Wednesday, January 02, 2008

On Technology In Cricket

I need a break from Pakistani politics for a day. I will thus choose to ignore the seductive powers of commenting on Bilawal (Bhutto) Zardari's love for Buffy The Goddamn Vampire Slayer, and instead focus on another burning issue: umpires in cricket and how much they suck.

For those unaware, India got screwed today. I didn't watch it, but from all accounts, they had Ponting twice (before he got out) and Symonds thrice. Of course, the latter helped them recover from 130-6 to 370-7 and will resume on 137 tomorrow. It also appears that none of the decisions were marginal, with the commentators piling on Bucknor and Benson. Wasim wondered whether Bucknor can still see and hear, and Michael Slater said that "Ponting didn't nick it, he smashed it." Reaction from Indian bloggers/reporters saw predictable hand-wringing - Prem Panicker in particular was worth the read.

It is my contention that cricket needs to employ the use of more technology in umpiring decisions. The standard of umpiring in the last five years has been abysmal, with only Taufel, and to a more limited extent Aleem Dar being serviceable (though Taufel is more than "serviceable" - he's simply the best umpire I've ever seen, by a long way). From Fat Fuck Hair to the two blind West Indians (Billy and Steve), from nutty Bowden to crackpot Rudy, there have been too many terrible "mistakes" lately. I use inverted commas because the nature of these errors defies the belief that they were unwitting. Sometimes you just need to see which official is umpiring which team to know how the result will pan out. If Fat Fuck Hair is umpiring a Pakistan game, forget about it. Dani will keep screaming but he won't get an LBW. Opposition batsmen will knock the cover off the ball but will stand their ground and have their stance vindicated. Similarly, if Bucknor is officiating an India game, you know you're going to see at least three howlers, with either Tendulkar, Dravid or Ganguly especially prone to a "misjudgment". The opposite - but equally dangerous - phenomenon takes place when Bowden umpires an Australia match. He will fold under the pressure they so expertly exert, and the opposition - already under pressure from playing an awesome team - will simply collapse. It's hard enough beating Australia with 11 batsmen, but with Bowden, you only have the services of six or seven. Warne played that man like he would a nurse with text messages.

Why don't we use more technology in cricket? It's a fairly straightforward question, but it elicits some fairly retarded answers. A popular one is "it will take time out of the game". Time out of the game? The purest form of the sport lasts 35 hours, for God's sake. Surely it would be worth the extra 15 seconds it would take to reach the correct decision? Most incorrect decisions can be shown to be so before the bowler is even back to his mark, with up to 30-60 seconds between deliveries - even for spinners. And if officials are really worried about "time out of the game," they would do well to direct their ire elsewhere, such as the endless non-official drinks breaks (even when the weather is fine), lengthy chats between captains and bowlers, batsmen spending inordinate amounts of time gardening the pitch, and so on.

What are some of the other reasons we don't see greater technology in cricket? We're told it's a game, and part of the charm is the human element and the mistakes all of us make. That may be true, but it's a misplaced opinion. The charm of cricket lies in the mistakes batsmen, bowlers, and fielders make, not the ones the umpires make. When Gibbs dropped Steve Waugh at that game in the 1999 World Cup, that was a "good" mistake because it was one made by one of the participants of the game. The umpires, on the other hand, are not participants. They are not in the game but above it, only overseeing matters and, at their best, never affecting the outcome.

Another reason for the unpopularity of technology, put forth by Ian Chappell if I recall correctly, is that sport is meant to imitate life, and life is never a completely smooth road. We are never dealt perfect hands, and how we deal with those hands reveals and builds character. Therefore, the reasoning goes, handling bad decisions by umpires is part and parcel of playing sport for a living, and one we should cherish. Despite my unending admiration and respect for Chappell, this is dumb. In real life, when we are dealt harsh judgments, we have recourse to appeals (well, in most countries anyway). You have lawyers and DNA evidence and juries and deliberation and whatnot. If you've been screwed, you have a chance to be unscrewed, so to speak. This is not the case in cricket where, as we've all been told since we were kids, the umpire's decision is final.

All of these explanations miss the central point of sport, namely, to assess which of two teams or individuals is better. This is especially true at international level but also applies to backyard cricket. All of us amateurs may play cricket for "fun," but at the end of the day, we all want to win, because we think our team is better than the other one. I have never, ever, EVER gone in to any contest of any kind with a peer (my three year old niece does not count) not wanting to win. The point of a contest is to determine which of two teams is more adept at the skill in question, whether it's a Scrabble game with my fiancee or a World Cup final between Argentina and Brazil. Anything that interferes with that determination is clearly a detraction from the contest.

It is also important to emphasize that most people who favor greater use of technology in cricket aren't advocating anything truly revolutionary. I for one don't want to see Hawk-Eye make LBW decisions. Even though it has been used successfully in tennis, there is a crucial difference in the use of the Hawk-Eye in tennis and its prospective use in cricket. In tennis, Hawk-Eye shows where the ball went. In cricket, Hawk-Eye predicts where the ball is going. To me, that makes its use for LBWs a non-starter. I also don't want hot-spot or any other of these military infra-red technologies.

No, what I and many others including classy Duncan Fletcher propose is something much more limited. Namely, grant each side a finite number of appeals per innings (three or five or whatever). If a side doesn't agree with a decision, it can appeal it. The decision, whether it is a caught behind or LBW, can be overturned if and only if it is shown to be absolutely and positively incorrect within some agreed upon time frame (say a minute or 45 seconds). Such language can be written in the legislation to make the burden of proof weighty and make it rest on the shoulders of the appealing side. This will ensure that marginal decisions, even if incorrect, stand. Only the most egregious mistakes will be eradicated under this system, which is all we really want anyway. This system will also allay the fears of those who want umpires to have a role in the game. Under these rules, the umpires on the field will make a decision as they always have done, and will only be brought into question if they've fucked up majorly (which they should).

There is most definitely a silver lining to India getting screwed today. No, this is not typical Pakistani schadenfreude at our neighbor's expense. On the contrary, I am extremely sympathetic because (a) they had a real chance to get back in the series when the Aussies were 130-6, and (b) I know exactly how they feel, with our tour to England in 2006 and Australia in 2004-05 especially marred by crappy umpiring.

No, my glee with India getting screwed today is the potential it holds for real and positive change. When teams like Pakistan bear the brunt of bad umpiring, it is written off as complaining by an inferior team that has no right to say anything about rules given how many times we break them (a fair point when you consider drugs, ball tampering, hitting spectators with bats, scuffing up pitches et al). On the other hand, India has real clout and usually gets what it wants when it comes to the ICC. Perhaps today's events will bring about an urgency within their administration to push for new legislation vis-a-vis technology in cricket. As Andrew Sullivan would say, know hope.

I should note that I am somewhat sympathetic to umpires' predicament nowadays. Because of the two neutral umpires requirement for all tests, umpires end up traveling and working more than players. Almost all are significantly older than the players- with the exception of Taufel, which I don't think is a coincidence - and the fatigue must play havoc with their ability to concentrate for seven hours a day and make snap judgments.

This is why I am perplexed umpires don't want more technology used in the sport. I can understand their worries about eventually being phased out of the game, but they should rest assured that those worries are misplaced. After all, both American football and tennis employ technology quite a bit, and officials in those sports are still alive and kicking. At the end of the day, umpires should want to place a priority on getting decisions right, rather than fear being shown up by television. Being that insecure means they're probably ill-suited to the requirements of being an international umpire anyway, and should probably look for another job. If they want, I'm sure Darrell Hair can give them tips on seeking alternative forms of employment.

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