With the rain spoiling days 1 and 3 at Lord’s, and a draw looking increasingly likely, now seems like an opportune moment to reignite the DRS debate. Here’s new guest writer Ed Clark with his take on the terrible umpiring at Edgbaston and the future of technology in cricket.
I’m a bit tied up this week so apologies for the lack of daily reports. I’ll do an extended review of the test when it finishes instead. In the meantime, here’s Ed …
The first Ashes test this month was memorable for plenty of reasons. Steve Smith’s twin comeback tons (one of the great sporting regenerations), James Anderson throwing his series future into doubt with a torn calf, and the dramatic turnaround Australia pulled off to win on the final day after being 120-8 on the first. All the thrills and spills of Test cricket which promise for an intriguing series.
Unfortunately, the other major talking point was the standard of umpiring during the match, and in particular the sheer number of incorrect decisions overturned on review. Poor Joel Wilson, a recent addition to the ICC’s elite panel, was under real scrutiny with eight (eight!) overturned decisions.
The trigger was David Warner being caught behind on the first morning off his first ball and not given. That said, he didn’t walk, and the slips didn’t appeal. In his second innings, he was given not out, which was overturned on review. Again, anyone who’s umpired any level of cricket can tell you the dismissal didn’t ‘look right’ (whatever that means), so it seems understandable. But Joe Root was given out four times and overturned each and every decision. By the end, it had become ludicrous – a thick edge onto pad going completely undetected.
In terms of DRS, this match has been coming for a long time. With the current system, it was only a matter of time until a game came up where the decisions were just inaccurate enough to move out of the buffer zone of umpire’s call. A game where a few howlers were missed early on, which caused a bit of a panic to set in amongst the officials. A game where, once the media had picked up on the wrong calls, they would come to dominate discussion.
The ICC has made it clear that it’s got no plans to change the on-field umpires for the series at this stage (and England could probably learn something from this avoidance of a knee-jerk replacement following one bad game). But calls will keep growing for a review of technology’s role in cricket for future series, especially as every game now counts towards the new, nebulous, Test Championship.
For what it’s worth, I believe that, like fire, DRS is a wonderful servant, but a terrible master. If we allow technology to run every facet of the game, then we lose entertainment value through frequent delays and undermine the human instincts and intuitions of trained umpires. At the same time, where technology exists to aid decision-making and weed out any clearly incorrect calls, it seems obstinate not to use it. The main challenge, as almost every pundit and punter’s argument reduces to, is the need for consistency. And ideally, consistently good.
So, what are some feasible new applications of technology that would give us a consistent level of umpiring, minimising errors but not freezing umps out?
Firstly, the logistics of the game. No-balls, for example. The third umpire (or a dedicated new official) can review every delivery for a foot no-ball, help umpires on any height calls, illegal field placings, or recording time a player spent off the field could also be covered. Essentially, it’s taking the ‘everyball’ tasks and having a near-automated approach that doesn’t miss a thing.
Secondly, dismissals. When given out, it makes sense at the highest level of the game to review every dismissal for a clear error, instead of putting that in the hands of the players. With generous ‘umpire’s call’ margins, we should default to most decisions being upheld, which is good for the pace of the game and the integrity of the umpires. It might even be worth considering that 2 out of 3 of the indicators on a catch, for example, (hotspot, snicko, spinvision) have to corroborate to reverse an on-field call. All this should be able to be completed well within the three minutes, set down in the Laws, between a dismissal and the next ball.
Thirdly, player reviews. When given not out, things become trickier. Until DRS develops in terms of speed, it doesn’t seem realistic to review every not-out decision in real time. The VAR-esque approach of allowing play to continue but potentially bringing it back is also challenging as each ball delivered plays a role in changing the face of the game. So keep the two reviews per innings for fielding sides; one possibly beneficial side-effect of reviewing every ‘out’ decision is that umpires will be more confident in tech as a safety net rather than a competitor.
It’s easy to think that cricket umpires have less to do than in sports like football or rugby. However, that would be to underestimate the human skills which are central to the role. Questions abound in cricket which are extremely difficult to answer with technology. Was the batsman playing a shot? Were they taking evasive action? Was the ball dead? Is the fielding side wasting time? Has the bowling become intimidatory? And there are new considerations with every tweak to the rule book, such as ‘fake fielding’ and the yellow/red card system. I’d like to see AI try and send Ben Stokes off the field.
Ultimately, umpiring a cricket match is one of the most demanding roles for any sporting official. It’s difficult, very much so. But when a bad day for the umpire can affect a player’s professional career, we shouldn’t be afraid to turn to technology.