Sunday, October 02, 2011

INDIA AND THE DRS SYSTEM

The English Cricket season is over, so some thoughts on it all at the end of 2011, mainly around the Decision Review System (DRS) which has grumbled its way along in the background of this year’s proceedings.

Question: How do we know if a batsman is out? Ignoring the more esoteric ways like “Obstructing the Field” and “Timed Out”, apart from being “Bowled”, there is always an element of doubt in every other way a batsman can be dismissed. Sometimes the doubt is vanishingly small, but often, when it’s not, it all comes down to a human judgment – that of the Umpire, or more accurately the Umpires.

Until a few years ago, it was quite simple. The umpire was “God” and if, he said you were out, you were out. The Rules of the game, to my non lawyerly but reasonably logical viewpoint do not actually say that, but the structure of the rules seem to have that axiom rippled through their very fabric. Nowhere in the 42 Laws, as far as I can find, does it allow or even consider the possibility of any appeal to an outside agency if anyone on the field does not concur with the umpire’s decision. So, right or wrong, good or bad, the Umpire’s decision is final. Simple, straightforward and clear.

Having said that, it is also clear that the umpires are human and therefore they make mistakes. The logical consequence of that is that players will be given Out when they are not, and given Not Out when they are. The only reason that Jim Laker took 19 wickets against the Australians in 1956 was because the umpires said he did. If you look at the scorecard (and Yes, I just have) he bowled 5 of them, had 3 LBW, 1 Stumped, and 10 caught. So how many wickets did he actually take? Don’t bother to answer that, mainly because you can’t, but you get my point.

I hold it as another axiom that the umpires try as hard as they can to make the right decisions. The game completely loses its point if they don’t, but it still doesn’t prevent them from making a genuine mistake. So anything which offers an improvement to the accuracy of their decision making should be looked at, to start with at least, as something positive for the game rather than negative.

In those days, the umpire’s judgement was all that was available, so that was it. Today it’s different. The application of money and technology has given us other means by which these decisions can be evaluated. Slo-Mo and Freeze frame replays going backwards and forwards as many times as you want, tens of cameras all over the ground giving multiple views unavailable to the umpires, stump microphones, Hawk-Eye, Snicko and Hot Spot are all available if both the money and the desire are there to use them.

We have grown increasingly used to the TV pundits running these various bits of kit endlessly to put us, sitting in our armchairs, often in a better position than the poor soul out in the middle in the metaphorical white coat. The simple truth however, for all these various pieces of ironmongery, is that they are all machines built by Man. They therefore have a built in inherent failure rate, and this is something that cannot be avoided.

When a cricket team plays against another team on another continent, they trust their lives to the aeroplane and the pilots who fly them there. That aeroplane and the people who fly it have a built in failure rate. It may be small but it’s still there. Just think Munich 1958 if you’re not sure you agree with me.

And yet, the cricketers climb aboard and accept that risk. Everyone involved with the flight tries their hardest to minimise the risk, and as time has passed the advent of new technology has progressively improved the safety record of gadding around the world in an aeroplane. It is many times safer to fly today than it was 40 years ago, and this is down to a large extent to the impact of technology to improve the pilot’s lot. But the fact remains that the risk is not zero, and never will be.

Back now to the DRS. I think the way the whole DRS discussion has been presented is the wrong way round. I am only a simple bystander in all this, so may not be privy to the latest information, but I recall hearing recently that the average accuracy rate of decisions made solely by Test umpires is around 92%. Given the speed at which things happen on a cricket pitch, I am frankly amazed it is as high as that, but there you go.

The use of modern technology (and I don’t know which bits, but the guys in charge will know precisely) improves that figure to nearer 96-98%. Now at face value, that’s not much. But look at it the other way round. That all says the umpires get it wrong 8% of time, and, if you bring the technology into play, that error rate reduces to 2-4%. That means an improvement of between 50-75%.

Just read that again. An improvement factor of 4! If you were running an airline, and someone offered an improvement of that magnitude, your hand would be a blur as it snatched it off them. So why do some of the Test Playing countries reject DRS so vehemently.

Good question.

My simple logic says that the International Cricket Council is the governing body for the sport, and should be able to dictate, not advise, what umpiring and decision making systems are to be used for all international matches. Either the technology available is acceptable everywhere or it isn’t. That’s a binary decision to my eyes at least. It should not be up to an individual country whether they have a veto as to its use or not. But unfortunately, it is.

I understand that there may well be a significant financial cost in the use of all the equipment involved, but, given the will, it can’t be beyond the wit of man to find a central source to fund it all (ICC subscriptions?) and send it around the world to whichever tournament is being played at any given time. Yes, that may mean more than one set because there are overlapping match series being played, but cricket is a billionaire business these days, so Come on guys, please don’t say that can’t be sorted. It can if you want it to.

The other rather more contentious side of the problem is whether there is actually a universal desire to improve the decision making accuracy in the game. I well remember the film about the uncovering of the Watergate scandal “All the President’s Men. “Deep Throat”, the White House spy was meeting the two investigative reporters Bernstein and Woodward in the Multi storey car park in the dead of night. He wouldn’t tell them who in the White House was involved, or how they were involved, but he just said “Follow the Money”. Which they did, and the rest, as we say, is History. That phrase is actually a universal dictum in my view, and I suspect one which can be used here.

The Indian Cricket Governing Body, the BCCI, say that they insist that the technology is 100% accurate before they sanction its use, particularly for the predictive elements of the system, as used in the LBW decision. Now, assuming that they’re not stupid (and I don’t for one minute think they are) they must realise that no technology is 100% accurate. I think the manufacturers agree it is not 100% accurate. Indeed, on the predictive element of Hawk-Eye for LBW decisions, the makers themselves have imposed a restriction on its use when the ball has travelled less than 40cm between bouncing off the ground and hitting the batsman. This I presume is because there is not enough information available when the system follows the ball for less than 40cm to allow the tolerance spread of the prediction to be within the level of accuracy needed for a reliable decision. The important fact here is that it’s not perfect, but that it’s a lot better than not using it at all. From my understanding, however you look at it, using the system in conjunction with the umpire, gives a greater accuracy than not using it and relying upon the umpire’s judgement on its own. So why do they rest their case on a demand that can never be met?

As far as I’m aware every other Test playing country in the world has accepted the system in principle, so what is so different about India which results in them being the only one in step. It can’t surely be money, so it must be something else.

I have puzzled over this and I can only come to one conclusion. They must think that its use would disadvantage them. Perhaps I am too cynical but I can imagine some Indian Cricket analyst sitting in a darkened room somewhere not a million miles from Delhi poring over umpteen replays of dismissals in matches where India were playing. I am convinced that, because the cricket ball in India and the Sub-Continent swings far less than it does in England and other parts of the world where International Test Cricket is played, the majority of Indian batsmen have less experience of playing such bowling than say, England, and therefore the chance of their players succumbing to an LBW appeal is higher than any local team. I can imagine this poor soul concluding that, over a long period of time, there was therefore a net benefit to India in terms of wrong decisions which favoured them compared to wrong decisions which favoured the opposition, and thus it would give the opponents an advantage to allow the predictive Hawk-Eye system to be used.

Somehow or other, presumably because of the massive, and in my view disproportionate Indian political strength within the International Cricket world, they have managed to secure an overall agreement that each individual country’s Cricket board, in their case the BCCI, has the right to overrule the Sport’s governing body and make a unilateral decision to avoid its use if their team is involved. Crazy, but true.

Obviously, I have no proof whatsoever that this is the case, and it is simply the only opinion I am left with, having personally mulled over the facts that are available to me. If someone can convince me that another scenario exists, then I’m all ears. I would like to think that this running sore, for that is what it is, will be resolved quickly, hopefully at the next ICC Get Together, but I have to say, I am not overly optimistic. Having personally read an awful lot over the last few weeks following their disastrous tour here this summer, it seems that the Indian cricketing authorities are in total denial of just about every suggested failing on their part, so the chance of any constructive move on their part does not seem very likely. I hope I am wrong.

So, if nothing changes, for games involving India we will end up with the TV pundits continuing to share these incorrect decisions with the general public, the umpires being faced with a continuing and gradual drip feed of unresolved errors and a consequent erosion of the belief and trust in their invulnerability, which can only do the game a significant dis-service. Whatever we, or the BCCI, or the ICC think or would like to think, Pandora’s box of Technological Tricks has been opened on the cricket field and there is no way on earth that, to mix a metaphor, the Genie is going to be stuffed back in the bottle. Sky Sports will see to that.

My own personal view on India’s tour this year is that they arrived here with a massive lack of under-preparation, a ridiculously unrealistic plan for meaningful practice matches, a staggering lack of effort to ensure their players were fit and ready for a series against England, a failure to plan effectively for back-ups in the event of the inevitable injuries that occur to cricketers everywhere these days and, in the case of too many of the players, an all too apparent desire to be anywhere else other than facing England on their own territory. For the avoidance of any doubt, Rahul Dravid, none of this applies to you. I thought you were quite magnificent!

And I haven’t even mentioned the skill shortfall so many of their younger One day cricketers exhibited when faced with what is certainly one of the two best Test Bowling attacks in the world. Whether these younger guys, faced with the money, the adulation, the simplicity and the glitz of the Indian Premier League and its spin-offs have the desire to address the discipline of learning how to play Test Cricket well all round the world is a question to which I do not have an answer. So any possibility that they are going to agree with my personal view and hope for short term change has as near zero a chance of happening as I could imagine.

I have read a fair cross section of the Indian cricketing press following their team’s return to the home country, and the authorities, bless them, seem to be in complete denial about it all. If it wasn’t so serious for cricket, you’d laugh, but there you go. Just look at the shake-up that’s underway in Australia following the Ashes and compare that to the Indian response. Apart from sending each of the Indian team Managers and Planners a large hand mirror to look in and ponder, I can only conclude that they think their future cricketing interests lie elsewhere. I really do hope I’m wrong.

My increasing fear for the long term future of International Test Cricket, the greatest game man has ever invented is therefore rather a depressing one.

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