I have watched almost every ball of the recent series in India, Australia and New Zealand involving the home teams versus England, South Africa and Pakistan respectively. It is apparent now that the referral process has moved light years away from its original mandate of being a safeguard against the howler. It is now a very valuable strategic tool that can change the momentum of a match if used judiciously (or vice versa - used poorly, it can significantly negatively impact a team). To see Joe Root backing up at the non-striker's end, almost directly in line with the umpire, so he can get a better angle on lbw decisions, presumably to advise his partner on whether to review or not, just shows how the thinking around the DRS has developed an acute strategic focus.
The strategic element has come about because of the limited number of unsuccessful referrals available to each team. It is now common to see captains doing the arithmetic to calculate how many overs they have left before they get their full quota of referrals back and then deciding on whether to challenge an umpire's decision or not. That pragmatic decision-making process is so far away from the original raison d'etre of the DRS as to make everything else that sits around it redundant too.
Not many teams bowl their allotted overs in the specified time frame anyway, so why persist with the argument that allowing unlimited referrals would slow down the game? It is slow already. Unless the ICC gets serious about enforcing over rates, things won't change much, so why not invest a bit more time in getting every decision correct? Pakistan bowled 30-plus overs of spin on the first day at the Gabba and were still late finishing (even allowing for an injury delay). As it is, umpires make no effort to stop batsmen from changing gloves and taking drinks whenever they want, so clearly they are not serious about enforcing over rates. Some batsmen, like Steve Smith, seem to ask for a change of gloves within a few minutes of the previous change.
So if umpires are not sure about a 50-50 call, why not give them the power to check with the third umpire, thereby ensuring the decision arrived at is the correct one? In most other sports, rugby for example, the referee calls for a video replay if he is not sure. Getting decisions correct is more important in most sports than time delays. Except cricket, which continues to pretend to care about punctuality but does very little to meaningfully enforce it.
The number of poor referrals makes you wonder why the players are getting it wrong so often, especially when it looks so obvious to those watching at home on television. Perhaps the players themselves are not in the best position to hear nicks or judge angles and height. So if they are "penalised" by only being allowed to get two referrals wrong every 80 overs in Tests (one per innings in ODIs), should we not also, for the sake of balance, find some way to penalise umpires for getting two wrong decisions in that same time frame? After all, they have the best view in the stadium and their sole job is to concentrate on these matters (not on catching, bowling, batting and so on).
It got to the point in a recent Test match where the commentators were actually saying on air that the players would be better off not referring a decision made by Richard Kettleborough (because he tended to get it right) and to save their referrals for the other umpire instead
If the umpires get it wrong more than x number of times within a specified time frame, how about if both teams get a referral back for that period? It doesn't seem fair otherwise that umpires are allowed to make mistake after mistake and there are no immediate on-field penalties. It got to the point in a recent Test match where the commentators were actually saying on air that the players would be better off not referring a decision made by Richard Kettleborough (because he tended to get it right) and to save their referrals for the other umpire instead. Surely it is a sign that the system is flawed when teams are making strategic decisions about which umpire to target?
If an umpire was allowed to ask for a review for lbws and snicks (like they do for run out or stumped), he then makes the correct decision and it eliminates the need for each team to have a quota. Maybe give them one referral per innings, to deal with the absolute shocker, but if they get it wrong, a serious penalty - 25 runs? - is levied.
Then there's the other ridiculous rule that if the batsman leaves the field of play, he cannot be recalled. Given that so many of cricket's other antiquated laws have changed, this remains a dinosaur in a post-Jurassic world. Surely if there is clear evidence that the batsman should be recalled, why does it matter if he's halfway to the dressing room? The integrity of the correct decision is surely more important than some law from a bygone era that is no longer relevant in a sport where we are now allowed concussion substitutes, and soon even red cards. Another aspect of such situations is that they also have the potential to create bad blood and inflame tensions, especially in the case of fielders claiming low catches, when batsmen are asked to hang around until inconclusive replays are adjudicated on - with the fielding team then rounding on the batsman for supposedly not taking the fielder's word that it was a fair catch.
There is another aspect to this sort of situation - fielders appear mortally wounded when their integrity is questioned on low catches but have no similar moral conundrums if they appeal for catches that are clearly not out, or lbws that clip the inside edge, or if a batsman nicks the ball and stands impassively defiant when given not out. It appears that within the sport we have different layers of morality.
Cheating is a dirty word but not walking when you nick it, shining the ball with a mint sweet, or stealing a yard at the non-striker's end are clearly de rigeur. At the professional level it is no longer a game of honour, governed by rules forged in that spirit. It is a ruthless, cutthroat business, so perhaps the laws need to move even further to ensure that technology allows us to reach the correct decision. What other sport allows the excuse of delays to corrupt the integrity of the decision-making process?
Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane