The assembly of technological tools that were supposed to aid the umpires arrive at a correct decision and also to provide a recourse to players when they feel they have been hard done by, has been a lightning rod for controversy since the time ICC decided to include ball tracking, Hot spot, Stump microphone audio and Snicko (or any combination of those) in addition to the video replays that were already in use for line decisions since 1992. This post is not going to delve in to the pros and cons of the various technological tools that have been used and the various protocols that have been employed since the inception of “modern” DRS. For that, I’ll point you to Kartikeya Date’s extensive, diligent and thoughtful work on DRS.
The proponents of the DRS have steadfastly maintained that infusion of technology in to decision making is a good thing for Cricket and it should be in place to get rid of the umpiring “howlers”, and I agree to both of those points. However, it is very critical to understand the effect the DRS has had on the game of cricket, especially the umpires.
Let us take the Pakistan vs. England test series, hurtling at a record setting LBW pace in the desert, for example. There have been reversals galore making some of the best umpires in the business look absolutely silly. Taufel alone has had six decisions reversed on the first day of the third test in Dubai and lest we forget, none of the original decisions made by Taufel can be called “howlers”. The original decisions, on review, have been shown to stick to the “umpire’s call” based on coats of varnish. The Kevin Pietersen LBW in England’s first innings is a good example of this. The idea of marginal decision is being summarily kicked out the door in this series.
A broadcasting aid that was brought in to help get rid of obvious errors is now almost exclusively working on the margins of what is out and not out. While doing so, it also seems to be eroding the confidence the umpires have in their own decision-making processes, that has been developed – with nuance and conventions – over many years. The controversy over the eventual decisions still rages on and seems to have now simply shifted from on-field umpires to the third umpire manning the booth upstairs and in some cases the effectiveness of the technological tools themselves.
It is highly imperative that ICC actually spells out what they expect on-field umpires to do. What is the role of an umpire in the international game? On one hand, these tools are being introduced in to cricket that are supposed to help the umpires make the right decisions. On the other hand, by eliminating the gray area between what is out and not out, especially in LBW decisions which in essence is the extrapolation of actual events in to a region of conjecture, the umpires are made to constantly second guess themselves. Is the modern day umpire now only there to be just an official figure on the field of play to maintain a semblance of decorum between the two sides?
The use of DRS has gone on to become a strategic tool in the hands of the teams, quite different from what it was originally designed for. The bowling team can exert pressure on the umpire with sustained and repeated appeals, and if they were to get one to go their way, it puts the onus on the batting team to risk one of their two reviews and all the bowling team needs is the hawkeye/eagleeye/virtualeye to show that the ball would have grazed the stumps.
The DRS, as admitted by players (for example, Kevin Pietersen and Alastair Cook) is having a profound effect on the way batsmen used to approach batting against spinners. It used to be that batsmen would put in a long stride and would get the benefit of the doubt if the ball were to hit the pad. Now, with the presence of DRS this no longer is a viable option as a technique while facing spinners.
A variation of the existing DRS methodology can actually work within the confines of conventions. Using the pitch map in conjunction with HotSpot and video replays, the third umpire can ascertain, whether the on-field umpire has made a reasonable estimation of the balls trajectory, and therefore has made a reasonable decision. If so, let the on-field decision stay. This of course, is initiated by the challenge/review of the umpiring decision by the players.
Another possible solution is to have a pro-active third umpire that has the benefit of instantaneous video replays. If he were to see that the on-field umpire has missed an obvious inside edge (on a LBW appeal) or the batsmen didn’t hit the ball at all in a bat-pad appeal, he can indicate that he may want to take a second look at the decision. Otherwise, intimate to the on-field umpire that there isn’t a need to review it. This takes away the need for players to challenge the umpire’s decisions and also stipulation of the arbitrary number of wrong decisions to review. If the goal is to remove howlers from the sport, why even allow for strategic exploitation of the system? For those that might say this could lead to slowing down the pace of play – I say, not at all. There is plenty of time between deliveries from the bowler finishing his follow through, to walking back to his mark that can allow the third umpire to have a second look at the video replay. ICC should move towards working with the broadcasters to cut down the amount of time it takes to provide high quality video replays to the third umpire rather than fighting the battle of which technology is “more accurate” in predicting the ball’s trajectory.
The notion of “reasonable” decision has gone out the window. It is great to have a system that will allow correcting egregious decisions (missed “obvious” inside edges on LBW appeals etc.) that may have occurred due to human error. In the process of providing a solution, in the form of DRS, ICC has over-corrected and the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. The DRS needs to be rethought by the ICC in the context of the role of umpires and established conventions of “reasonable” umpiring decisions. Can the genie be put back in the bottle now that, no pun intended, it is out?