A Couple Of Questions About DRS

If you want to understand DRS — or anything about cricket, really — you need to read Kartikeya Date’s tour de force on the subject. Date is concerned with two elements of the umpire review process, both equally problematic: the accuracy of the ball-tracking technology, but also the “communications protocol,” that is, how players and umpires move through appeal + replay review + decision.

As most readers know, I’d be perfectly happy if DRS were hit on the back of the head, tied to a concrete slab and dropped in the New York harbor. I’ve never been a fan, mostly because bad umpire decisions don’t particularly anger me. I see umpire errors as a crucial part of the game, which, in my view, is the last truly anti-modern athletic activity around (other than, maybe, archery?). The idea here is that cricket is a game of fates; humans struggle valiantly against chance and luck, and when they succeed, they should know that their ability could easily have been outmatched by factors beyond their control (the weather, for example).

So I largely agree with Date’s larger point — DRS is a problem — but I disagree with how he gets there. He makes a big deal about the new system not giving the benefit of doubt to batsmen; the third umpire’s reviews basically try to see if there’s any evidence to overturn the on-field umpire, so he gets the benefit of the doubt, not the batsman. I’m not that concerned; I view the cricket umpire as an acceptable tyrant. There’s a long tradition in cricket of protecting the umpire and giving him all sorts of authority that other sports, particularly American ones, would find daft — or at least outmoded.

Which is why I don’t agree with solutions Date has flirted with — basically, either allowing third umpires to step in and review bad decisions automatically, or allowing on-field umpires to check particular aspects of decisions (for LBW, e.g.: Did he nick that ball? Did he get outside the line?). I don’t like this because we’ll end up where run-outs are, with almost every decision reviewed for no apparent reason. (The logic will be: If I don’t review and get this wrong, I’ll look daft; so let me just review and get it over with.) The on-field umpire will turn into a rubber stamp, and we’ll lose a lot of the old game’s flavor.

And for what? What is all the fuss about? As Date notes, a strong majority of player reviews have failed. The big issue seems to be adjudicating LBWs, but LBWs are — and always will be — a really hard rule to enforce. You know how commentators say, “X umpire doesn’t like giving LBWs, but Y umpire, he’s trigger happy”? Some people see that as umpires running amok, but I see it as a knowing recognition that the LBW rule is a mysterious beast, and tackling it requires a level of subjectivity and ideology that DRS can’t summon.

If we have to make a deal with the devil, I propose: Allow Only One Review. That’s it. That would force players not to review marginal decisions, and instead only appeal the howlers. That was, as Date nicely notes, the original point of DRS — to find the obviously bad decisions that the television sees, but the umpires don’t.

3 thoughts on “A Couple Of Questions About DRS

  1. chrisps says:

    This puts me in mind of Mike Marqusee, in particular your phrase: ‘last truly anti-modern athletic activity’. If you’re not familiar with his writing, do check it out.

    By recommending one review only, do you mean one unsuccessful review? If not, a second howler in an innings would go uncorrected.

    I’ll offer a thought, probably not original, and not really a solution as it complicates matters, which noone wants. What would a team be prepared to pay in terms of runs deducted from their innings for an unsuccessful review? The answer is that it would change match-by-match, innings-by-innings, moment-by-moment, which would make it an unworkable process, unless we want cricket to evolve into some sort of outdoor poker game. Nonetheless the idea of the team calling for a review having to offer up some collateral, a surety, for the privilege of challenging the umpire’s decision, and forfeiting it if unsuccessful, satisfies me.

    It’s a capitalist’s solution, so I guess Marqusee wouldn’t approve.

    • duckingbeamers says:

      Thanks for the recommendation, chrisps. Yes, I meant one unsuccessful review; good catch.

      I’m intrigued by your idea; Kartikeya suggests something similar — a batsman can only review if he can give a sufficient reason (though I think what counts as “sufficient” would land us in even more troubled waters). But the idea of a team incurring a penalty in the event their review fails isn’t a bad one.

      The question is, What kind of penalty? Set it too high, and no one will review; set it too low, and it won’t be seen as a disincentive.

  2. Russ says:

    I don’t disagree with any aspect of this. But I’ll add a question: why have any reviews at all?

    Perhaps it is my technological background, but I look at the process as unnecessarily clumsy and pointless. Deferring to television, because television was demonstrating superiority, instead of actually using the technology to enhance the decision making. It has reached the heights of absurdity with the no-ball checking. The “technology” being used – a side-on camera and walkie-talkie – have been available for 20+ years.

    There is no particular reason why the reliable parts of the technology couldn’t be transmitted to the central umpire on demand, within the 1/2 second they have to make their decision. The machine could tell them umpire: this (eg. pitching) is definitely so, and this (eg. height) is uncertain, and the umpire can use their judgement within the bounds of uncertainty. There is a school of thought that too much technology might turn umpires into hat-stands. I don’t think it will, because so much is uncertain. But even if it did, at the moment we are turning umpires into hat stands who we routinely embarrass and undermine. Which can’t possibly improve their decisions.

    If in a decade’s time cricket still uses a review system it is a great failure of innovation.

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