What really makes for exciting cricket?
The controversy of Australian captain Steve Smith shows the tech in cricket has, in fact, opened to public view a broader canvas of error
First Published: Sat, Mar 18 2017. 11 35 PM IST
There was a time, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, friends and Romans and countrymen, when cricket matches played out without the benefits of technology. Imagine that. Believe it. But believe this too: even without the wonders of Hawkeye and DRS and instant replay, many of those matches were closely fought and tremendously exciting.
In fact, arguably the most exciting Test match in the game’s history happened at a time when if you said “hawkeye” to a fan, she might have thought you were mispronouncing that other sport’s name and directed you to a hockey ground. That match ended on the second-to-last possible ball of the game, as the last man on one team raced desperately for the run that would win it, as a fielder on the other team grabbed the ball and threw down the single stump visible to him to run that last man out—leaving the scores level, the match tied and the crowd ecstatic.
That match was, of course, the famous tied Test that Australia and the West Indies played in Brisbane in December 1960. It had marvellous batting from both sides (Gary Sobers, Norman O’Neill, Frank Worrell, Alan Davidson, Joe Solomon, Bob Simpson, Rohan Kanhai, Richie Benaud). It had lion-hearted bowling from both sides (Alan Davidson, Wes Hall, Sonny Ramadhin, Lindsay Kline). It had superb fielding (Joe Solomon, perhaps above all). It had inspired, positive leadership (Richie Benaud, Frank Worrell). It had elegance and charm and tension and, yes, its tragi-comic moments too.
It was such a wonderful match that when it ended, men from both teams laughed and hugged each other as spectators streamed across the field and towards the dressing rooms to congratulate the players.
And after several years of stultifying Test cricket, this one match—as A.G. “Johnnie” Moyes writes in his measured account (With the West Indies in Australia, 1960-61)—“breathed new life into the dead bones of a game which had been starved to death by indecisive batting, lack of inspiration in bowling, dullness and lack of adventure in leadership”. Yes, it reaffirmed Test cricket as a gripping, electric spectacle like no other.
And yes, it was played without DRS.
I mention that because despite that start, this column really is about DRS and assorted other technologies that are now part of the game. Especially because they have been on cricket fans’ minds over the past couple of weeks.
Why did cricket turn to these technologies? Because their promise was to remove doubt over a close run-out or a stumping, a possible six or a catch close to the ground. No longer would a leg-before-wicket decision remain essentially a subjective one. With TV cameras now able to capture nearly every movement on the field, with tracking technology now able to show us the flight of a ball from multiple angles, how can there be any more umpiring mistakes? And with that possibility of error gone, surely we’ll now have cricket served straight-up, fought hard but clean and fair?
Yet of course we still have our share of moments that raise questions about what and who is “clean and fair”. By itself, technology cannot save us from those. And that brings two thoughts to mind.
First, the role of umpires and officials. Whether they have DRS available to them or not, cricket has them because the game needs someone to make decisions, to resolve disputes. Teams go into matches with the tacit or otherwise understanding that they will obey what the umpire says, even if it is sometimes hard to do so. And if that means players sometimes end up on what they or their fans think is the wrong side of a decision, that’s the way of the game.
What this means, today, is that earlier this month in Bengaluru, Steve Smith was wrong to look up at his dressing room after he was declared out, asking for advice on whether to appeal. That’s exactly why the umpire ran up immediately to stop Smith, and his word had immediately to be obeyed: because he found Smith violating a rule of the game. If there is a prescribed consequence for this violation, it should have applied to Smith, regardless of defences involving “brain fades” and Smith’s overall skill and integrity as a cricketer. (We’ve seen such defences.)
Obvious so far? Such consequences are what the Indian cricket board and plenty of the game’s Indian fans want to see happen in Bengaluru. But consider that after some earlier detected violations of rules, the same board and plenty of Indian fans objected to consequences being applied.
Like in 2001, when India and South Africa played each other in that country. During one of the Tests, the then match referee, Mike Denness, found several Indian players guilty of offences, including ball-tampering, and gave them one-Test bans. The uproar among Indian fans was something fierce. The BCCI threatened to call off the last Test unless Denness was replaced as match referee. The ICC refused, but the South African cricket board fell in line with the BCCI and removed Denness, not even allowing him into the stadium. All the bans except one were overturned. The last match was played, but not recognized as an official Test.
Or like in 2008, when India toured Australia and the infamous “Monkeygate” incident happened in the Sydney Test. A match referee found an Indian player guilty of an offence and banned him. Again, there was a vast swell of outrage. Again, the BCCI threatened to call off the tour unless the ban was overturned. Which it was.
The point? With or without technology, applying the rules goes both ways. If the Australian captain deserves consequences for what match officials determined he did last week, the Indian players deserve consequences for what match officials determined they did in 2001 and 2008. Simple.
The second thing: All this technology is in the game now so as to cut down on human error—in this case meaning umpires’ errors. But in fact, it has opened to public view a broader canvas of error. Like the one Smith made, like the ones the Indians made in 2001 and 2008.
Arguably, none of those would have even been detected in 1960. (In fact, what Smith did was not even something that could have happened on a cricket field then.)
Is the game better for being able to detect them now? I don’t know. But I do know that if I want skillful, exciting cricket, if I want nail-biting tension that leaves me drained and charmed and delighted at the end even if my team didn’t win—if I want all that from the cricket I follow, DRS is really irrelevant. But still at the top of my list is that electrifying tie from 1960.
(See a few highlights, including the breathtaking last over from Wes Hall, here.)
Once a computer scientist, Dilip D’Souza now lives in Mumbai and writes for his dinners. His latest book is Jukebox Mathemagic: Always One More Dance.
His Twitter handle is @DeathEndsFun
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