Decisions, decisions…

It seems that somebody does actually read our blog after all, because we’ve had a request. Lee Zhuo Zhao (who blogs at http://leftarmunorthodoxspin.wordpress.com) even goes so far as to care what we have to say. He writes:

‘Given the central role DRS played in this Test’s drama, would be interesting to hear your views on it.’

Well, we’ll happily oblige.

Firstly, we, like pretty much everyone, except the BCCI and its cronies, agree with the use of technology in assisting decision-making. Humans are fallible and they will make mistakes. Hence DRS. It is proven to increase the percentage of correct decisions and it alleviates pressure on the umpires by giving them a get-out-of-jail-free card when they cock it up. Cricket must embrace technology fully, because otherwise we will be left with a situation where TV viewers, after a few replays, know more than the people actually tasked with making the decisions, which is perverse in the extreme.

However, we like having the umpires on the field. Their very presence ensures fair play, something a panama-hatted robot wouldn’t. They’re good at putting the ball through those hoops and cutting bits off them with scissors, and, most importantly, holding jumpers and sunglasses. However, having them there means they do have to do something that a clothes-horse couldn’t, and that means they must make decisions. The system as it is allows them to make decisions freely, and backs them to the hilt with the benefit of whatever doubt it can muster.

The main argument over the past few days has been whether or not the umpires should have been able to review the Broad decision (NB not “catch” – Broad was at no point during that incident “caught”) and, by extension, any decision. There have been a number of suggestions, some ludicrous, such as saying that all players should walk if they’re out. Don’t be silly.

Some ideas mooted are more sensible, though, such as taking DRS away from the players altogether. While at first glance it seems sensible, we’re not satisfied with this suggestion. There are too many thorny issues. For instance, every appeal for LBW or bat-pad will result in a lengthy stoppage, unless the umpire is totally convinced it is without merit, for fear of getting it wrong. Umpires would become overly reliant on technology to save them the difficulty of making a decision they still get right the vast majority of the time, to the detriment of their place at the centre of the game, the flow of the match and the overall aesthetic of cricket. If it was left to the on-field umpire to decide to review an LBW, there could be unpleasant player-umpire exchanges if the umpire flatly decided not to review a particular decision and a likely lack of consistency between different umpires.

The alternate suggestion is for the third umpire to cursorily review virtually every appeal in real-time to make sure the on-field umpire isn’t missing anything. Given Marais Erasmus’s difficulties with the current system, coupled with the possibility of a bowler who gets through his overs very quickly and an average Pakistani team who appeals if the ball so much as flicks the pad, and chances are the third umpire will miss just as much. Either that or we would end up with a constantly stop-starting game while everything is checked.

So what’s the TGECF solution?

It seems to us that cricket hasn’t really looked to other sports for help. One sport has trailblazed a million miles ahead in the use of technology, to the extent of introducing it, ditching it for ten years, then reintroducing it again. It’s played on grass and features natural stoppages, though not for tea. It’s one of these bloggers’ second-favourite sport… it’s American Football. They’ve got it pretty much spot-on, by finding a happy medium between team-instigated reviews and official-instigated reviews.

In the NFL, every scoring play is automatically reviewed to check for incorrect decision-making. What is stopping this happening when a batsman is given out in cricket? They already do it for no balls about half the time. In the NFL, a television official has a quick look at the play to see if there is anything possibly contentious, before ordering a longer review if something comes up. It would be dead-easy in cricket. The batsman is given out, and, in the case of most catches, a cursory check is made to see if all is kosher. If it’s a close bat-pad, there would be a closer look. In the case of LBWs, if the umpire has given it out, there is an automatic, all-singing, all-dancing review. It would come at a natural stoppage in the game and be dead easy to implement. Best of all, it would reduce to zero wrong decisions from catches and LBWs given out on the field, as well as removing the all-too-common sight of a tail-ender pointlessly using up a leftover review. The one counter-argument we can see to this would be that it could cause umpires to give more speculative decisions ‘out’, knowing it’d be automatically reviewed. We don’t reckon this would happen. Umpires’ integrity, coupled with looking very silly if they’re wrong, would minimise any impact.

But what of decisions that the umpire gives ‘not out’? In our view, here the onus should remain on the players to review. Two reviews – when they’re gone, they’re gone. Well, not quite, as this is the crux of the problem caused by the Broad incident, and this is the bit that needs solving. There must be a review available so the howler doesn’t slip through the net. This is where we would float the idea of a ‘reserve review’, of the ‘break glass in emergency’ type. It could be used by the fielding side, even if they have used up both of their normal reviews, in a travesty-of-justice-style situation like we saw on Friday. It would remain always available, even if previously used incorrectly in the innings. What’s the catch, you ask? Well, the only way to handle it would be to penalise teams hard that use this review speculatively (not necessarily just where they got it wrong on a genuine misapprehension), probably off-field in the form of fines and bans. In reality, this would lead teams to only use it for disputed catches where they are positive they are in the right and the umpire is wrong, such as we saw last week. Teams would be extremely reluctant to use it on LBWs because of the greater uncertainties involved and the high cost of getting it wrong. In one fell swoop, there is a fail-safe. Just to be clear, this ‘reserve review’ would not be used in most Test matches, perhaps as few as one in ten. It is there for the total howler – the one the village umpire could have got right – and use for anything else probably gets the captain banned for the next match.

On a minor point, we would suggest a tweak to the current LBW system. If more than one criterion on HawkEye came up as ‘umpire’s call’, the batsman would automatically be given the benefit of the doubt, even if previously given out. We can’t be bothered to go into the whole issue of ‘umpire’s call’ and margins of error. There’s plenty of dull stuff on it by Simon Hughes et al. out there already.

Success! With a a few changes, we have greatly reduced the number of player reviews (by taking the batsman reviews away and making a review automatic) and introduced a pretty much cast-iron fail-safe. In doing so, we have not overly affected the flow of the game, or taken away any decision-making power from the umpires, or even increased their temptation to use the comfort blanket of technology to do the thinking for them.

Ultimately, our opinion is irrelevant, unless Dave Richardson is reading this. More importantly, though, there is no perfect cure-all system, just as there isn’t in other sports like American Football. If you leave it to humans, there will be mistakes. And until robots can deliver a convincing Dickie Bird-style bollocking for running on the pitch, it’s much more fun if it is left to real people.

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