The first Ashes Test has sparked yet another round of debate on the decision review system (DRS). There are calls for it to be re-evaluated and, if necessary, kept in abeyance until the technology is foolproof. But blaming the DRS technology for the mess we saw in the Trent Bridge Test is like blaming bullets for shooting deaths. Even the most foolproof technology can be defeated by human foolishness, and as we shall see, all the so-called DRS fiascos in the first Ashes Test match were due not to the technology but to its mismanagement.
The International Cricket Council (ICC) has admitted to seven umpiring errors overall in this match, but three decisions in particular are talked about as having spoiled the Test match—the ones involving Jonathan Trott, Stuart Broad and Brad Haddin.
First, Trott: he was given not out by the Pakistani umpire Aleem Dar in response to Australia’s LBW appeal. The Aussies went for the DRS. The South African third umpire Marais Erasmus gave Trott out, which provoked a chorus of wild indignation because Trott had actually edged the ball onto his pad.
Now, this faulty decision was due not to the technology, but to its unavailability. The human operator of the Hot Spot was busy playing a replay of the previous dismissal, and had not recorded the Trott dismissal. So a), the technology was not in use at all in this instance, and therefore cannot be blamed for the wrong decision; and b), the technology that could have helped in making the correct decision, a Snickometre, was not part of the resources available to the third umpire as per the DRS system in this series. In the absence of adequate technological help—no Hot Spot, no Snickometre—Erasmus went with what he had, and gave Trott out. So don’t blame DRS—blame administrative stupidity.
Coming to Broad: It was the DRS technology that demonstrated conclusively that he was out on both the occasions that he got away—once after edging a catch, and once for padding up without offering a shot. It was the human factor—the field umpire—that got it wrong both times. And it was Australia’s inability to call upon technology—not its deployment—thanks to a bizarre system where you can have only two reviews per innings (the Aussies had used up their quota) that resulted in the wrong decision.
As for Haddin, the brouhaha over his dismissal was the most mystifying of all. The guy was out. The umpire got it wrong. The technology got it right—and yet some writers have gone on and on about how he was wrongly given out. Both the Hot Spot and the Snickometre showed conclusively that he was out—and he was given out. So what’s the problem?
Not surprisingly, unlike cricket writers, the two captains, Alastair Cook and Michael Clarke, who you would imagine have been at the receiving end of bad decisions, have been quick to defend DRS despite all the howlers. “I think the bottom line with the review system is it does get more decisions right,” said Cook. And Clarke has blamed his team’s poor use of referrals rather than the system itself.
Further, ICC’s own statistics have proved time and again that umpiring decisions have been more accurate with DRS than without. It is silly to argue that we should not have DRS unless it has 100% accuracy—you anyway cannot get 100% accuracy without using technology. It is enough that DRS improves the accuracy percentage—as it doubtless has, from 90.3% to 95.8%—for there to a strong case for its use.
Rather than make DRS the scapegoat every time we muck it up, what is needed now is a more rational administration of the technology. We can learn a thing or two from how tennis has successfully incorporated technology to minimize human error in umpiring decisions, and it has done so in a manner that has vastly improved the experience for players, umpires and spectators. Here are four things that we can do to make the DRS system more sensible:
1. Increase the number of reviews per innings: Two reviews for seven to nine hours of play (the average length of an innings) is a ridiculously small number, and was the real reason for the Stuart Broad howlers. Tennis has three reviews per side per set (which is roughly of one hour duration or less), so why can’t cricket have more? When you are prepared to waste time on an infinite number of comparatively trivial reviews, such as whether a fielder’s body has touched the boundary rope, can’t we have more reviews to get the major decisions right? Ideally, we should have two reviews per session per side, which is both fair, and not too many. That works out to 12 reviews per day in a Test match (if all are taken) and this would not absorb more than 15 minutes of playing time, assuming a little more than a minute per review.
2. Make use of all the available technology in the DRS: In some series, the DRS includes Hawk Eye and Hot Spot but no Snickometre, others have Snickometre and Hawk Eye but no Hot Spot, some others have Hot Spot and Snickometre but not Hawk Eye. Hello? One can understand that these decisions are taken by the concerned cricketing boards keeping the cost factor in mind. But once you’ve made the choice to use certain technology, halfway measures like in the ongoing Ashes series (where the Snickometre is not part of the system, but is available to the viewer) are a recipe for confusion.
3. Have clearly laid down standard operating procedures for the various technology operators while the match is in progress, so that we don’t have the Trott-like scenario where the Hot Spot was playing a replay when it should have been recording live footage.
4. Junk the “benefit of the doubt goes to batsman” ideology, especially when it comes to LBWs. There is no law in the cricket book that says the benefit of the doubt should go to the batsman. It is simply a convention—nothing more—derived from the logic that a batsman gets only one chance to play in an innings, unlike a bowler who can try again if an appeal is wrongly turned down. Now, this was okay before the advent of technology, because the human eye is fallible and you needed to leave a sizeable margin of error, especially for LBWs. But with DRS, and the Hawk Eye’s ball trajectory calculation system, the margin for error is almost down to zero. So, just as a batsman would be out if the ball clips the bails, he should be given out if the Hawk Eye shows the ball clipping the bails. God knows how many wickets were denied to Anil Kumble because of the “benefit of the doubt” con game. Now, with DRS, doubt must cease to be a factor, and ditto for this dubious convention.
The DRS also has other things going for it. As the Guardian’s Rob Smythe has pointed out, it is changing the game in some fundamental ways, and definitely for the better. It has made the game more competitive by restoring “the balance between bat and ball, so weighted towards the former in recent times because of flat pitches, bigger bats, smaller ground and bowler burnout, has been wrenched back dramatically.”
One way it has done this is by giving a new lease of life to spinners. In Tests this year, 33% of wickets taken by spinners were LBWs, as opposed to 16% in 2004—literally, a double harvest. And if batsmen have to adapt to this new, somewhat more challenging reality, so be it—I would any day watch someone use his bat against Graeme Swann or a Ravindra Jadeja than a Jimmy Adams doing stretching exercises.
All said and done, the efficacy of the DRS is not the issue—except for those with their own axes to grind, such as the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI). The BCCI has been opposing the DRS for two reasons: one, its money-minded mandarins do not want to fork out $20,000-60,000 per match day for using the technology; and two, Sachin Tendulkar, whose average will be severely dented, given the guarantee of a higher percentage of LBW decisions under the DRS. So India will not agree to a DRS-adjudicated Test series until Sachin retires from Test cricket, which is fine I guess—why shouldn’t the board back its finest playing asset, since it also happens to help cut costs?
But if the idea is to have a fair contest, a match not ruined by poor umpiring, then the sooner the game’s administrators rationalize the usage of DRS technology, the better it would be for the sport—for players as well as for spectators.