Going by events in the just-concluded Lord’s Test, the implementation of the umpire referral system scheduled for October could not come about a moment too soon. In fact, the system could have been implemented from the Ashes series itself. The authorities have certainly seen the pros and cons of the scheme over the last year that it has been tried out as an experimental measure and have concluded that it is worth trying it out on a permanent basis.
I, for one, have enthusiastically backed the referral system and was more than pleased when the ICC decided to make it a permanent feature of the game. The Umpire Decision Review System (UDRS), as it is being called, will, I am sure, make cricket more error-free and who would not want that?
ICC chief executive, Haroon Lorgat, himself a keen votary of the system, was predictably happy while making the announcement about a month ago. According to Lorgat there was a fair amount of feedback from the players and most of it was positive as they accepted the fundamental thing that decisions should ultimately be got right. The system is being put in place following a year of trial; a period that was assessed by the ICC's cricket committee so no one can say that it has been a rushed decision.
The committee obviously felt that UDRS had a positive effect on the game by reducing the number of incorrect decisions and also cutting down on instances of player dissent. At Lord’s it was clear that Phil Hughes and Mike Hussey were rather unfortunate to have been ruled out, mistakes that would have been righted by the UDRS. The controversy surrounding Hughes' departure for example could have been avoided. Hughes was ruled out to an Andrew Strauss catch in the slips in which fingers, ball and turf were in close proximity to one another. A referral by the batsman would have set up the adjudication process and the third umpire at most would have found the replays to be inconclusive in which case he would have offered the benefit of the doubt to the batsman. Certainly there was an element of doubt about the catch being legitimate.
Indeed the two umpires, Rudi Koertzen and Billy Doctrove, stood accused of double standards. They declined to refer Hughes' dismissal to the third umpire whereas just the day before they sent Nathan Hauritz's claimed catch at mid-on upstairs. Replays of Hauritz's effort were similarly inconclusive whereupon Ravi Bopara was allowed to continue his innings. Later Doctrove ruled Hussey to have edged a delivery from off spinner Graeme Swann to first slip. Replays showed that Hussey's bat had struck the ground, not the ball which spun quite a bit. Had the batsman the right of appeal, the ensuing controversy would almost certainly have been avoided.
If the UDRS is seen not with a jaundiced eye, but with sympathy and understanding, then it is worth pursuing, particularly when it is something from which the game and the players will benefit. The UDRS, during the time it was tried out as an experimental measure, did ruffle feathers as quite a few decisions by the TV umpires led to dissatisfaction among the players. But there were many who welcomed the concept since it was hoped that the technology associated with it would help in eliminating human errors and under the circumstances was a step in the right direction.
There are those who are against the increasing role of technology in cricket especially as they feel it undermines the role of the umpires and turns them into robots. While there is some beef in this argument, overall, the greater use of technology is bound to produce the right results and the sight of a disappointed batsman incorrectly given out returning to the pavilion shaking his head in disbelief and looking back over his shoulder over and over again will hopefully vanish from the cricket field.
Admittedly the system - which gives players the opportunity to request a review by the third umpire of a decision made by the on-field umpire they believed was wrong – did cause controversy notably in the series between India and Sri Lanka last year and again in the Jamaica Test between England and West Indies earlier this year. But as Lorgat said the protocols were clear, perhaps the application was not so good. In the ultimate analysis the new system for all its faults would reduce instances of bad decisions and that has to be good for the game.
The system has also got the green signal from senior umpires. Koertzen himself as well as Daryl Harper are of the view that the system gives everyone a second chance to get appeals answered correctly when umpires may have erred. The two umpires have said that they would be happy if at the end of each day the decisions made are correct and players can enjoy a fair environment in which to compete against each other.
We have seen the referral system – or challenges - tried out at Wimbledon and it has worked really well. There is no reason to believe that it will not work in cricket too. There is no chance of things getting out of hand since the number or referrals are limited. In the long run I am sure it will be hailed as a welcome development.