A modest alternative to referrals

2009 Mar 03 by DreamCricket

My modest proposal therefore is to employ technology to get rid of an umpire's responsibilities to account for no-balls and the number of balls bowled.

In the wake of Darrell Harper's howlers in the recent England-West Indies test match, there have been widespread protests about the inappropriateness of cricket's referral system. In all this, there are two schools of thought. One point of view is that there should be no referral system at all - we should leave matters to the umpires on the field and the players and captains should focus on making decisions relevant to playing the game rather than strategizing about when to ask for a referral. The second school of thought while a referral system is welcome, it is inadequate as it presently stands and needs to be improved. Most important, according to this viewpoint, is that a protocol should be agreed upon whereby the third umpire only corrects decisions that are blatant errors. Moreover, he should have access to the full - technology that is available - including the use of the hot spot/snickometer and hawk eye.

Yet none of these arguments touches upon the central point that the ultimate purpose of having a referral system is to improve the percentage of correct umpiring decisions and, in this regard, there exists a simpler and better alternative. The referral system came into favor in the wake of a number of blatant umpiring errors, probably culminating in the mistakes that cost India (the most influential country in the ICC) the Sydney test in January 2008. The objective was to reduce the number of such mistakes and their influence upon the course and results of test matches. Yet what was not sufficiently taken into account when introducing a new and relatively untested system (its effectiveness in first class cricket is inconclusive) were its possible side-effects on other aspects of the game. This would include the effect on the flow of the game, on the effect on teams' strategy and even spirit (when only a limited number of decisions may be referred, it may not necessarily be the most blatant decisions that are formally disputed but those relating to player profile, influence and match situation), and of course the way it is interpreted by umpires and match referees.

While this is bad enough as it stands, what is worse is that cricket's administrators, and many of the experts and journalists associated with the game, is the common sense dictum that if something is not working well - which in this context is the quality of umpiring - the first step should be to try to fix the problem directly and at its source; only if this does not work should an external mechanism, which runs the risk of bringing in other complications, be tried. Thus, in this case, the first best measure would have been to introduce simpler and direct measures that enable umpires to improve the quality of their decision making; only if this had failed should other alternatives like referrals have been considered. The fact that a patient step-by-step approach was not even considered suggests a clear lack of clarity in thinking on the part of the game's administrators.

So what is this first and simple step that I am proposing? It is to enable umpires to focus on their core duties of making decisions through eliminating, with the use of technology, the additional unnecessary tasks that they are encumbered with. In other words, umpires have multiple tasks to do: they have to begin by focusing on where a bowler's feet lands (looking for no balls) and immediately move their gaze to the batsman's end to make all manner of decisions. As if this is not enough, they have, at the same time, also to accurately keep count of the number of balls per over. Anyone who has umpired - be it a club or first class level - is aware of the multi-tasking challenges involved here and the fact that this can easily lead to a break in concentration. My modest proposal therefore is to employ technology to get rid of an umpire's responsibilities to account for no-balls and the number of balls bowled. The same technology used in tennis to detect foot faults can be applied to cricket to account for no-balls and, counting the balls per over, this can be given to the third umpire (in addition to run outs). That way the umpire can simply focus on the operational end (i.e. the batting end).

Yes, this is a very basic proposal but sometimes the simplest options may be the best ones. A small tinkering can lead to a disproportionate change and, since we are talking here about eliminating the blatant errors from umpiring, anything that helps the umpire in giving his utmost concentration to the batsman's end can yield benefits without bringing in adverse side-effects - as seems to be the case with the referral system. ICC can move to more grandiose measures if, and only if, this first step does not adequately improve umpiring decisions.

Underlying all this is a call for thinking out issues relating to improving the game in logical, piecemeal and practical steps, rather than catering to the latest whim and fancy. Given the politics and egos inherent in the ICC, it may be difficult to resist the latter. It is ultimately the responsibility of the connoisseurs of cricket to raise their voice to try to ensure that a modicum of reason and common sense prevails in guiding the evolution of this most nuanced and cerebral of sports.