Cricket is well and truly back to life, in the white-ball game at least.
The soft signal debate rages on after a controversial week, but among the calls to remove it, none are yet to provide a valid alternative.
Video replay controversy is always just around the corner in international cricket, and it reared its head again this week in the T20 series between India and England. In Game 4, India’s Suryakumar Yadav swept Sam Curran aerially down to fine leg where Dawid Malan took what appeared to be a magnificent low-down catch.
In real-time, it appeared Malan had got his fingers beneath it the ball but, as is often the case, slow-motion replays told another story. One angle, in particular, showed the ball almost certainly touching the surface, and replays were unable to reveal whether Malan’s fingers were (adequately) underneath it.
To the naked eye, though, few watching their television would say it was out.
Equipped with inadequate replays and an affirmative soft signal, the third umpire deemed Suryakumar out, cueing an inevitable wave of online outrage.
“How can this be out?” VVS Laxman said.
“I think that was a stinking decision,” Graeme Swann added.
But neither umpire did anything inherently wrong.
The third umpire could not conclusively overturn the decision with the available replays, while the main umpire made a call from some 70 metres away. As a result, players and pundits alike began calling out the primary flaw in soft signals.
“The soft signal for boundary catches is nonsense, there’s no way the standing umpire can see that,” Mike Atherton said.
And he’s right.
It is nonsense to expect an umpire to adjudicate something so difficult from such a distance. Often, their decision is almost entirely based on the immediate reaction of the fielder in question.
From there, the discussion quickly turned to changing the soft signal ruling.
But notably, none provided a superior alternative to the current model.
Indian skipper Virat Kohli proposed that rather than being forced into an affirmative or negative call, the umpire should be able to simply shrug the shoulders.
“I don’t know why there cannot be a sort of ‘I don’t know’ call for the umpire as well,” Kohli said.
“Why does it have to be a conclusive one? Because then that [dictates] the whole decision completely.”
But we’ve been down this road before.
Prior to the introduction of the soft signal in 2016, umpires were able to send every line-ball catch upstairs. And in almost every instance, the batsman received the benefit of the doubt.
In fact, in one year all 30 catches sent to the third umpire were ruled in the batter’s favour. As a result, the soft signal was introduced as a way to redress the imbalance.
“We should encourage umpires to make decisions, and so that means the soft signal should remain,” former ICC umpires boss Simon Taufel said when this issue erupted in 2018 (incidentally, involving Kohli).
Taufel, who for some time was deemed the world’s best umpire, pointed out that the benefit-of-the-doubt system to a batsman was not working.
“The old system where it was sent upstairs without the umpire having a say, people didn’t like that…(umpires) are just going draw a box and say ‘over to the third umpire’ to say whether it is out or not.”
One of Kohli’s points in the last week was based on eliminating error in important fixtures.
“It’s a serious thing that needs to be considered because there’s a lot at stake in the future in big tournaments and you don’t want some grey areas to be the defining factor.”
This, to borrow Atherton’s phrase, is nonsense. The notion of what constitutes a catch in cricket is entirely grey.
Unlike a run-out or stumping where a ruling is largely black and white, what is considered a catch differs from one person to the other.
One glance at social media whenever a controversial catch is taken confirms this. Any search for a binary system is fanciful — just ask football how VAR is going.
The most sensible alternative to the soft signal ruling was raised by Atherton this week, and one endorsed by the MCC’s World Cricket Committee: that the umpire should only provide a soft signal if the catch is taken inside the inner 30-yard fielding ring.
A statement from the committee’s latest meeting read: “The committee felt that the soft-signal system worked well for catches within the 30-yard fielding circle, but that catches near the boundary often left the umpires unsighted. It was proposed that, for such catches, the on-field umpires could give an ‘unsighted’ instruction to the TV umpire, rather than the more explicit soft signal of ‘out’ or ‘not out’.”
But this, too, has its flaws. What line would be utilised in Test cricket, given it does not use a 30-yard ring?
How are 50/50 catches near the ring’s edge adjudicated?
It’s another layer of adjudication that cricket simply doesn’t need.
“This is a game of cricket — it is important that umpires make decisions. Umpires should be making decisions because that is what their job is,” Taufel said back in 2018.
And he’s right. This issue will never be ‘solved’ or satisfy every fan.
And at the moment, the current system is the best cricket can do.