In Defense Of Billy Bowden and Ian Gould

Unbelievable Test match. Well worth my decision to stay up past 4 a.m. and risk disaster at work tomorrow. But I want to say a word or two about the umpires in this Test, who all sides agree were absolutely atrocious. Michael Hussey received a shocker from Ian Gould; Billy Bowden seemed to have it out for India (and Ishant Sharma and Gambhir in particular), until he gave Ohja a shocking reprieve.

The decisions elicited two responses online: 1) India really, really needs to implement the UDRS and allow players to review decisions. 2) Cricket umpires are really, really terrible. Let’s focus on the first one: I understand the impulse, and nearly fell to it during the game, but now I reject it. Didn’t this game precisely show the dramatic effect umpires can have in cricket? Didn’t those errors introduce much-needed plot twists and turns?

I understand people would rather not let games that match skill and talent fall on error. And it’s a noble thing to seek 100 percent accuracy (which I believe is still impossible with current technology). But that’s just not what cricket is about. I’ve long argued that what makes cricket exceptional is its acknowledgement of chance and fate, and the larger limits of human agency. The umpire is a part of this theme; he is a fallible tragic figure whose decisions sway results, not out of malice (well, not usually), but because humans are fallible. Just as we don’t allow substitutes (Laxman forced to bat with a bad back), just as accept the weather’s turns and the pitch’s conditions, we accept the umpire.

This may not sound satisfying to most people. But ask yourself this: didn’t something in you relish the moment when all eyes turned to Bowden after the Ohja LBW appeal? You saw the ball hit the batsman’s stumps and it looked out — admit it! — but there was still one more thing left to consider: fate.

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9 thoughts on “In Defense Of Billy Bowden and Ian Gould

  1. Howe_zat says:

    Sorry, I still don’t accept “because that’s how cricket is” as a valid argument for keeping something in cricket.

    People hate both winning and losing off bad decisions. The UDRS isn’t perfect but it will cut out the majority of the bad calls.

    I don’t want the umpires to be part of the cricket, they are there to be impartial and, at their best, unnoticeable. It needs to be about the players, and them only.

    Every time I read a report that mentions a bad decision I feel like it sullies the whole experience.

    • duckingbeamers says:

      I guess we just disagree, Howe Zat. When I read of bad decisions, I go through the usual motions — anger, disappointment, frustration — but then, on further reflection, I kind of enjoy it (it also adds another dimension for fans, who can have endlessly enjoyable discussions on the merits of umpires).

      • duckingbeamers says:

        Just one more thing: I think you look at umpires as an outside element in the game. So when their actions affect the game, it seems unfair. But cricket allows for fate and chance — the weather, pitch conditions, the shape of the ball — and the umpire’s role fits squarely into it.

  2. Lou says:

    Actually, they were both quite brilliant till the last two days. There were some very close decisions over day 1,2, 3 that they got right.

    Pressure gets to everyone and the game was ‘on’ every day so it must hvae been bloody hard for all concerned not to be completley knackered by the beginning of day 5.

    Laxman sitting on his arse a lot of the time while India were in the field really played dividends. Same with Sharma.

    Laxman eats Aus entrails for breakfast. You just know it.

  3. Krish says:

    Cricket is “exceptional because of chance and fate”? And that includes umpire errors. What about soccer then? Remember the goal “over the line” controversy. All those disputed offside calls and goals? Including the USA goal where the referee could not even explain why he decided to disallow it. So is soccer more exceptional?

    Do we make cricket more exceptional maybe by getting rid of the TV replays for runouts and boundary calls?

    As the first commentator said, winning or losing by bad decisions are both distasteful. I have no problem with the chance and fate introduced by nature (the pitch, weather, etc.), but not by blind, incompetent officials.

  4. duckingbeamers says:

    Krish, thanks for the comment. While umpire errors do occur in soccer, they’re not part of a theme in the game that allows for chance. They are more exceptions.

    And the errors are much, much more glaring — whereas it is genuinely difficult to predict the path of a ball thrown at 90 mph, it’s not so difficult to see whether a ball hit one side of a line or not. (Which is why I’m fine with replays for runouts and boundary calls.)

    So, two points: 1) Ease up on the “blind, incompetent officials.” It’s really not that easy in cricket for umpires. And 2) Let me throw back your slippery slope back: if we allow technology in all situations, what’s the point of an umpire?

  5. Krish says:

    Let us try to find the place where the slipping slope curves back upwards 🙂

    To be honest, I don’t have a problem with marginal calls, including in run outs. LBWs decided on 1-2 inch margins – that is perhaps overdoing it and really unnecessary.

    On the other hand, when you have decisions that are evidently wrong to everyone on the field, but not to the umpire, and it happens at a critical juncture in the match, that is a big problem.

    The UDRS helps a lot in this regard. Do you KNOW that the decision was wrong? Do you THINK that the decision was wrong and it is going to AFFECT you in a BIG WAY? If so, appeal against the decision.

    3 chances is good. If the umpire is really bad, you are saved via this mechanism. Otherwise, you are good anyways.

  6. Krish says:

    Sorry, “slippery” slope. Argh. I am also blind.

    • duckingbeamers says:

      Actually, I’m growing more partial to the UDRS, especially the latest incarnations used in England (where decisions are quick, easy to review and understandable).

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