The conclusion of the Ashes with a two-all result should leave the Australian team, administrators and supporters with a sour taste not dissimilar to that following the 2005, 2009, 2013 and 2015 series.
Cricket is no different from any other sport – two teams play each other based on a set of agreed rules and an outcome is achieved.
The game has individuals assigned to administer the rules fairly, equitably and accurately so that games proceed smoothly.
Ever since cricket first moved into the international spotlight, umpires have been the focus of many a heated debate, with more than a few being accused of bias or being incompetent.
For many decades these issues were largely confined to those thousands who actually saw the game live and those who read about it in the papers or heard it on the wireless.
The advent of television and, more importantly, the instant replay brought a whole new group of armchair critics into play. Instead of maybe 50,000 people having an opinion, millions could now decide whether an umpire got it right or wrong, whether they were biased or incompetent et cetera.
Three more pieces of technology have been introduced since the 1990s. The slow-motion replay, aided by digital TV, allows images to be slowed significantly to appreciate details not obvious at regular speed; the Snickometer and, later, UltraEdge measures whether a delivery has hit the bat; and Hawk-Eye, often referred to as ball tracking, can provide information about the predicted path of a delivery.
All of these technologies came to television to enhance the viewing experience, but they are also seen on the big screens at grounds. Suddenly there were millions of ‘expert’ umpires.
Any decisions an umpire makes is now examined through repeated replays. Good decisions rate perhaps one or two replays, but questionable or incorrect decisions are shown repeatedly. This gives armchair pundits the impression that many or most of the umpires were very poor at their job.
This issue is compounded by the supposed expert commentators adding their negative comments to the images being seen. In the television era the expression ‘benefit of the doubt’ almost ceases to exist, with most of these former players taking sides on whether an umpire is right or wrong.
Interestingly, there are no former umpires questioned about these decisions, certainly not as regular members of broadcasting teams.
The decision review system (DRS), allowing players the opportunity to review an umpire’s decision, was introduced in 2009, but that too has failed to address concerns about umpires.
Batsmen and captains now have to decide whether to challenge a decision, and they often get this wrong, resulting in players wasting reviews or players not being given out because reviews were not used when the technology shows they clearly were out.
The reverse is equally true, especially for catches, where very faint edges may not be picked up or, for catches close to the ground, where it’s not clear if a player has caught the ball before it’s hit the ground.
The process also has the number of reviews capped, so any decisions made after the allowable number of reviews have been exhausted won’t be looked at, which seems to defeat the purpose of being able to use technology to look at questionable decisions.
The obvious question is whether this technology has helped improve the game.
There are four different aspects that should be considered.
The first is the standard of umpiring. The ICC and umpires will point to stats that show for the period 2009 to March 2017 only 26 per cent of on-field decisions were overturned. This implies the umpires got 74 per cent of ‘questionable’ decisions correct but does not take into account those decisions that were not reviewed and subsequently found to be wrong.
Second is the viewing experience. Endless replays of questionable decisions have caused many to become frustrated, even angry, with the game. This might make for good television according to the broadcaster, but it does nothing to help the actual decision-making or people’s enjoyment.
This is coupled with a relatively new phenomenon: the captain’s inability to know when to review and when not to review. The captain and batsmen, now have to take on the role of both player and decision-maker, adding more pressure to their already demanding responsibilities.
The final considering is the actual technology – in its current state it is far from infallible. The Hawk-Eye system, for example, is accurate to within 3.6 millimetres, which sounds like a very small distance, but such a small measurement was the difference between Cameron Bancroft being given not out or continuing at the crease in the second Ashes Test – the technology adjudged him LBW, but the ball only barely hit the bails.
The review system also depends on the broadcaster’s cameras for images of catches et cetera, and often these are inconclusive. DRS umpires have to use what’s available but still come up with 50:50 calls – for example, Marnus Labuschagne’s dismissal at Lord’s.
There’s also player perspective to consider. Virat Kohli is not a fan of the review system and has said as much this year. Players and coaches are often frustrated when they don’t review and find out later that they should have. They’re even more frustrated when decisions that could have been overturned are not because they’ve run out of reviews. Batsmen are equally frustrated when they’ve been given out but the technology doesn’t clearly shown this should have been the case.
Anecdotal evidence from the World Cup and this Ashes series would suggest umpiring is certainly no better now than it was before this technology started to be used. No doubt there are also other reasons for this, but the issue being examined is all about the technology.
We want umpires to ‘get it right’ every time, but the technology doesn’t allow this to happen. No doubt this will change in time, but the tools being used are not close to 100 per cent accurate, which should be the standard aimed for if these products are to used for questionable decisions.
Perhaps it’s better to go back to simpler times, at least for now, when there was no technology and the umpire’s decision, right or wrong, was final.