Category Archives: Umpires

Causality and Umpire Errors

I used to read a lot of social science research in my previous life, and one of the most pressing issues in this “soft” science (compared to, say, physics) is whether we are able to identify causality when dealing with such complex and varied human patterns. During a presentation, one sociologist put slide after slide showing very persuasive evidence linking a factor to rising inequality, but then showed a slide that said, simply: “Sigh…causality.” No matter what she had showed us, she noted, there were many, many caveats.

I bring this all up to offer some amount of comfort to those Bangladeshi fans who are convinced, but for a dodgy no-ball call, they would have plucked their way into the semifinals. I’ve written before about the “linear fallacy” in cricket commentary, wherein people assume that if a certain wicket had/had not fallen at a specific time, the end result would have changed. But it is entirely possible that had Sharma been given out on that delivery, other players would reacted differently. Who knows? Dhoni, for example, would have had more time at the crease, and he may have added more to the scorecard than six runs. Or maybe India’s bowlers would have been comfortable defending 270. We’ve seen plenty of turnarounds and surprises in cricket to know that a good innings here or a bad umpire call there does not, in itself, cause victory or failure.

So, yes, be annoyed that you were not able to see the counterfactual, and that you were denied it by a call that seems only so-so. But do not assume that your life would have been that much different in the counterfactual — we simply do not know. And be comforted, as this Indian fan is, that your team made it as far as it did.

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The DRS Debate Is Starting To Annoy

It’s annoying chiefly because I suspect most Australians aren’t necessarily that angry that DRS isn’t available; they are angry more because one nation (i.e., not theirs) is supposedly being irrational and preventing the technology’s wholesale adoption. Listen carefully, and this theme of the unfair application of power keeps emerging; approximations include: “Can anyone explain the BCCI’s stance?”; “Why can’t Indian fans just stop blindly defending this stupid decision?” and “It’s not right that some Tests have DRS and some don’t!”

These are all valid points, but they are not quite appropriate for the debate over the DRS; they are about a separate argument about how wealth and power is distorting the administration (and future?) of cricket. So, Australian fans perceive an all-powerful board throwing its weight around on an issue; that weight means, occasionally, Indian players get a bad rap; and Australians get to laugh and say, “See? These idiots who are running this game into the ground can’t get anything right! They’re even eating their own!”

Well, I sympathize with this point of view (though the smugness and sanctimony that so many Australian fans exhibit on Twitter on this issue is starting to wear thin). But, again, it seems a bit off: as S. Monga pointed out on Cricinfo recently, the Indian team also benefited from “bad” umpire decisions (the Adelaide Test would have been over a lot quicker if a few LBWs had gone the other way against Vijay and Kohli). In the final tally, the BCCI’s stance on DRS stance may help India; it may hurt — that’s all beside the point.

Which is that there are still legitimate arguments against the DRS in its current form! I won’t go through the lot, but one that has struck me lately is what Dhoni was sort of talking about in last week’s press conference, when he said that players use DRS to test or “justify” the umpire’s decision.Do you know how annoying it is to see a crucial player decide to use his team’s last review because, well, what the hell, maybe technology will save me? There’s a real cost to the fact that the majority of DRS reviews have actually upheld the umpire’s call — they waste time, they undermine the umpire’s authority (who was right in the first place!), and they support this problematic notion that whatever a ball-tracking estimate says is Absolute Truth. When we see a “bad” decision, we go on and on about how terrible umpiring is and how we should allow reviews; then, when we see how stupid players actually are when they use two reviews, we…what, exactly? Simply have to take it as part of the package?

Now, yes, there have been a few howlers lately, and they would have been caught by simple replay. But that’s not an argument for the current DRS system that the BCCI opposes; it’s an argument for an entirely different set of rules. So, Australian fans: go ahead, enjoy your bout of schadenfreude when the next bad decision comes along. But don’t be so sure that the DRS is ultimately the best thing for cricket either.

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The DRS Will Not Give You The Truth

Over at A Cricketing View, Kartikeya has another excellent post on DRS (at this point, the man could put together a 1000-page collection of his writing on the subject). In reviewing yesterday’s Michael Clarke LBW decision, Kartikeya reiterates a conclusion I’ve long supported: that the DRS, far from offering an objective, neutral, “scientific” review, merely offers just another subjective description of reality. The debate over umpire review is not one of Truth (i.e. Machine) v. Non-Truth (i.e. Human Fallibility); it is, and always has been, Sorta Truth v. Sorta Truth. The crisis we face in cricket is trying to decide whether we want to replace one mode of judgement — human observation — for another — computer/video gizmos. There’s no escaping the wormhole, friends.

I just want to add a quick reflection on this Ian Chappell quote (reported by Kartikeya in his post):

“There never has been, nor will there ever be, a case where a 50-50 decision causes animosity on the cricket field. Players are conditioned to accept that one day these decisions will go your way and the next they’ll go against you. What does cause animosity on the field is the absolute howler that can change the course of a match.”

I’d like to suggest that this is not actually true anymore. During Day 4, a couple of Australian batsmen — David Warner and Ed Cowan, I think — behaved as if they were wrongly given out. As they shook their heads while walking back to the pavilion, they seemed to be saying, “If only the BCCI allowed DRS! Oh, the travesty!” By my estimate, however, only Warner could claim that his case was close, but both decisions were eminently reasonable.

Now, maybe this was just two isolated examples of touchy batsmen, but I think the existence of DRS has alarmingly fed this myth among players (and perhaps fans?) that umpires are fallible and that machines are not. That is to say, DRS is starting to eliminate the howler/non-howler distinction; anything marginal or benefit-of-the-doubty is considered an outright injustice. I imagine that as more players come to experience DRS, or a successful umpire review, they will increasingly believe that the umpires must be wrong. Looking at the number of unsuccessful reviews (mostly for LBWs) over the years, I wrote on Twitter  that DRS has revealed either how many cricketers don’t seem to understand the rules of the game, or, more charitably, how many use terribly biased sensory perception to evaluate reality.

In the quest to remove “absolute howlers,” we may have inadvertently destroyed the authority and tradition of the cricket umpire, one of the quirkiest (and I think essential) figures in sport. And for what? Look again at Michael Clarke’s reaction to his dismissal — as Kartikeya writes, he looked ruefully at the pitch, because had the ball not hit a certain spot, it would not have bounced so erratically. Fate and chance conspired against Clarke, but does anyone among us believe it to be unfair? Of course not! Why can’t we treat the umpire who occasionally errs in the same fashion? Why are we willing to forgive landmine pitches, but not extremely competent umpires who mess up now and then?

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.

Why We Care About Umpires’ Feelings

I was surprised by the strong reaction on Twitter to the Munaf/Harbhajan umpire incident. After the Ian Bell and Ashwin ‘Mankad’ controversies, I had come to assume that the “spirit of the game” discourse is largely not accepted among cricket followers anymore; most see it either as a vague imperialist holdover or a conspiracy to benefit batsmen over bowlers. But then, if we don’t care if players are exactly polite to each other, why do we care if they badger umpires? What is the legal difference between, say, appealing en masse to nudge an umpire and arguing vigorously with him to call in for the replay? Was it just that Munaf seemed particularly belligerent, or was it the fact that he questioned the umpire at all?

Of course, I’m happy that Munaf was penalized, but fans shouldn’t put all the blame on his shoulders. What Harbhajan and Munaf did was the culmination of a decades-long trend to undermine the authority of the on-field umpire (mostly to the benefit of the the ‘television umpire’ — i.e., the replay and DRS technology). At one point during the argument, a commentator said that players should just accept that umpires can’t be questioned even when they are wrong; it is, he said, the “human nature of the game.” How quaint. But imagine this scenario: if a player has been dismissed wrongly and the proof is displayed on the stadium replay, why can’t that player argue with the umpire to reverse the decision? (Assume that DRS is not in play because it either isn’t available or reviews have all been used.) Right now, I suspect older fans would say it’s simply wrong to question the umpire; indeed, the very sight of Munaf almost bumping into the umpire caused a visceral reaction of disgust and anger. Will that hold for younger generations, though? Will fans accept the absurdity of forcing players to walk off even when there is proof they are not out?

Which leads to the biggest question of them all: what is the source of the authority of the onfield umpire? If every decision he makes is now only validated/respected after a television replay, why bother with the onfield umpire at all? In the old days, cricket umpires received protection and respect because they were treated like a Hobbesian sovereign. (I’ve made this argument in more detail before here.) Hobbes, you will recall from your college philosophy days, was worried about how rulers could preside in a new era that did not respect the divine right of kings. If everyone had an equal claim to rule (because every human was equal — a radical concept), how could any order be had? Hobbes argued the only way out was for everyone to “give up my right of governing” to the sovereign. It’s the same with cricket: we don’t respect the umpire because he is infallible and all-knowing, but precisely because we know he is human and likely to err. But without an agreement that he alone decides, there would be chaos — in this case, the specter of Munaf and Harbhajan intimidating an umpire.

The weakness here is that this arrangement only works if everyone agrees to this contract. For a long time, it worked; people would more or less accept umpire stupidity because they viewed that as an inherent feature of the game (and, I would say, part of its charm). Now, with television, there is a competing source of legitimacy. The mistake people make is that they assume the television will offer viewers a better replication of reality. As we have seen from a frustrating few years with DRS, that hasn’t completely worked out. But don’t have any illusions about the DRS: it isn’t there to help the onfield umpire; it is there to ultimately undermine and replace him. Sooner or later, the king will fall.


This is stupid:

India will travel to Johannesburg to play a one-off Twenty20 match against South Africa on March 30 at the Wanderers. The match, ESPNcricinfo has understood, was planned well in advance though it comes on the back of lengthy and hectic touring by both teams.

That’s all.

UPDATE: See “You Have Got to be Kidding Me” for more.

The Delight Of Esoteric Cricket Rules

Another cricket match, another controversy over an obscure (and seemingly impenetrable) cricket rule. I’m not going to go into the jurisprudence of handling the ball; instead, I want to pause and allow every cricket blogger (and reader) to acknowledge how much fun these rules controversies have allowed us to have.

I suppose our tendency to revel in arcane laws speaks both to the weakness and attraction of cricket: on the one hand, the complexity of the rules really does turn off entire groups of people; there’s a reason soccer is the most popular sport in the world (i.e., its simplicity). On the other hand, by setting down layers of regulations, cricket forces its fans to pass through rounds of loyalty tests — Do you really like this game? Well, can you explain to me how Law 37 and related addendums affect Law X and Y?  While it may encourage pedantry, complexity also rewards a basic democratic impulse — this is a game of rules and laws, accessible to any fan willing to apply basic logic, knowledge of precedent and the give-and-take of interpretation.

Perhaps the greatest satisfaction from all these rules disputes is knowing that we are the inheritors of a set of traditions and laws handed down to us by centuries of experiments, failures and great athletes. The rulebook of cricket, however indecipherable, is a badge of honor — no doubt of dubious (that is, imperialist) origins, but one I’m happy to wear and mould for the next generation.

A Second Question For Cricket Rules Purists

Alas, my previous attempt to resolve the Mankading dispute failed to change anyone’s minds or bring about world peace. Here’s my second shot:

Let’s do a quick recap. Samir Chopra, a writer I very much respect, said on Twitter that he just doesn’t know what all the fuss is about; his prescription: “run out the bastards” (whether or not he was carrying a pitchfork is still being determined). I have argued that there is at least some room for the “spirit of the game” discourse; as proof of faith, I asked the rules purists if they would have bowled the infamous underarm last ball. Some — @HomerTweets, e.g. — said, yes, and he had no problems with Bodyline either. OK. Others pointed out — very reasonably — that this debate isn’t about rules v. spirit, but bowlers v. batsmen (a bout the latter group seems to keep winning).

So here’s my second question: would you appeal for a batsman’s wicket if he timed out? There was an incident like this recently between India and Australia (unfortunately, I can’t find the exact match report; does anyone else recall the details?). Some wickets fell unexpectedly, and either Tendulkar or Laxman was in the bathroom, which meant more than two minutes passed before anyone emerged from the pavilion. Now, Australia could have appealed for the wicket, but they didn’t. Why? As Kartikeya suggests, the question of empathy proved paramount — how would I feel if I couldn’t start my innings because of this kind of wicket? So imagine that on the way to the pitch, a batsman falls on a banana skin and temporarily incapacitates both himself and the next padded-up player. Would you stick to the rules if this team, scrambling to find a replacement, took more than the timed out rule allots?


A Question For Cricket Rules Purists

Some argue that the R. Ashwin ‘mankading’ incident was much ado about nothing. In case of a dispute, all umpires and players need to do is read the rules and properly enforce them. There should be no reference to any authority outside of the text; the only thing that matter is the words and what a reasonable person can infer about their meaning. [See, “Originalism” for more.] The worry is that the rules will, as Cricinfo put it, “lose out” to the ‘spirit of the game,’ a set of vague, amorphous principles that no one has ever defined.

Compelling. But this interpretive framework fails before one judicial test: “The Underarm Bowling Hypothetical.” Say you are the captain of a fielding side, and your opposition needs to score six off the last ball to tie. Do you, like Greg Chappell did in a similar situation, instruct your bowler to underarm bowl the ball? [Assume that this technique is permitted by the rules.]

If you say ‘yes,’ fine. You’re a dogmatist. (You’re also going to have deal with a large crowd of angry Kiwis, but that’s another matter.) If you at least admit some hesitation before answering, you see the power of the ‘spirit’ doctrine. So quit talking about the rules as if they’re the only factor to consider. There is something outside the text.


Virender Sehwag Is Starting To Annoy Me

Not just because of his bad form. Or because he refuses to adjust his game to a match situation. But because he’s been showing a lot of attitude lately. This is his latest:

It was withdrawn, Sehwag said, “because if we appealed and umpire gave him out, then somebody will criticise that, you know, that was not spirit of the game”. Sehwag was asked if it was not soft to let the batsman off even after the warning. “It’s soft, but that’s the way we are,” he said.

Sehwag is indirectly criticizing both Tendulkar (for talking him out of his appeal) and Dhoni (for letting Ian Bell off in the summer). He’s also being an ass about it — ultimately, as captain, he had the final decision. If he wanted to stand up to Tendulkar, he should have done so.

Just wanted to get that off my chest.