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DRS, umpires and cricket’s future

Sunday, June 3, 2012


Being involved with technology, aviation, for 40 years, I like and appreciate the operation of Decision Review System (DRS), and its technological outputs—“Hot-spot”, “Sniko” etc—as being used in present-day cricket, but only if it is used for what the International Cricket Council (ICC) had originally suggested that it would be used for. As of right now, that is not the case at all. Nowadays, technology in cricket is more the star of the games than either umpires or players. International umpires are using technology for very wrong reasons. Indeed, it seems that they are getting so very lazy, since it now looks like they are depending on technology to make any proper decisions at all for them, even if there is no wicket or controversy involved. Picture this, as occurred a few times in the two Tests already played between England and West Indies. A batsman edges a delivery to either one of the slips, or to wicket-keeper. There is no doubt that the ball has been edged. Even the batsman knows that. But what does the batsman do? Instead of trooping off as he should, he hesitates, and asks, by his body language, if not in voice, if perhaps the ball was indeed a “no-ball”. The time is now when a batsman is caught out in the deep, mid-wicket or extra-cover boundary, even bowled, and, somehow, indicates to the umpire that a check must be made as to if the bowler has ‘no-balled”. That is not as ludicrous as it sounds but it is stupid!  
There is something seriously wrong with this equation. Where exactly is this taking us in this game?  Umpires are being made into robots. They are now depending more than ever on a machine to even tell them if even a “no-ball” has been bowled. If so, what are they out there for, except to simply count six deliveries? When, exactly, do they make decisions on their own? I have no problem with a situation in which the umpire really does not know, genuinely, if a batsman has nicked it to the wicket-keeper. Once that is referred to the television umpire, by umpire or either captain, the whole spiel—review test for legal delivery, “sniko’ for that edge, etc—is fully acceptable. No problem there. This is exactly why these systems were designed in the first place, to help umpires make proper decisions, not make those decisions for them. However, if a catch is taken, and the umpire makes his decision in favour of the bowler, or not, then that decision should stand, regardless of if it was a “no ball” or not. If an umpire makes a mistake by not calling a “no-ball” when that ball gets a wicket, so be it. A mistake was made. The world sees that a mistake was made. That is no tragedy at all. No one died! ICC boasts that umpires achieve more than 95 per cent correctness. How and where? The machines do! In football, if a ball hits a player’s hand, not the goalkeeper’s, but is not whistled by the referee, then the ball can be played down to the opposing end, to score a goal, even as the queries continue. In sport, mistakes will be made. Being humans, we all make them. To this day, no one is sure if England’s third goal in 1966 Football World Cup Final against (West) Germany was in or out. It does not matter. England won the game. That was that!  There must be more trust in umpires. When I started playing Tests in 1976/77, umpires were generally respected and revered for decision making; trust that cricketers had in them, and they, too, in turn, had in the cricketers. Some batsmen, like Alvin Kallicharran, always ‘walked’ when he nicked one!  
That trust is gone. Now, both umpires and players alike are putting their full faith in a machine that, simply, obviously, cannot be 100 per cent right. No machine, whatever it is used for, can be 100 per cent correct! I once told Cyril Mitchley, now retired international umpire from South Africa, that if men could use machines and computers to land other men on the moon, nearly 200,000 miles away, to within 200 metres of the exact planned landing point, then it should not be very difficult at all, to remove all umpires from cricket, to allow machines to determine decisions from about 20 metres. That time, embarrassingly, is almost upon us now, caused by the umpires themselves. I became an Air Traffic Controller in 1973, which I did for eight years, while also playing cricket for West Indies, before becoming a Commercial Pilot in 1981, and worked as an Airline Pilot from 1995 to 2005. I even worked, for six years, 1988-1993, after Mechanical Engineering studies, designing elements for substantial airplane engines that presently power massive passenger airliners and fighters around the world. Even with this background, I say that automation is not always the right thing to use or rely on. If you doubt me, think about “cruise control” in your car. It is almost exactly used like “auto-pilot” in an airplane. Both are used to take stresses from the users, so that they can relax for the more difficult parts of driving, or flying, in rainy conditions, or when landing and taking off, when real, full control is absolutely necessary.
No pilot that I know lands on “auto-pilot”, even when both airport and aircraft are thusly equipped, unless for demonstration or training purposes. They prefer to make positive decisions, adjustments and references themselves, as to speeds, heights and configurations, for safe handling of their airplanes. No one that I know continues to speed along highways on “cruise control” when rain falls, for that would soon be a real tragedy, even death. But, because of the reliance on technology so much these days, international umpires are losing control! ICC made a terrible decision when suggesting “neutral umpires” for international Tests. What about “best umpires”, period, regardless of their nationality? Few international umpires, back when I played and even now, are simply incompetent, but most were, and are, extremely good, regardless of nationality. Umpires like England’s Harold “Dick” Bird, West Indies’ Douglas Sang Hue and Steve Buckner, and Australia’s Tony Crafter did not get their reputations as being good umpires by using technology. They did that by doing what they were put out there to do; make difficult and sensible decisions. Tests No 1 and 2—England versus West Indies—there were at least four absolutely atrocious decisions made; all, correctly, overturned by technology. That was not good umpiring, but simply inability to cope. That inability to know right from wrong comes from lack of practice, not lack of real knowledge. Instead of us leaning for DRS and the rest to eventually take over eventually, as foretold earlier, why does ICC and respective Cricket Boards around the world not recruit youths, 18- to 25-year-olds, who may not be able to play cricket that well, but who might be interested in being taught the game, to be made, by genuine continuity and progression, into competent regional and international umpires. If that does not happen, machines will take over fully, soon!  



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