The Roar
The Roar

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Cricket's rise of technology and loss of theatre

We have all had that great session in the nets where we felt almost unplayable. AFP PHOTO / ALEXANDER JOE
Roar Guru
31st March, 2014
25

The scene is Boxing Day, 1981. The crowd is overflowing at the old MCG, and the atmosphere is at fever pitch.

Earlier, the crowd saw Kim Hughes play one of the all-time great innings – a lone hand against the fearsome pace quartet of Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Colin Croft and Joel Garner.

Somehow he survived a succession of short-pitched balls aimed at wounding both his body and confidence. A magnificent hundred has been his reward, carved out on a dodgy pitch, damp and laden with uneven bounce.

Hughes scored 102 out of 191 runs before Australia was dismissed, and he left the field undefeated.

Now it is Australia’s turn to bowl. And they, too, have fast bowlers. One of them, Terry Alderman, has already removed opener Faoud Bacchus, before his partner, Dennis Lillee, brought the crowd alive with two quick wickets, having Desmond Haynes caught at slip courtesy of a fine catch by Allan Border, and then accounting for nightwatchman Croft, leg before wicket.

The crowd roars “Lillee, Lillee, Lillee,” as the great man steams in to bowl the last ball of the day to Viv Richards, undoubtedly the pre-eminent batsman in the world on this day of 1981.

The waiting spectators can sense something special. Surely a day like this, which has already delivered one of the all-time emotional experiences of Test cricket, cannot depart the scene without one last twist.

We all know what happens next.

Lillee bowls, the bat of Richards flashes and the crowd erupts. Richards has inside-edged it onto the stumps and he is bowled! Pandemonium!

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Lillee explodes, as do his teammates, and they make to run off the MCG, arms pumping the air. The crowd are in frenzied delight! What theatre! What a moment!

But the umpire asks Richards to wait. He sees Lillee’s foot has landed awfully close to the line. He may well have bowled a no-ball. And so the players wait in a circle off the pitch, and Richards chews his gum some more, halfway on and halfway off the field.

The replay flashes up and it is indeed very close. So the MCG pauses for another minute, while the umpire investigates some more footage. A slow-mo angle is called for, focusing on the foot. It seems as though Lillee is safe, a fraction of the boot has landed behind the line.

Finally, the red ‘Out’ sign flashes up, the crowd give an ironic cheer to commemorate what has already been confirmed, Richards finishes his disappointed walk off the field, and the Australians, now thoroughly tired and the adrenalin having dissipated, amble off as a group.

A seminal moment from cricket’s past, where a great deed was done on the field, and we shove the intrusive, surgical scalpel of technology into a situation where it never existed before and show how it might have panned out.

One of the great joys of cricket has been the spontaneous joy it offers – from a game which can meander at times, you suddenly find yourself gripped with the realisation of the careful plan a bowler has been silently plotting, as it is revealed in a sudden dismissal.

I don’t think this is ever more sudden, more catastrophic than when a batsman finds himself bowled – it is wholly unexpected, save when Chris Martin took guard, and the noise itself is the stuff of nightmares for the man on strike. Like nothing else, the fall of a wicket when a batsman is bowled sparks the crowd into insane life.

But so often these days, the sense of occasion is sullied by that awful wait as the umpire goes upstairs to check the front foot. So many of Mitchell Johnson’s wickets in Adelaide recently were subject to this cruel process of quarantine – the fielders hanging in a huddle, sipping drinks, eyes up at the screen, waiting patiently for the replays to come up. Eventually the right decision was made, and the crowd got to cheer, but so much of the momentum and the atmosphere ebbed away in the meantime.

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Witness also Peter Siddle’s epic hat-trick at the Gabba in 2010 – not for him the spontaneous joy of Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath in 1994 or 2000. No, he had to wait while Stuart Broad reviewed the lbw shout before he could finally celebrate.

Whether it be front-foot checks or player-initiated reviews, technology has irredeemably changed our game. But I’m not arguing to put the genie back in the bottle. Far from it.

Technology is here to stay. It is an inevitability. Once viewers at home found themselves better equipped than the umpires to make the decisions, technology had to find itself inserted into the decision-making process.

But it’s important not to lose sight of what made cricket a great game to begin with. It is a game, as I said earlier, that can meander. In order to survive, it needs its moments of rare theatre, those moments that people remember. The game needs to flow, from one stirring chapter to the next.

Technology, with its focused, robotic eye, zeroing in on every flaw, every discrepancy, is an emotionless, soulless beast, seeking only certainty, and not accepting any sign of human emotion or excitement.

One hopes that those in charge of cricket manage to strike a balancing act. Currently, in some instances, cricket exists to show off the technology – broadcasters love to impress their viewers with multiple slow-mo camera angles, accompanied by heat signatures and a graph showing sound registers as a ball whizzes past the bat. Now, all of that has become part of the decision-making process.

Cricket, at least at the highest level, has been reduced to a game of forensic science, where every appeal sees the cameras lay out the virtual yellow crime-scene tape around the pitch and conduct a slow painful process of deduction.

Eventually a verdict is reached and there are cheers, but for most, the interest has moved on. The occasion has passed. The celebrations from the crowd and viewers are no longer spontaneous and heartfelt, but forced and obligated.

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Something atmospheric, something theatrical and joyful, has been lost forever from our game.

It is a great pity.