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Tue, 20 Aug 2013 21:30:00 GMT | By Mukul Kesavan, Star Sports

Reverse the reversal

There is no sadder sight in cricket than an umpire with his arms crossed over his chest about to overturn a decision he has just made. It damages cricket in two fundamental ways:

Reverse the reversal

1. The umpire is publicly overruled on the field of play.

2. The process by which the overrule occurs is set in motion by a player challenge.

Cricket’s decision-making script used to go like this:

Bowler: “How’s that?”

Umpire: Shows batsman the godlike finger/ shakes his head/ says not out (optional)/ has word with aggrieved bowler (occasionally).

Skit ends.

Now we have a regular one-act play where the batsman or the fielding side gets to mime “I think you’re wrong and I want to go upstairs to God.” Then everyone looks offstage as God, or the third umpire, examines both the video evidence and — for lbw decisions — technology’s ability to infallibly stage something that didn’t happen. The umpire listens to the voice in his ear, mimes fallibility or vindication, and only then does this little drama end.

Except, as the Ashes Tests have shown us, it doesn’t end there. It turns out that God makes mistakes, which leave cricketing mortals muttering, demanding explanations and — occasionally — receiving apologies from the ICC. How did we get here?

We got here because we thought that slow-motion replay reinforced by hi-tech diagnostics like the Snickometer, Hot Spot and Hawk Eye, would eliminate, or nearly eliminate, umpiring error. At the very least, the Decision Review System would correct really bad decisions, howlers. So when Aleem Dar having made the right call on an lbw decision was wrongly overruled by the third umpire, the Decision Review System’s champions were left having to defend a system that had invented a howler where none had existed.

Their defence generally consists of one of two arguments:

The Lesser Evil: This consists of first conceding that the DRS can get things wrong and then asserting that it gets fewer things wrong than the unaided onfield umpire. The problem with this argument is that a) cricket just hasn’t done the testing necessary to prove that this is so; b) if you are going to undermine the authority of the umpires, the pay-off had better be perfection; c) once a side has exhausted its quota of two appeals per innings, any injustice done to it cannot be appealed; d) DRS savvy becomes an operational factor in international cricket which can’t be right because a cricket match ought to be a test of cricketing ability, not your skill in second-guessing a slow-motion replay.

The Human Factor: This argument became familiar during the Ashes: its burden was that the technology was fine, it was the umpires using it who were the problem. Andy Flower, the English coach, made the human factor argument concisely: “I wouldn't necessarily blame technology. What we have at the moment is the best we've got. I might question whether we're using it as wisely as we can.” Flower’s solution was to give the third umpire expert technical assistants who would supply him with the best angles, the relevant screens, the most useful diagnostics. Flower wanted “…the people in charge of using the technology to make very calm, clear decisions.”

The difficulties with this line of reasoning are obvious: a) so long as the DRS uses humans to process the technology, there’s going to be human error; b) the mistakes made by Kumara Dharmasena and Marais Erasmus weren’t down to a lack of expert assistance: commentators and lay viewers concluded the third umpire was wrong  watching the same angles and replays available to the umpires; c)  even if Flower is right in thinking that more expert or more expertly assisted third umpires will get the job done, it’s clear from the Ashes comedy of errors that the system isn’t fit for purpose yet.

Which brings us to Paul Hawkins, the co-inventor of Hawk Eye who suggested that cricket had embraced DRS technology without properly testing it. The occasion was the introduction of Hawk Eye to adjudicate goal line decisions in football and, according to The Guardian, Hawkins said:  "What cricket hasn't done as much as other sports is test anything. This [football's Goal Decision System] has been very, very heavily tested whereas cricket's hasn't really undergone any testing. It's almost like it has tested it in live conditions so they are inheriting broadcast technology rather than developing officiating technology." (emphasis added).

This must make uncomfortable reading for DRS dogmatists. To have the creator of Hawk Eye say that the ICC rushed into the DRS without testing it robustly is rather like Krishna chiding cultists for reading the Gita literally without applying their minds or allowing for context. Hawkins’s position seems indistinguishable from that of Dhoni, Tendulkar and the BCCI who have argued that the ICC’s adoption of the Decision Review System was premature.

The Indian refusal to adopt DRS in bilateral Test and ODI series has been criticised as Luddite and (obscurely) selfish. If we were to take Hawkins seriously (and given that the man invented Hawk Eye, we should), we might have to concede that the Indians have done the cricketing world a service by holding out against the half-baked implementation of a technology regime that turns Test cricketers into lab rats.

Cricket’s authorities, though, are undeterred: Dave Richardson has reiterated the ICC’s commitment to the DRS on the strength of the lesser evil argument. Let us grant for a moment that DRS improves the percentage of correct decisions. Now let us count the cost of the ones it gets wrong. Aleem Dar gives Trott not out after an lbw appeal. The third umpire reverses the decision despite the fact that the replays show a deviation that could have been an inside edge. Aleem Dar shrugs and gives him out. It’s bad enough when the third umpire fails to correct an on-field umpire’s mistaken judgment; it is catastrophic when he overturns a correct decision. It should literally, never happen. To have the onfield umpire reluctantly acquiesce in a decision he knows is wrong, is to derange the game of cricket, to knock it off its regulatory pivot.

So what is to be done? The ICC could start by breaking up its use of technology into its component parts and examining the most robust bits. The one technological aid that has worked infallibly is the camera review of the run-out line-call. It has become an unchallenged part of the modern game for two reasons: the umpire asks for it before making a decision, and he is at liberty to ask for it as often as he wants. It is technology being used in the service of the umpire’s authority, at his initiative, to arrive at the right decision.

Every other use of technology occurs after the umpire has made his decision, it is initiated by the players in the middle and can only happen if the aggrieved or sceptical team hasn’t exhausted its quota of reviews. It doesn’t help the umpire arrive at the right decision, it challenges his authority and there is no guarantee that the forms of dismissal in question — leg before wicket or caught, for the most part — will be uniformly reviewed through the match. This isn’t a decision review system: it’s a speculative auction where if you make two bad calls, you’re shut out of the bidding.

The solution must lie in replicating the procedures that have made the run-out line call replay so successful. The run-out replay isn’t technically a part of the DRS because the use of the technology precedes the decision. Following on from this, the umpire should be free to consult the third umpire about any possible dismissal ranging from a borderline lbw decision to a faint nick, before making his decision. If he suspects the batsman was lbw, he should ask the third umpire whether there’s any clinching evidence that he wasn’t: an inside edge, the ball pitching outside leg, a no-ball. If the answer is no, the umpire goes with his judgment and declares the batsman out, if the answer is yes, he holds his peace and waves play on.

There should be no player reviews and the umpire should be free to refer as many decisions as he wants. No decision should be made by the third umpire, not even the run-out call. In this way every close call in a match can be judged with the aid of video replays, not just the ones permitted by the player review quota. Also at no time is technology counterposed to the umpire’s judgment; it is, instead, used as it was in the beginning with run-outs: as an enabling resource.

The objection to this reform is likely to be the pressure on umpires to refer every appeal to the third umpire. Just as almost every potential run out or stumping today is replayed at the instance of the on-field umpires even though it is within their discretion not to ask if the batsman is clearly short, so too, the argument goes, will umpires replay every edge and lbw even when the nick is loud or the batsman plumb. This would waste time and bring the game to a standstill every few minutes.

This seems to me to be an exaggeration. Most catches would need no referral. Lbws are always more contentious and I can imagine most of them being referred. This won’t necessarily cause unbearable delays. Cricket, being a stop-start game, is built to accommodate television replays and in any case, the reformed system could be put through trials to check if the time used up by referrrals threatened the rhythms of cricket.

Secondly, the lbw referral could be abbreviated by eliminating Hawk Eye’s predictive component. The umpire should test his judgment against visible evidence: a nick on to pad, or graphic proof that the ball pitched outside leg. The hypothetical trajectory of the ball—had the pad not intervened—should be left to the judgment of the umpire, not some computer-aided simulation. Technology should be used to aid umpires in the recovery of what really happened, not to foretell what might have been. The latter requires a cultist belief in Hawk Eye’s infallibility. This is an unreasonable claim to make for any technology; better, I think, to embrace a degree of human error as one of the many glorious uncertainties of this early modern game.

These reforms would leave us without the Decision Review System and its tamashas. In its place we would have the low-key UTA, the Umpires Technical Auxiliary which would go about its principal task of helping umpires make the right decisions without fuss, fanfare or spectacle. In passing, it would also spare cricket the dreadful sight of defeated umpires with their arms crossed, miming surrender.

Mukul Kesavan is a novelist, essayist and historian

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