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.