Use technology to slow down the finger of death

E.R. RAMACHANDRAN writes: Much has been said about the umpiring by Steve Bucknor and Mark Benson in the Sydney Test that tilted the balance against India. But what about Perth?

Are we going to hang Asad Rauf for his decisions against Sachin Tendulkar and Mahendra Singh Dhoni in the first innings? Are the Australians going to cry like babies and demand a change of umpires for the fourth Test because of the decisions against Michael Hussey and Andrew Symonds today?

Put another way, are some umpires really biased, as we would like to believe? Does the Umpire Strike Back?

The answer, at the risk of becoming unpopular, has to be a firm ‘No’.

Were Dickie Bird and David Shepherd always biased when they ruled in favour of England? Is Simon Tauffel? Rudi Koertzen? Did these gentlemen give “favourable” decisions for their countries/teams, before the “neutral” umpires system came about? When they were not biased even when they stood when their countries played, there is no way they could be accused of being biased now when they stand as neutral umpires.

With bias removed from the realm of possibilities for wrong decisions, what then could be other reasons?

Incompetence? May be.

But let’s look at the amount of time that the umpires have at their disposal to make the decisions, which we then lazily criticise in the comfort of our drawing rooms as the TV stations show gazillion replays.

1) The umpire has to look out for the “no-ball” (front-foot rule), which means he has to keep looking down at the crease almost to the point of release of ball by the bowler. Then, he must look up, 2) assess the line, 3) length and 4) height for LBW decisions. After this, 5) he must make sure if there was a tickle, and 6) whether the ball hit the bat first or the pad. Then, as the ball travels to the wicket keeper, 7) was the ball off the leg-pad or 8) arm guard, or 9) off the gloves, and finally 10) was the catch taken “cleanly”.

Question: how many times would you, yes you, go wrong if you were expected to do that 90 overs—540 balls—a day?

Imagine how the timeframe gets contracted when a spinner is in operation and there are bat-pad decisions to be made, not to speak of a bump catch! All this in a total of few seconds from the time the bowler is ready to bowl and to the time wicketkeeper appeals for a CBW. Amidst all this, they have to make sure they count 6 balls in the over correctly, and as Billy Bowden showed in Perth it is easy to think five is six, and sometimes seven.

Whoever talks of multi-tasking hasn’t met a Test match umpire!

So why do their decisions appear increasingly horrendous nowadays?

Answer: television and slow motion technology.

Technology has made each one of us a bean-bag Bird. In days long past, a scorer would run to the ground and get a clarification from the umpire as to whether he had adjudged a batsman LBW or caught behind the stumps because the appeal was for both. The spectators watching the match would not even know the decision until they saw the newspapers the next day. This happened to S. Venkataraghavan himself as a player in a Bombay Test.

When Devraj Puri (Narottam Puri‘s father) the All India Radio commentator questioned the supposedly poor umpiring in a 196os Test agaisnt Australia, the spectators listening to the commentary on their small transistor radio sets in the North Stand of the Brabourne Stadium set fire to the stand! It was this incident that prompted the textile executive-cum-cricket writer Arvind Lavakare to propose that TV be used to help umpires.

It took the ICC 25 years to act on that piece of advice. However, television technology, instead of being used as a boon to the umpire has become his bugbear.

The nitwits in the ICC and the networks are using it to expose the umpire in all his decisions be it a no-ball, an LBW or catches taken behind the wickets or catches taken in the slip cordon or anywhere that involves diving to see if it is a ‘clean’ catch. The mistakes of an umpire are scrutinised, analysed ad nauseam by the ‘expert’.

ICC must get technology in to assist the umpires. It must not let player talk of umpires’ mistakes evening out—you win some, you lose some.

Secondly, when the prima donnas of the game are playing, the umpires appear genuinely scared. Watch their body language. They don’t want to displease them. Most of their LBW decisions come when they face a Glenn McGrath or a Shane Warne appeal. But these are no appeals; they are “demands” made with a swirl of the body, eyes glowering at them for 5 to 15 seconds.

It’s as if the umpires are up against a snarling Great Dane or a German Shepherd; one false move and they could be gone!

The umpires are made to feel foolish if they turn down these ferocious appeals. The umpires literally cower under their glare and give decisions. They may look psychologically silly when they turn down the appeals from prima donnas, and would rather be happy to uphold those appeals and be a happy pal among the greats.

Sunil Gavaskar, at the end of second Test in Sydney, admitted as much that Bombay invariably got decisions in their favour whenever they appealed during Ranji Trophy matches as compared to their opponents.

Don’t be surprised, therefore, if an umpire declines to give Sachin Tendulkar LBW for less than 10 in a Ranji Trophy match against a non-Test bowler, say, from Saurashtra or Assam, even if he is out. The umpire might have to face ridicule from everybody. There may be one or two umpires who might, but by and large, statistically, the proportion of umpires willing to take on prima donnas is less than 10%.

It’s like the old story of W.G. Grace being given out early in the innings, only for the umpire to be told by Grace: “The spectators have come to see me bat, not to see you umpire!”

So, what‘s the best solution to minimize the errors/ blunders/ forcible decisions?

Do not differentiate between on-field umpires and the third umpire: They should be made to work as a unit and and as a rule they should consult as a group and give a decision. In a game of over 7 hours of play per day, there is no need to give split-second decisions, especially with so much at stake: personal achievement, commercial interest, and national pride.

To expect split-second decisions which are always accurate is preposterous, even inhuman, considering that a batsman sitting warmly in the pavilion is given two minutes to arrive at the crease, considering that it takes at least a minute to change ends and reset the field after each over.

In the interest of securing “correct” decisions, any umpire of the trio could disagree, especially the third umpire who has the benefit of technology, and in consultation of all the three, the decision should be handed over. All decisions should only be conveyed by the third umpire through “Out” and “Not Out” displayed on the big screen.

ICC should not fall for the dubious claims of time wastage: Cricketers like Geoffrey Boycott now carp about time being wasted by umpires and television replays while wearing the commentator’s hat. ICC should ignore this. In-stadium spectators who can barely catch all the action will not mind the delay through repeated replays if it can secure a flaw-free game.

The TV companies also won’t mind this delay, they can use the time to show a few more commercials.

If an umpire misses a no-ball, which the third umpire must keep an eye out for, in the interest and correctness of the game, he could intervene and reverse the decision. This would be very useful in situations when the batsman gets out (or given out) only to find the replay showing a no-ball. The third umpire, after discussing with his colleagues, can reverse a decision collectively.

The Third umpire should not be a ‘local’ umpire, but must be from the ICC elite panel of umpires. When we have, say, Aleem Dar, Billy Bowden and Simon Taufel as three umpires for a Test, there would be fewer mistakes.

ICC can easily increase the panel of umpires as it is no more a matter of a decision to be given in a tearing hurry by a great umpire. The team of umpires with expertise, experience and technology in hand will make a decision which will be far more accurate with facts and replays helping them in the decision.

If required the three elite umpires can work in shifts on the field, so that the responsibilities are shared without any of the three overly exerting himself.

In fact, mistakes would be eliminated as you have “empowered” the umpires by giving them the technology. They will be on a par with the “experts” and the TV audiences, as they watch the same video and take a decision. Now, umpires make their decisions in few milliseconds, and the experts watch it from all angles for around 15 minutes to condemn the umpires. The spectators watch that for days and make a decision whose effigies have to be burnt.

The prima donnas will feel the heat and cool down considerably. Decisions will be taken without haste; if need be the third umpire can come to the field with a hand-held monitor and show it to his colleagues and then take a ‘collective’ decision. No umpire will be vulnerable or a target of mob fury as any decision is a result of combined thinking.

The umpires can also wear microphones of military specs on them which will pick up whatever happens on the playing square. This will make lot of Australians ‘shut up’ and incidents like SymondsHarbhajan will be a thing of the past.

When every new technology eventually becomes part of life making it easier, why should technology not be given to the umpires which would help them to take correct decisions? With increasing commercialization , wrong decisions during critical stage of a match can indeed take the game away which is neither good for the sides playing the game, nor for the game and finally not for the paying spectator.

Even the great Don Bradman blamed Darell Hair for starting the “distasteful” controversy over the bowling action of Muthiah Muralidharan in 1995-1996. Bradman wrote: “It was technically impossible for Umpire Hair to call from the bowler’s end even once. I believe Hair’s action in one over took the development of world cricket back by ten years.”

We are at a similar doorstep now. It’s time technology plays an important role in modern cricket to help the umpires rather than watch the playback in super slo-mo to ridicule and hang them at leisure in the comfort of our drawing rooms.

Photograph: courtesy Weather Vanes