On DRS and umpiring

Generally speaking, the umpires these days do an extraordinarily difficult job extraordinarily well. Time and again Hawk Eye and super-slow-mo replays show that, incredibly, their split-second decision was dead right. This wasn’t always the case. I remember sitting with pints of bitter in the Queen’s Head in Gosport watching  an Eng-SA Test in which Paul Collingwood was given out to one that pitched about two feet outside leg. The poor lad was almost in tears at the rank injustice of it. There was no DRS then of course but no special gadgetry was necessary for that call, which the very first replay revealed to be a dreadful howler. I don’t recall having seen a shocker like that in recent years. When they do get it wrong, DRS more often than not ensures that in the end the right decision is taken.

Might it be the case, I wonder, that umpiring standards have improved to the point where DRS is no longer necessary? DRS has been good for umpires. It’s given them – and everyone else – the chance to see just how good they are. Scrapping DRS would simplify things greatly and contribute to keeping the game moving (of which more in another post). It would also be a healthy reminder that cricket is played and umpired by men and women, not by machines. But it ain’t gonna happen. Can you imagine Sky throwing out all their nice expensive toys?

DRS is already pretty damn good. And it will get better – we shouldn’t forget that. Indian insistence that the system must be 100% reliable before they’ll accept it is clearly stupid and/or disingenuous to say the least. But the technology will get quicker and more accurate, Snicko will be available as quickly as Hot Spot now is, probably within two or three years. Moore’s law rules, OK? Nonetheless, however good it is, DRS is only a tool, and as with all tools what counts is how you use it.

As things stand, the laws covering the use of DRS include a strong built-in bias in favour of the standing umpire: the third umpire can only overturn the on-field call if he finds clear evidence for doing so. This is understandable because when DRS was introduced no one wanted to upset the umpires. As far as lbw decisions are concerned, the rules were well thought out and they work well in cases where there is clearly no bat involved. The umpire is allowed to get the very close calls marginally wrong and the “half of the ball” rule gives him the benefit of the doubt. Fair enough. The system works less well in cases where the umpire has to decide whether there was an edge or not, and much of the recent polemic has arisen from a small handful of cases where the third umpire, applying the letter of the law, has handed down a decision which appeared to defy common sense.

This situation is not good for the game and it could be avoided by a small but significant change in the rules: the third umpire should be asked quite simply to “review the on-field call”. To be sure, this would effectively remove the bias in favour of the standing umpire in certain cases; but I’m pretty sure the umpires would not mind because their main concern is that, in the end, the right decision should be taken.

The second change I would advocate is equally simple: if the third umpire cannot reach a decision within a certain time (say a minute or two) the benefit of the doubt should go to the batsman. End of story, move on.

Incidentally, it does seem to me fairly obvious that there ought not to be any stickers or whatever anywhere on the bat. Hot Spot would then be measuring the heat generated by ball on wood in all cases: be it an edge or a fine glance off the face. Sponsors will just have to print their stuff on the bat.

Meanwhile, the fifth and final Test gets underway on Wednesday and I hope the commentators will get off Tony Hill’s back. OK so he’s got a couple wrong, but umpires too are entitled to an off day. And DRS is there to help – not to condemn.

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