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By Suresh Menon
When the Laws of cricket were first codified in 1744, there was no ‘leg before’ dismissal. In the revised Laws thirty years later, the striker was deemed out if ‘by design’ he prevented the ball from hitting his wicket. There was then the problem of judging intent, and it wasn’t until 1795 that a leg before dismissal was first recorded. By then the ‘design’ element had been replaced by the condition: ‘the ball must be delivered in a straight line to the wicket.’ In 1839, the umpire’s judgment about whether the ball ‘would have hit the wicket’ became a crucial element in the decision. It was almost another century before a ball pitched outside the off stump could claim an lbw provided it satisfied the other conditions.
The point about the quick history lesson is the time it took the authorities to arrive at the current version of Law 36, dealing with the leg before, although ‘leg’ is merely a convenience; it could be head or any other part of the body.
All laws in sport are a mixture of the logical and the arbitrary. It is logical to have a leg before law for obvious reasons, but to state that the batsman is not out if the ball first strikes the bat is arbitrary. That’s just the way it is.
Over the years the lbw has probably led to more controversies than any other mode of dismissal; it called into question the umpire’s judgement about the state of the wicket, the angle of the delivery and a predictive element – did the ball swing or spin or straighten enough and so on.
As decision-making in the Ashes series gets into a tangle every now and then, the instinct is to call for the banning of the DRS till it sorts itself out. The man who developed Hotspot has admitted that silicone tapes on bats can fool the system.
But the mistake India then and others now make opposing the DRS is in looking for perfection at this early stage of its evolution. The DRS is still a useful tool that umpires have. Thanks to it, a greater percentage of decisions are turning out right, and that has to be the aim of all decision-making. Sometimes those operating its elements have made mistakes, at other times the umpire off the field has goofed up. Such things happen, but these cannot detract from the importance of DRS. Even if it helps in getting an extra one percent of the results right, that is still significant.
Jagmohan Dalmiya who was quoted recently as saying, “They couldn’t fix the Duckworth-Lewis problem in 15 years, what guarantee do we have about an error-free DRS?” can be answered in one of two ways. Duckworth-Lewis and DRS are both systems which are better than the existing ones at the moment. The aim is to be as fair as possible, which Duckworth-Lewis manages to do (not understanding a system is not reason enough to ban it), and the DRS does. The technology is not error-free, but then nothing is in sport. And it may need a better-educated handling or greater choices for the players and umpires (or fewer, with the machine deciding everything), but these are decisions that need to be made by the administrators of the game.
The other response to Mr Dalmiya is that we have had the ICC and the BCCI with us for decades now. Neither is error-free, and we have been trying to fix them for years. Yet that is not reason enough to abandon them altogether or wait till they are perfect before we start playing international cricket.
The lbw law led to some batsmen using the pads cleverly both to score runs and defend their wickets. Arthur Shrewsbury, a contemporary of W G Grace was one such. When we complain of today’s players using the DRS to their advantage, it is useful to remember that playing strictly within the letter of the law is an old custom and not just in sport. Rule-makers have to remain one step ahead – and the rest of us must realize with every step just how far we have come. It is the natural order of things.