by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (July 26th 2013 and modified on May 27th 2014)
There are only twelve élite umpires now and eight of them are ineligible for the Ashes series. That’s ten Test Matches to be officiated between the four remaining umpires. Put simply the mathematics and logistics of this simply don’t add up. Umpires are human and therefore fallible. It stands to reason that if only a few of them are available they will be more prone to making mistakes. The current system also begs the question of why two thirds of the élite group come from England or Australia – the reason they are ineligible – and what is being done to resolve the problem?
Simon Taufel had a distinguished 22-year career as an umpire. He is now the International Cricket Council’s High Performance Manager for Umpires. But he is Australian, begging another question. If the eight élite umpires from either England or Australia cannot officiate because they come from one or other of the competing countries, how can it be justified for Taufel to manage the performance of an Australian umpire?
Among the matches that he umpired was the unfinished match between Pakistan and Sri Lanka in 2009 when terrorists attacked the Sri Lanka team’s bus. Some felt the umpires were left to fend for themselves. “That day did change me personally”, Taufel said last year. “I learnt a lot on that day and it helped me focus on the priorities of my life”.
International cricket has not returned to Pakistan since that match in Lahore despite the impassioned pleas of then captain Younis Khan and also Misbah ul-Haq. It has had a terrible effect on Pakistani cricket, both for players and the cricket-loving nation.
Taufel recently delivered the MCC’s Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey Lecture. It was a thought-provoking talk. “The investment by television companies in extra cameras, high-speed frame rates, computer software programs and military infra-red technology, plus high definition broadcasting has certainly given the spectator and participants a lot more information – there is no doubt we now have a lot more ‘arm chair’ experts in cricket”! Taufel said.
The scrutiny is intense and errors are amplified in a way previous umpires never had to face. “Today, everyone umpires the game by watching television”, Taufel continued. “The invasive nature of this broadcasting has a double edge to it – it does put more pressure on players and umpires. Not too much now happens on a cricket field that is not captured by a camera, a microphone or piece of technology. This has the ability to bring out the best in the game and also the worst”.
It also highlights umpiring errors with the consequence of causing erosion of confidence in the umpires. Before replays from every angle decisions, including errors were accepted. It was perhaps a more sporting era where batsmen were expected to walk if they got an edge, for example, especially one as blatant as the one Stuart Broad got to Michael Clarke in the first Test Match.
Technology and the Corridor of Absurdity
The Decision Review System (DRS) was established to eliminate howlers from the game. For some it’s a skill – judging when and how to use challenges, as two unsuccessful reviews mean that you cannot make any further challenges even if there is a blatant error by the umpire. While there needs to be some control to deter frivolous challenges, they can be lost on umpire’s call.
This allows a corridor of absurdity where the review shows that the umpire’s decision was actually incorrect, but because it was within the umpire’s discretion to have got it wrong a challenge is lost, which can lead to a wrong decision later being subject to review. It seems unfair that challenges are lost on umpire’s call. A potentially fairer result would be to be uphold the umpire’s original decision, but not cost the reviewing team a challenge, or get rid of umpire’s call altogether.
The Australians plainly hadn’t mastered how to use DRS well, but Aleem Dar’s failure to spot the clearest of contacts was just such a howler that DRS was designed to prevent. His umpiring partner failed to help him out and Broad brazenly stood his ground, taking advantage of a glaring howler. To some Broad was entitled to stand his ground – for others it breached the spirit of the game – In short, was cheating.
Australia had wasted their reviews, so they were powerless to challenge an appalling decision by an élite level umpire. Broad stayed and took advantage, perhaps changing the outcome of the Test Match. Clarke graciously accepted defeat, but such decisions have no place in sport. Errors are one thing but glaring howlers are hard to take. Everyone wants the correct decision to be made. In this case it plainly wasn’t and under the current system, there was nothing that could be done to correct it. Doesn’t that defeat the very point of DRS?
“Every movement of the player is under the microscope (on and off the field) and every movement of the umpire is also under intense scrutiny”, Taufel said. “There is at least one camera on the umpire all the time, every ball, watching his every move and facial expression, waiting to capture his decision for all to see (and be replayed as many times as the director sees fit)”.
It should be pointed out that Dar gave a brilliant decision on Jonathan Trott in that match, which the technology got wrong as it wasn’t switched on – he doesn’t get enough credit for that – but the Broad decision will be replayed many times especially in Dar’s head. The howler wasn’t corrected. There must be a better way.