I’m glad the 2009 Ashes will not feature absurd third umpire-delays or gratuitous appeals no one thinks will be sustained. The problem of reconciling technology with tradition, however, refuses to go away in cricket and I wanted to take a brief stab at it here.
First, a primer on third umpire referrals. Regular readers know I’m a traditionalist when it comes to this problem. I don’t think technology is an elixir that will immediately remove all erroneous umpire decisions and, quite frankly, even it were, I still wouldn’t support its use because I like the fallible-but-sovereign umpire figure. Yes, umpires change the course of the game, but while some think that’s unfair, I believe it’s in line with the spirit of cricket, which relies far more on chance and luck than other games (as Ashis Nandy argues in his brilliant book, The Tao of Cricket).
But compromises must be made, if only to avoid more Sydney affairs and irate fans. The first one went like this: allow each team a certain number of appeals (as in tennis), and see where we go from there. So far, the system hasn’t been ideal: too many batsmen appealed stupidly (or did not appeal at all); the standard set for a successful review — beyond any doubt the on-field umpire wrongly decided — was too stringent; referrals took too long; third umpires sometimes made wrong decisions despite overwhelming evidence, and finally, replays did not always yield dispositive evidence.
Now, I look at that list and I think we’ve clearly overestimated how useful technology can be, even though we can all recall decisions that technology has clearly proven wrong (with Snick-O or slow, slow replay). I strongly believe those moments are decidedly in the minority (as they are in tennis also, incidentally). Others, however, err on technology’s side.
Let’s indulge possible ideas:
1. Remove the referrals altogether, and simply allow umpires to ask to review a specific factor in a pending decision (this is what Steve Bucknor and Will (of The Corridor) proposed). So, an LBW appeal is made, but an umpire isn’t exactly certain about where the ball pitched. He asks. He’s told. End of (mercifully quick) story.
What’s the drawback? Well, umpires may very well call for a review too often (as many do now with run-outs). That would needlessly ruin the game’s rhythm (already considered too slow for the modern age), as well as further reduce the onfield umpire’s relevance.
2. Let the third umpire step in when s/he sees fit. A bit radical, for sure: after a decision has been made, the third umpire may want to step in, pause the game and review. It’s a bit, well, oolta-phoolta, as the Hindi would have it, but it may a) give the third umpire more work to do and b) add more tension and twists to the game.
3. A compromise on the compromise: keep the current structure, but tinker. This is probably what will happen in the game. The third umpire will use Snick-O or HotSpot; a time limit on the review should be put in place; players meanwhile will hopefully get hip to the whole thing and not be stupid enough to ask for LBW referrals unless they’re absolutely certain the ball pitched outside leg or hit their bats.
Say what you want about the current system, but for all its faults, it accords with general legal procedure. First, a question is brought to the court (an appeal is made). Then, the judge decides (not-out or out). Finally, the aggrieved party has the right to seek redress in a higher court (a referral). Unfortunately, just as the law can be tedious, slow and drawn-out, so is the present structure.
I’m sure there are other ideas — these are all off the top of my head (or others) — and I’d love to hear them. Let me just say again: in my ideal solution, we’d leave things as simple as possible and (therefore) with as little technology involved as well. I get just as angry as the next fan when an umpire makes a bad decision, but through the years, I’ve come to like that strange emotion when a replay reveals an error. It’s a strange mix of anger (stupid umpire!), self-pity (why my team?), comfort (now we can blame the decision, not the team), delusion (the million what-ifs and alternate realities) and, eventually, joy. What a game!