Tuesday, July 22, 2008

WHO'D BE A TEST CRICKET UMPIRE?

With the march of new technology, the difficulty of the job of umpiring a Test Match has taken a quantum leap upwards. Time and time again, we see the umpire’s decision dissected by the commentators, using hindsight, “Hawk-Eye”, a committee review, “Snicko”, continuously repeated backwards and forwards Slow Motion camera work using up to 26 camera around a ground, to decide on the rights and wrongs of a decision. They use all this paraphanalia and some few minutes later, a puff of technological “White Smoke” appears and the pundits deliver their verdict. If it confirms the umpire’s decision, well he was only doing his job properly wasn’t he, and if he’s wrong, then there’s another small nail in the integrity of the umpire’s position. Occasionally, they then replay the offending moment in real time, and you hardly have time to see anything – you then realise just what a difficult job making a decision actually is.

Now, the Rules of Cricket are quite clear, and it is one of the more charming parts of the game – on the field, the Umpires have the final responsibility for the interpretation of the Rules and all the decisions which flow from that. It doesn’t say they have to be right, just “in their opinion …….”. They get it right most times, but, being human, they sometimes get it wrong. But whether it is intended or otherwise, this “God-like” power and position of the Umpire is under increasing threat from these reviews. And surely, it doesn’t need to be like that.

Umpires make mistakes – they always have, and they always will. The game is played on this basis. As a batsman, at least if you’re my age, you “walk” if the Umpire’s finger goes up – even if you know you are not out (think Gilchrist here, bless him). Others (think Atherton here) take the view that, if the umpire has the final say, then they’d better stay there at the crease, even though they know they’re out, just to balance the times when the umpire gets it wrong – law of averages, and all that.

Now it is fair to say that the technology is here to stay, and it will only become more sophisticated as time passes. Which means that burying one’s head in the technological sand is not going to work. And this is the issue. For time immemorial, there was no real way to determine the accuracy of the umpire’s decisions, so everything goes down in history as undisputed fact. When Len Hutton scored 364 Not Out in 1938 (Did you know, by the way he was only 22 when he played that innings?), there was no Hawkeye then to show whether Fred Smith actually got a snick off him when he was on 24.

Today, it’s utterly different. The almost obscene avalanche of money rushing towards the sport will magnify the potential impact of this issue to be even more important than it is today. Just imagine the issues of the two catches (Did they, or did they not, touch the ground?) which enlivened the South Africa Test a couple of days ago, if something similar happened in the Stanford Match later this year. Ambassadors would be withdrawn, and UN ressolutions would be called for. You just know that something’s got to give, and give soon.

The argument today seems to hinge on the balance of Ultimate Umpire Power vs Technological confirmation and accuracy of a decision. To me the situation is basically simple. The Umpire should retain his ultimate authority in spite of the existence and use of all these technical aids. It is one of the real charms of the game, that the final decision rests on the shoulders of one man. But surely, we should use the aids we have today to improve the accuracy of the decisions, subject always to the Umpire’s final say-so.

I’m still not sure about the referral process. It allows the players to be able to put increased pressure on the umpire. Yes, it gets a disputed decision revisited, but it is the thin end of a very large wedge in the destruction of the Umpire’s power on the field. So, why not use the technology? If the umpire doesn’t, the Sky TV Director will.

If the umpire is quite sure in his mind about a decision, then let him call it without the gizmos. He can then take the flak if he’s proven to be wrong.If he isn’t sure, then let him call up the same technology that the commentating pundits spray around after every difficult decision. He can then make his decision after seeing what he wants, and he then retains his authority on the field.

You will still get decisions where not everyone agrees – but so what? Two days ago, Michael Vaughan “caught” a ball very low down off Hashim Amla. In real time, it looked for all the world, as if it was out. Vaughan clearly thought he’d caught it, Amla walked immediately, the umpire didn’t stop him, and everyone was convinced the catch was good. When the replay came up on the screen, the South African dressing room (and yours truly as well, watching on the box) said “Hang on a minute, did it touch the ground?”, and chaos ensued.

The next morning, with all their own experience, all the time in the world and all the technology available behind them, the commentators still could not agree whether the catch was good or not. It was a 2-1 split, and this was David Gower, Michael Holding and David Lloyd we’re talking about here, not Ant and Dec.

We seem to be aiming for 100% perfection for any change, when that is never going to happen. And because we can’t get it, we won’t take the simple steps forward which seem all too obvious – the ones which will get us from 70% to 90%. Maybe you say it’s sport to have these controversies, but I’m not so sure. Think World Cup 1966, think “The Hand of God”, think the World Cup England Rugby game recently.

Surely what we need is a simple mechanism which allows the unfortunate “obvious” errors which we see all the time in the game to be prevented. In the Test series so far, to my knowledge, Cook was given out wrongly to a ball which touched his trousers, not his glove, Strauss was sent packing quite incorrectly and Collingwood suffered the same fate. Two seconds watching a replay by any of the umpires would, I submit, have reversed those decisions, and avoided the umpires’ red faces, and who then knows how the match would have changed.

Collingwood, fighting for his place in the team needed a good innings, and through no fault of his own, didn’t get a chance to play one. He was dropped for the next match, when a decent score may just possibly have resulted in a different decision. It can’t be right if a wrong umpiring decision could lose a player his place in the team. Just think if Strauss had got a wrong’un in his survival innings recently in New Zealand. No-one could have guaranteed on that day that he would go on to play a matchwinning innings, and we’d almost certainly have a new opening bat for England now. It’s that important.

But the Umpire’s job is hugely difficult, and increasingly so. Think of what he has to do. You’ve got Brett Lee blasting down towards you behind your left shoulder to bowl – at something like 90 miles/hour. Each and every ball, the Umpire must check that the bowler’s front foot does not overstep the crease creating a No Ball. He then has to look up, focus on the ball, measure where it lands, compute its line and height and the amount of swing and bounce in case it hits the batsman’s pads, decide whether the ball hits the bat at all, or just before or just after the pad, and decide whether the ball would have hit the stumps, in three dimensions.

Now, a simple bit of maths. Assuming the ball lands “on a length”, at 90 mph, the umpire has around 0.12 seconds to adjust and pick all this up from the time he’s also looking at the bowler’s front foot and trying to decide where it hits the ground. The minimum reaction time for a Human Being estimated by the clever souls who study Athletics sprinting, is around 0.11 seconds. Indeed, if an athlete is found to have started off the blocks in less time than this, he is deemed to have jumped the start, because a faster reaction is physiologically impossible. So why do we expect a 50 year old Cricket umpire to hit that sweet spot 270 times a day in a cricket match, when the time allowed is on the limit of the physically possible?

Answer – because we do. But we don’t have to. Why don’t we aim one of these machines at the crease and leave it to the machine to bleep if the bowler oversteps the mark. That strikes me as simple. You get an accurate answer every time, you get it immediately and the umpire is released to concentrate on the other end of the pitch, where the action is going to take place.

And why can an on-the-pitch umpire refer some decisions to the Third Umpire and not others? And some to the Square Leg umpire, and not others?

This gets hugely complicated quite quickly. So why not start with the basics?

1 - Technology is here to stay.

2 - Clearly visible errors quickly erode the Umpire’s credibility.

3 - The amount of money in the game is making and is going to continue to make umpiring decisions increasingly more important.

4 - The position of authority of the Umpire must be bolstered and supported where it can.

5 - We live in a world where it is na├»ve (See 3 above – money doesn’t talk, it shouts) to think we can rely unreservedly on the word of the players – morals and integrity are not absolute things and money can easily be seen as the lubricant of the devil here. Anyone been to a Soccer match recently?

So, start there and let the umpire, not the teams, have access to the gizmos Sky and its commentators use. Let the umpires choose when they are unsure, as they can, and do today with run-outs, to have access to the technology being used currently to judge them.

Insist that decisions on No Balls are given to a line judge machine. I’m sure they must exist - if not, go to Wimbledon and ask them.

Umpires are not idiots, and none of them want to look a fool. You have to believe that every one of them is trying to do the best job he can. Yes, it will make a few pauses in the game to go through these replays, but measure the time lost when the current disputes take place on the field, as well as the unnecessary controversy which then fizzes around for days/weeks and sometimes for ever, and off-set that against it. The umpires will use it when they are in doubt – but leave the final decision on Out/Not Out to them.

If they have the choice, and they don’t use it when they should, and consistently get it wrong, then sack them. They’ve had their chance, and in the same way that poor play gets you dropped, they should lose their place if they then don’t make reasonable decisions. What isn’t fair is to berate and demean them when they are being judged by processes far more revealing than they themselves can use.

Simple really.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yes but at the end of the day - it's only cricket......

(steps several paces backwards)

Having had my bit of fun I agree - the rugby referee has the benefit of Video replays and guidance by another judge so why not? It doesn't slow the game down significantly. It's about time they used it in Soccer (for the benefit of our American friends who have different ideas about what football is) as well.