Umpiring in the IPL needs improvement, tech help

Umpires are human and will err. But if the frequency of errors is high, then course correction is necessary


Umpire Sundaram Ravi peels off a sponsorship sticker from Ben Stokes’ helmet during an IPL match in Pune on 6 April. Photo: AFP
Umpire Sundaram Ravi peels off a sponsorship sticker from Ben Stokes’ helmet during an IPL match in Pune on 6 April. Photo: AFP

I wrote this piece on Monday night, after watching excellent cricket in the Indian Premier League (IPL), with both matches played that day becoming last-over thrillers, and marked by some superb individual performances.

In batting, the Orange cap (worn by the leading run scorer) changed hands three times. First, Gautam Gambhir went past Mumbai Indians’ Nitish Rana, but during the course of Kolkata Knight Riders’s fantastic run chase, he was overtaken by teammate Manish Pandey.

By the end of the day, however, David Warner had the coveted cap after a battling, unbeaten half-century that helped Sunrisers Hyderabad (SRH) post a competitive score on a difficult pitch.

The SRH captain then saw his main pace bowler, Bhuvaneshwar Kumar, put in an outstanding effort in the “death overs” to win the humdinger against Kings XI Punjab and enhance his lead as the tournament’s highest wicket-taker.

Interspersing these magnificent batting and bowling performances in the two matches, however, were a fairly large number of dropped catches. I started making a mental note of them but had counted four when I lost track in the excitement of the tense finishes.

The number of fielding lapses this IPL season has been abnormally high. At a fair estimate, about 30 catches have been put down in the first fortnight. And this does not include “half” and “quarter” chances.

This is anachronistic, for fielding standards have shown a dramatic improvement in the past two decades. The advent of Twenty20 cricket has, in fact, raised the bar even higher from what’s been seen in preceding seasons.

Given the tenor of the shortest format, fielding has, in fact, been heavily prioritized. Most IPL teams have specialized fielding coaches of the calibre of Jonty Rhodes (Mumbai) and Mohammad Kaif (Gujarat), so the errors seen this season are befuddling.

It is not just laggards who have been dropping catches, but even those considered brilliant. What explains this? There is no clear answer. But there is enough evidence of it happening, which makes it worthy of deeper study.

While the dropped catches syndrome is intriguing, however, the poor quality of umpiring this season has been shown up so frequently that it should worry administrators, as it has players and aficionados.

There has been no public clamour about this problem from the playing fraternity, though a couple of players have tweeted about some glaring mistakes. The code of conduct has ensured such references have been few.

By and large, players have preferred to keep their grouse to themselves rather than rock the boat. But beneath the radar as it were, there has been quite a lot of outrage in the fraternity about the umpiring.

This is understandable. The IPL is a showcase event for cricketers, top-notch and newbie alike. The stakes are very high. Individual careers and livelihoods can be made or unmade. Collectively, teams and franchise owners are affected.

All else apart, umpiring errors mar the enjoyment of a fair sporting contest. This is not to demean umpires. They are human and will err. But if the frequency of errors is high, then course correction is necessary.

One part of this would be choosing the best umpires available. Putting uncompromising emphasis on quality. The other would be to make use of the technology already in use in the other formats.

In fact, DRS is a no-brainer, and I wonder why the IPL hasn’t incorporated it yet. It can’t be just the cost factor, because the league is flush with money. It certainly isn’t because of objections from players—most want it.

Perhaps it is because Twenty20 internationals still don’t permit a review of umpiring decisions, and the IPL has tried to live within this framework. Happily, that position itself is under review.

By 2018, it has been suggested, all three formats should deploy DRS: in T20s, one per side per innings. That would be a major and much needed step.

Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.

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