perhaps likelier to go the bowler's way if the batsman played across the line, or was caught on the crease, or shouldered arms to a ball that swung back in, or played all around an inswinging yorker - watch this and ask yourself if Waqar Younis would have got some of those lbws today. Batsmen, it often seemed, were likelier to be given out if they looked out. Tailenders were often sent on their way more readily than top-order batsmen might have been against the same sort of delivery.
For similar reasons, batsmen were likelier to survive lbw shouts if they got a big stride forward, especially against spin. None of this was wrong, per se; umpires were calibrating doubt with the tools available to them. They do much the same thing now, except the tools have changed, and lbw has become a far more clinical thing, an act of lining up reds and greens.
The game has changed in the process, but contrary to popular belief, it has not all gone the bowlers' way. As the numbers suggest, cricket, as it often does, has found a way to maintain its internal equilibrium.

Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo