Saturday, August 03, 2013

Time to make a decision...

There has been some terrific cricket played, mainly by England, so far in this Ashes series.

The focus however has been less on the quality of the play, and more on the umpiring. In particular, the Decision Review System (DRS) has come in for some criticism.

For those who don't follow the sport, DRS is a system which permits the players to challenge umpiring decisions that they believe might be wrong. Each side gets a maximum of two reviews per innings, the incident being referred to an off-field umpire who can use technology to examine whether the on-field call was correct. If the review goes your way, it doesn't count as one of your two for the innings.

It's not a novel idea, a similar system exists in professional tennis. Both codes of rugby have a process where the on-field referee can ask for incidents to be reviewed to determine the correct decision. The main difference however, and where cricket stands alone, is that these sports use it to establish the correct decision. In cricket, there is a presumption that the on-field decision was correct unless there is overriding evidence to the contrary.

Therein, lies cricket's problem with technology. Other sports have been able to embrace the concept that sometimes their officials need help in getting it right, and that a game where officials get most of their decisions correct is a better one for players, spectators and sponsors alike.

Cricket however remains stuck in a bygone age of gentlemen and players, where the umpire's decision is always correct, even when it isn't. That it operates in this presumption is causing it untold problems, as is the insistence on no more than two unsuccessful referrals per innings.

The Australian first innings in the 3rd Test at Old Trafford provides a perfect example.

Australian batsman Usman Khawaja was given out caught behind. Khawaja asked for a review, believing he'd not hit it. The thermal imaging system known as "Hot Spot" showed no evidence of the ball striking the edge of the bat. There was a noise, but it was some way after the ball had passed the bat. So there was no evidence to suggest that Khawaja had hit the ball.

However, as the original decision was that Khawaja was out, in order for this to be overturned there needed to be clear evidence that he hadn't hit the ball, not clear evidence that he had. Result, the original decision was upheld and he was given out by the off-field umpire.

How was Khawaja meant to prove that he hadn't done something? The only thing that could possibly have saved him would have been if the ball had been shown to hit something else other than his bat. So a clearly incorrect decision was allowed to stand because of the presumption that the on-field umpire was correct.

The knock-on effect could be seen in England's innings. Tim Bresnan was given out caught behind off a ball that brushed the clothing rather than the edge of the bat. Yet Bresnan chose not to review. Was he influenced by the difficulty Khawaja had in trying to prove a negative and thought better of potentially wasting a review?

Later in the Australian innings, England appealed for an lbw decision against Steve Smith. The on-field decision was not out, and was clearly shown to be incorrect by subsequent replays. However, England had already used their two unsuccessful reviews in that innings on other marginal decisions, so they couldn't ask the off-field umpire to review and overturn the on-field decision. 

So what's the solution to the problems that DRS is creating? In my opinion, it isn't to scrap it. It picks up and corrects too many poor decisions to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The solution is two-fold. 

An automatic review of every dismissal. If a batsman is given out on the field, he shouldn't be limited by whether his team-mates have already used all the side's reviews earlier in the innings.

The second part of the solution may not be as palatable to cricket's administrators. It's time to end the automatic presumption that the on-field call was correct. Review each decision on its merits from first principles. Remove the "umpire's call" element on leg before wicket decisions, so that if a ball meets all the criteria in the laws for it to be given out, then it's out whether it is  a marginal call or plumb in front.

In other words, use technology in the way other sports have embraced it. To provide the correct decision. It may be too much for cricket's Corinthian attitudes, but it's the only way the game can take DRS forward with any confidence.

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