The law of unintended consequences. That’s the phrase we’ve heard from pundits many a time over recent months, as the cricketing cognoscenti absorb the impact of the Umpire Decision Review System.
As we now know, computerised ball-tracking is doing far more than simply ensure fewer incorrect decisions. It’s changed the whole relationship between bat and ball, at least when the spinners are on.
Umpires are much more aware of how big the stumps are, and as a result are now upholding many more LBW appeals. And of those they don’t, a significant number are overturned on appeal. So spinners are now aiming at the stumps, hunting for LBWs, while batsmen undergo the upheaval of reconstructing their bat v pad technique, and associated footwork.
At least that’s what happening in international cricket. But how will these powerful new developments trickle down to a level of the game you or I might play – on the village green?
As author Marcus Berkmann observed in his book Rain Men, village cricketers are very fond of copying things they see on the telly. Posting crazy numbers of slips and gullies, sledging, team huddles, or holding up the ball after a five-for – and many others – have all been lifted straight from TV coverage of proper cricket.
It stands to reason, then, that something as influential as DRS will seep into village cricket culture. We’ve already witnessed a widespread use of the ironic ‘T’ sign, usually but not always behind the umpire’s back, in response to ill-received decisions. But how will DRS affect the actual umpiring, not just the banter?
From one perspective it may be entirely irrelevant, because it’s spinners who’ve benefited most in test cricket – and their village counterparts are not really best known for the accuracy involved in securing LBWs. In my own team, we’re delighted enough if the spinner manages to land it on the cut part. Anything else is a huge bonus.
Test spinners are now aiming directly at the stumps. I’m sceptical, personally, about the efficacy of such a strategy at our level. For the past twelve years our own spinner has been aiming alternate balls at either square leg, or the batsman’s head. Telling him to target the wicket would only give him one more thing to think about, which is the last thing we need.
And what about the umpiring itself – already one of the most intriguing aspects of the village game, for the reason that it’s other members of the batting side who provide the officiating.
Perhaps surprisingly, LBW is not the most controversial aspect of umpiring in this form of cricket. That distinction belongs to no-balls for height. This is due to a long-standing but rarely articulated principle: you don’t give it out LBW unless it’s cheating not to. If the delivery is very full, and very straight, only then do you have to give it. And if it’s not, you don’t.
But now international umpires have become braver – and will award an LBW to one just clipping the leg bail – will village officials follow suit? A mixed picture is the likely outcome. Every club hack is his own man, for this is a culture defined by individuality, flights of fancy, and self-delusion.
Just as every side’s batsmen will include a combination of stoic blockers, and wannabe dashers who believe they blend the skills of Viv Richards and Adam Gilchrist, and bowlers who either only have one delivery, or think they have dozens, in this way every village umpire is different.
From this point onwards they will probably fall into two categories. First will be the proud conservatives, who will heroically defy pernicious new fads by still refusing LBWs to anything bar a middle stump yorker. They might know, and everyone know, that the ball would have knocked all three pegs over – but they still won’t care. Old values are cherished.
The second category will be the hip and metrosexual umpire who is convinced he has his finger on the pulse of cricket’s evolution, but is in reality just copying stuff off the telly. He will now become the last word in trigger-happiness, firing out every batsman for the merest glance on the pad, making enemies of every team-mate and setting in chain a string of violent recriminations in the pub afterwards.
If this happens in the first innings, the other side may feel duty bound to follow suit, and the match will be over by 2.45pm.
Whatever happens, this should prove an interesting season on the village green. The Full Toss will be keeping a watching brief on this crucial area of the game’s progress, and we welcome your own observations and experiences. Somewhere, at some pub side, someone will surely take the ultimate step in their commitment to ‘realism’ – and build their own ball tracking system from two old mobile phones and a piece of string. And if they do, we’d like to hear about it first.