As far as Test series go, this is the main event. While the number of matches in most Test series has gradually been downsized, The Ashes is currently the only continuous five-match series. Iconic series such as the Frank Worrell Trophy, the Wisden Trophy and India-Pakistan clashes have suffered due to the proliferation of limited-overs cricket as well as the structure of the Future Tours Program, which forces teams into scheduling two-match or three-match Test series just so they can fulfill the obligation of playing each nation home and away within the six-year FTP cycle. It stands to reason then that the most important and longest running series on the international calendar should have access to the best technology available for umpires to use now; not two years from now.
For England and Australia, The Ashes is everything. In the summer of 2008, England was still in the middle of playing South Africa in a four-match Test series. But before the series result had even been decided in the third match at Edgbaston, Sky Sports launched their promotional campaign for its "Grand Slam Summer" of 2009. This included an image of Kevin Pietersen highlighting a captioned reference to The Ashes, a full year in advance of the actual event. England not only had their current series against South Africa to finish, but series away in India and the West Indies before the summer of 2009 came around. It's not a coincidence that England lost each series mentioned above. The home broadcaster, the England fans and the media weren't the only ones preoccupied with Australia. The players were too.
Such hype exists not just because of the tradition involved. Nowadays, the financial opportunities at stake add to the pressure. Careers and futures are on the line in a way they never were a generation ago. While purists believe that umpiring errors are part and parcel of the game, adding charm because of the human element involved, technological innovations in broadcasting such as Hawk-Eye and Hot Spot have exposed umpires and left them defenseless when incorrect decisions are made. Simon Taufel generally doesn't fear missing an assignment for the next match if he gets one wrong, but a player that is wrongly given out could suffer tremendously as a result.
Never has that been more appropriate than in the case of Damien Martyn. While Australia were on the wrong end of numerous umpiring errors over the course of the five Tests in 2005, two crucial umpiring decisions in back-to-back innings of that series all but submarined the career of Martyn, who was dropped after the final Test at The Oval.
Only five months before The Ashes in 2005, Martyn received Australia's Test Player of the Year award at the Allan Border Medal. A big part of that award was his Player of the Series performance on Australia's victorious tour of India late in 2004, their first series win there since 1969. He then went on to score two centuries to be named Player of the Series against Pakistan and notched a career high 165 in New Zealand before heading off to England.
In the first Ashes Test at Lord's, Martyn was out for two in the first innings, but scored a solid 65 as part of a vital 155-run fourth wicket partnership with Michael Clarke in the second innings to put Australia on the path to victory by 239 runs. Martyn was unable to convert starts of 20 and 28 at Edgbaston, when Australia lost by two runs, and also failed with a 20 in his first dig at Old Trafford.
In the second innings, Australia had to bat out day five for a draw. Martyn had started to look comfortable with Ricky Ponting, but just after lunch he inside-edged a Steve Harmison delivery onto his pad and was given out LBW for 19 by umpire Steve Bucknor. It took a masterful 156 by Ponting to save the match, along with a last wicket partnership of Brett Lee and Glenn McGrath blocking out 24 balls.
In Martyn's very next innings at Trent Bridge, he suffered another shocker, this time at the hands of Aleem Dar. A top order collapse of three wickets for two runs in 11 balls was capped off when Martyn was given out LBW for one by Dar, once again after inside-edging a ball onto his pad, this time from Matthew Hoggard.
Australia were forced to follow-on and in his second chance at the crease, it was evident Martyn's brain was scrambled. Gary Pratt has become a legend in England as the substitute fielder who swooped in from cover to run out Ponting for 48 when the captain was in sublime touch. The forgotten part of the story though is that it was Martyn on strike who called for a panicky single that was never there and resulted in Ponting going back to the pavilion, shouting obscenities towards Duncan Fletcher along the way. Predictably, Martyn followed Ponting just six runs later, caught behind off Andrew Flintoff for 13. Australia's last hope in the innings was dashed when Simon Katich, another casualty not long after The Ashes, was given out LBW by Dar for 59 to a ball from Harmison that was not only going over the top of the stumps, but pitched comfortably outside leg stump. Australia went on to lose dramatically by three wickets after Shane Warne nearly worked his magic.
In the final Test at The Oval, Australia built a solid platform in their first innings with Justin Langer and Matthew Hayden both scoring centuries. However, bad light played a big part in the match. Hayden and Martyn were at the crease at the end of day three when light was offered to close play at 2 for 277. Even though conditions were murky at the start of day four, with only two days left Australia could not afford to leave the field again. Two overs into the day, Martyn fell to Flintoff playing a half-hearted pull to square leg for 10 and his fate was sealed. The rest of the Australians struggled in bad light to play Flintoff and the rest of the England pace attack as they lost their last eight wickets for 86 runs. England went on to draw the match and take the series thanks to Pietersen's second innings coming-of-age performance.
Martyn missed the entire Australian summer that followed. He was bizarrely recalled for the 2006 tour of South Africa at the expense of Brad Hodge, who was two tests removed from an unbeaten double-century in Perth against South Africa. Martyn scored a valuable second innings century in the third and final Test at the Wanderers to help lead Australia to victory by two wickets. But that was his final innings of note and he played only three more tests. Martyn signed off for good abruptly after the famous victory at Adelaide in the second Test of The Ashes whitewash return series in Australia.
The shoe was on the other foot for a career-altering umpiring blunder against England at that match in Adelaide. Andrew Strauss' confidence-sapping 2006-07 tour of Australia was truly set in motion with his second innings dismissal on the morning of day five. Bucknor's decision to give Strauss out caught by Michael Hussey at bat-pad off Warne for 34, even though Strauss' bat missed the ball by a good margin, was the catalyst for a colossal capitulation by England. The current England captain's form slump continued well into the following English summer as he went 25 innings without scoring a century before he was dropped for the tour of Sri Lanka.
With all things being equal, Australia and England should both be clamoring for the review system to be installed for The Ashes. It is puzzling to try and understand why the ICC won't have it in place before then. Even though The Ashes is still eight weeks away, ICC chief executive Haroon Lorgat said in his statement on Tuesday that the measure needs approval by the ICC executive committee at their weeklong conference from June 22-26.
It's not as if this is the first time the review system will be used. According to the ICC, the system has been used in trials for nine months. They wouldn't be starting from scratch if they wanted to apply it at the first Test in Cardiff beginning on July 8.
But for some reason, the system will be instituted by a "phased roll-out" beginning in October. "The time ahead of that date will allow us to firm up the playing conditions, technical specifications and protocols, ensure additional training for match officials and further brief the players so that the process can be successfully implemented," said Lorgat. That statement is pure nonsense.
It's hard to see how the playing conditions have anything to do with replay cameras. Good pitch or bad pitch, the cameras record the action all the same. There is not a rain camera or a sun camera, a Lord's camera vs. an MCG camera, just a camera. The regular cameras, along with Hot Spot and Hawkeye, work in all conditions, provided the power cord is plugged into an outlet. They had a slight problem with that when Australia visited South Africa recently, which sent Ponting into a fit of rage, but chances are it won't happen again.
"Technical specifications and protocols"? Well that seems to be ICC speak for borrowing John Buchanan's super computer to figure out that a team should be allowed two unsuccessful challenges per innings. The slightly trickier question is how long should it take for the batsman or the fielding side to signal that they want to use a referral? Common sense would dictate that a batsman given out should decide before he leaves the wicket and should have the option of consulting his batting partner, who might have a better view from the opposite end. The fielding side would have to decide before the bowler gets back to the top of his mark for the next ball. In theory, either scenario would take no longer than 30 seconds, but the trials have shown that both sides usually have a quick trigger and know immediately whether or not to go ask for the third umpire. The only other necessary "protocol" is designating the captain as the player on the fielding side with the sole authority to ask for the referral. That way, excitable characters such as Monty Panesar don't wind up burning both of their team's referrals just for kicks.
The match officials don't need any additional training and the players need no briefing. It's quite simple for the umpires: adopt the NFL's replay system rule. There must be indisputable visual evidence to overturn a decision. If the third umpire says there isn't, the ruling on the field stands. The majority of decisions the referral system is intended to fix are the obvious ones, such as the ones that devastated Martyn and Strauss, not 50/50 LBW shouts. The players don't need to be briefed on anything. For them the review system is straightforward. If they think they've been wrongly given out when batting, they'll challenge the decision. If the captain thinks he's gotten someone out in the field and it was given not out, he'll signal for the referral as well. There's nothing else for them to know.
While both England and Australia sort out who will be their new-ball attack for The Ashes, the ICC is attacking the game with more red tape. Instead of making a statement of positive intent on Test cricket's biggest stage, the ICC is acting timidly on an issue that has been on the table far too long. Referring to the players, Lorgat said, "They accept the fundamental thing that we want to get decisions right." By waiting until after The Ashes to install the review system, the ICC has gotten this decision very wrong.