When Shoaib Malik was declared out LBW in the first match of the 'Mini World Cup' in the 2002 version of the same, he had created history. A dubious one, one may add, as he became the first ever batsman to be given the marching orders by the third umpire for any such kind of a decision in international cricket. This edition of the Champions trophy had seen the ICC trial the usage of technology - the pitch mat - to assist the on-field umpire in deciding whether the ball had pitched in line with the stumps, or outside it.
When Shoaib Malik was declared out LBW in the first match of the 'Mini World Cup' in the 2002 version of the same, he had created history. A dubious one, one may add, as he became the first ever batsman to be given the marching orders by the third umpire for any such kind of a decision in international cricket. This edition of the Champions trophy had seen the ICC trial the usage of technology - the pitch mat - to assist the on-field umpire in deciding whether the ball had pitched in line with the stumps, or outside it. There was one additional clause to this usage of external help, and that was a clear mandate to the off-field umpires to deliver this decision in not more than twenty seconds, after all, the ICC did not want to compromise on the pace of the game too much. The intentions had been faultless, yet, for some reason this experiment was relegated to the back of the memory closet.
Why, one does not exactly know, but one can definitely hazard a guess. For one, the technology - remember it was 2002, and technology improves as drastically as Moore's law suggests - was probably not up to the scratch. Especially for close ones like those which had the ball being half in and partially out would have caused a little problem with the decision making process.
That was 2002. This is six years on, and this time, the prowess of the third umpire has been propped up under the veil of the much-in-news 'review system' that is currently standing trial in the test series between India and Sri Lanka. And if the early indications are anything to go by, the first few feelers to the same have not been too pleasant.
For one, and this is surprising, the technology has not yet improved up to the point of being called foolproof. While this is one reason why the ICC had been reluctant to use the same earlier, there was a work around that was thought to have sorted this issue out. And that was that the predictor functionality of the Hawk-Eye - the one which envisages the path that the ball would travel after it hits the batsman - would not be a part of the third umpire armoury. Based on the path that the ball has already taken, the umpire would need to himself do the prediction and arrive at the decision. Unfortunately, this series has already seen one decision that has made the use of the first portion of the path-traverser - and not the predictor part - and gone wrong, not because of the lack of capabilities by the umpire, but because of the technology itself.
Virender Sehwag was the batsman in question, Muralitharan bowled one from around the wicket that pitched in line of the leg stump and looked to the naked eye as having touched him on the front leg. After clipping this left foot of the batsman, it had deviated just that little to hit the back leg. The animated version of the same failed to pick this little deviation and the batsman was adjudged out by the third umpire based on this erroneous premise!
The other issue that one feels could be an issue in times to come - if this system does see the light of the day in the future - is with the contentious decisions that even the technology has no answer to. More so, when a batsman is given out by the on field umpires and the same is referred to the one upstairs. If the evidence is not conclusive either ways, there is a tendency of giving the batsman not-out, but the bone of contention here is the fact that if the batsman has already been deemed out and the third umpire cannot make a decision on the basis of what he sees, why should the on-field umpire not uphold his original judgement? Tilakratne Dilshan's dismissal is a case in point here. He was adjudged caught behind by the umpire, a referral was made, the evidence was not conclusive because of the shortcomings in the technology and the batsman got the benefit.
My personal belief is that if the on field has ruled the batsman out, and if the third umpire thinks that based on whatever is available to him, he cannot make any verdict, the on field umpire's decision should be upheld.
Going down the list of 'whys', the biggest loophole that the ICC needs to beware of is the communication between the dressing room and the on-field players on whether they should go for a referral or not. This is inherently brought about by the three-sub rule, and any help from the pavilion could be deemed illegal or even unethical, whichever way one looks at it. How the ICC prevents that from happening, is going to be their prerogative but the same needs to be looked at with a closer eye.
And then there are questions about the amount of time that could be taken by the cricketers to go for the referral. The ICC had, as mentioned above, for the Champions Trophy 2002, the third umpire decisions would be allowed no more than 20 seconds, and one wonders why there has been no time limit set for this one too. Already there are concerns about Test cricket getting alienated from the common viewing fan because of its slowness. With this system, there are essentially going to be two major, further delays; one for a decision - by whomever - whether to go for the referral or no, and the other for the decision itself.
Test cricket, they say, is the more romantic form of the gentleman's game. The purists enjoy it for its twists and turns, and the unpredictable nature that goes along with it to make it the sport that it is. While making the game free of errors, should be as high on the list of the ICC as making it doping-free, it should not come at the expense of messing around with the aesthetics of the game. The SCG test match between the Indians and Australians is much spoken about and remembered, because of a host of reasons, and one of them is the bad day(s) at office for the umpires. And, however drastic it may sound, it did add the necessary needle to the already spiced up contest. With this current system, the feel-good factor seems to go missing, it almost seems robotic. And the law that prevents more than three unsuccessful appeals is nothing but a pot of luck, its hardly a part of strategy or tactics.
One wonders about the feasibility, but it would be worth trying out this system in the latest, shortest format of the game first, before moving on to the test cricket. The system, in its current form, is akin to having a tablespoon of cough syrup. One hopes that the syrup would aid recovery, but it ends up leaving a taste in the mouth, bitter enough to mess up one's appetite. It has already spoilt mine.