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Scott Oliver

The problem with upholding the umpire's call

The purpose of arriving at correct decisions using the DRS is undermined by the need to not undermine the umpire's authority

Scott Oliver
Mark Wood celebrates as umpire S Ravi raises his finger to declare Brendon McCullum out, England v New Zealand, 2nd Investec Test, Headingley, 3rd day, May 31, 2015

The fear of turning umpires into glorified coat stands is unfortunately leading to some poor decisions  •  Getty Images

It took an incorrectly disallowed Frank Lampard "goal" in an England- Germany World Cup knockout match for FIFA president Sepp Blatter's intransigence over goal-line technology to recede. A television audience of hundreds of millions knew the ball was in, yet the officials were powerless to check. The absurdity of the situation was pithily captured by Lampard's uncle, then Tottenham Hotspur manager Harry Redknapp: "We can put a man on the moon but we can't tell whether a ball has crossed the line…?!"
Blatter's resistance was twofold: first, the technology couldn't be implemented at grass-roots level; second, it would inevitably erode the referee's authority. Soon, he speculated, technology would be extended to all sorts of decisions, breaking the game's flow. Where would you draw the line? With its continuous high-speed entanglement of limbs, football involves constant interpretation regarding foul play, and while technology could be used to aid that interpretation, it rarely provides definitive answers. Expert pundits with countless replays seldom attain consensus. Too many grey areas.
Cricket, on the other hand, is an almost entirely black-and-white game from an officiating point of view (post-Hawk-Eye, only "obstructing the field" requires expert interpretation), yet its administrators have somehow muddied the umpiring waters - and for that same innately conservative buttressing of authority, as Blatter expressed.
"Umpire's call" was built in to the adjudication of lbw decisions not because of concerns over margin for error (if that were true, "out" decisions shown only to be feathering the stumps would be overturned on the basis of there being too much doubt), but to ensure the on-field umpires didn't become glorified coat stands. Cricket thus finds itself in the absurd position of deploying its state-of-the-art technology to shore up the sensory-perceptual limitations of its all-too-human officials, ensuring their symbolic authority isn't eroded. Visit the cardiologist, then have a witch doctor write your prescription.
It can only be good news, then, that a tweak to the existing DRS protocol over lbw decisions and "umpire's call" is imminent, even if, fundamentally, it leaves this reverential aspect intact.
Cricket finds itself in the absurd position of deploying its state-of-the-art technology to shore up the sensory-perceptual limitations of its all-too-human officials
Like many, I became aware of the mooted change when Mahela Jayawardene was on commentary with Mike Atherton during the recent Lord's Test against Sri Lanka. Prompted by a gnat's-teeth lbw reprieve for Jonny Bairstow, 56 runs into his unbeaten 167, Jaywardene reported that, after lengthy consultation, the ICC Cricket Committee on which he sits would be recommending modifications to the ruling that "50% of the ball has to be hitting the stumps", changing the parameters to 25%.
Be that as it may, this way of phrasing it is fallacious - as the image below shows, much more than 50% of the ball was passing within the plane of the wicket - and obscures the enormous degree to which the original decision effectively alters the size of the wicket. In fact, for a not-out verdict to be overturned, 50% of the ball has to be hitting the inside half of the outer stumps. (Here's the ICC wording: "If a 'not out' decision is being reviewed, in order to report that the ball is hitting the stumps, the evidence provided by technology should show that the centre of the ball would have hit the stumps within an area demarcated by a line drawn below the lower edge of the bails and down the middle of the outer stumps".)
Since the MCC stipulates that each stump should be 1.375 to 1.5 inches in diameter (let's go with the latter, for ease of calculation) and the wicket as a whole is nine inches across, reviewing a not-out decision immediately reduces the effective target by half a stump (0.75 inches) each side.
If we take the absolute target - the span within which someone could be bowled (and therefore adjudged lbw) - to be the nine inches of the wicket plus, say, 95% of the diameter of the ball on either side of the wicket (assuming, slightly arbitrarily, that about 5% or more of the ball clipping the wicket is enough to dislodge the bails), then we can indeed see by exactly how much an initial "not out" decision reduces the effective target for a decision that might otherwise be legitimately given out - a decision that would be upheld on umpire's call (be that on pitching, impact or predictive path) if the original decision was "out".
What, then, is the absolute target (the wicket plus 95% of the ball, twice)? The diameter of a cricket ball is 2.86 inches, 95% of which equals 2.72 inches. Multiplied by two (5.44) plus the nine inches of the wicket gives us an absolute target of 14.44 inches.
And what about the effective target for overturning a not-out decision? It is the 7.5 inches remaining when a line is drawn down "the middle of the outer stumps", plus 50% of the ball's diameter (1.43 inches) multiplied by two (for each edge of the wicket): 10.36 inches.
We now see that this is some 4.09 inches narrower than the absolute target for a legitimate "out" lbw decision (our definition of "legitimate" here overlooks the "benefit of the doubt" convention). Expressed as a percentage, the effective target is about 72% of the absolute target. Or again, the absolute target is a little over 39% larger than the effective target.
Imagine a golf hole or snooker pocket expanding and contracting like this. (As for the benefit of the doubt, this has been fairly precisely quantified by Hawk-Eye's boss, who says the system has "5mm accuracy, or 10mm in some scenarios", which, taking the upper measurement, is around 3% of the 367mm-wide absolute target. So why not make that the parameter, rather than protecting umpire's call? It could even be widened to a whole 5% of the ball needing to hit the wicket: that is, just enough to dislodge the bail…)
Of course - and with all due respect to the Super Series concept - this doesn't much matter in a dead-rubber game. Yet consider the following scenario: it's the fourth innings of the third Test of a tight series between the sixth- and seventh-placed teams in the ICC's new two-divisional Test structure. Whoever wins stays up.
India, say, are 145 for 9 chasing 150. They have a review left; their opponents (Pakistan, say) do not. Umesh Yadav is struck on the pads. Aware that India's review gives them access to the court of appeal, and that Pakistan have no such fallback, the umpire raises his finger. Drama! Yadav reviews, and Hawk-Eye shows the ball to be only feathering the stumps, barely enough to dislodge the bail. Strictly speaking, it's out - albeit less out than two or three Pakistanis given not out earlier. The decision stays as umpire's call. Pakistan win. At Eden Gardens, too. Delirious, they begin cavorting around the outfield. With India relegated, a sizeable crowd - new Test fans enticed by "context" - becomes agitated. The television feed cuts off…
This is not an entirely far-fetched prospect for cricket - it might even prove its Frank Lampard moment - and perfectly encapsulates the enduring perversity of making umpire's call sacrosanct, as opposed to arriving at correct decisions. Instead, reviews are turned down in which 75% more of the ball is hitting the stumps (Bairstow) than others (hypothetical Yadav) that are upheld.
No, umpire's call is about the veneration of authority for veneration's sake. Yet there's little that undermines authority more assuredly than arbitrators being wrong, everyone knowing it, and nothing being able to be done.

Scott Oliver tweets here