Saturday, 23 January 2010

Liberté, égalité and the TV replay

(A version of this article appeared on Cricinfo's "Inbox" blog in February 2010)

Cricket’s moral system is under review

The umpire’s word should be final. Questioning the judgement of game’s arbiters is just “not cricket.” The ICC’s Umpire Decision Review System, which allows batsmen and fielding captains to ask for on-field decisions to be reviewed by a TV official, is detrimental to the Spirit of the Game and hence a recipe for disaster.

Or is it? I must admit that my reaction to the chorus of criticism directed at UDRS during England’s tour of South Africa by a (predominantly but not exclusively English) collection of pundits has been one of mild amusement. When ECB Chairman Giles Clarke fulminated against the “blasted system” because he felt that a “core principle of cricket” was “being destroyed,” I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself and think “here we go again…”

Cricket is a haunted game. It is possessed by a mysterious Victorian Spirit. Many of its aficionados like to think that this Spirit – a moral code – sets it apart from other sports, making it "more than a game ... an institution," as the eponymous hero of Tom Brown’s Schooldays famously remarked. Set at Rugby School in the 1830s, Thomas Hughes’ classic novel vividly illustrated the role played by public school cricket in the breeding of future empire builders. Meanwhile, other parts of 19th century English society also felt the influence of cricket’s Spirit. In his English Social History, G.M. Trevelyan wrote:
“If the French noblesse had been capable of playing cricket with their peasants, their chateaux would never have been burnt.”
The great Cambridge historian believed cricket helped prevent revolution by civilising England’s lower classes. He was right, in the sense that it encouraged them to peacefully accept an inequitable status quo.

The “core principle” alluded to by Giles Clarke of not questioning authority is the reason why cricket has been a perennial favourite of ruling elites. Trevelyan’s claim may have been made in jest, but the Spirit of Cricket did reinforce the position of the English aristocracy. The writer Mike Marqusee (a New York Marxist Jew, once dubbed cricket’s “iconoclast in chief”) perhaps explained it best:
“Cricket brought together all the classes on the village green, but it did so … in hierarchical fashion. … Playing cricket became a touchstone of Englishness, a measure of people’s right to be included, either in nation or in empire. At the same time, it became a means of ensuring people knew their places, both within nation and empire.”
Within the game itself, poorly paid professional Players somehow put up with being denied the rights afforded shamateur Gentlemen until 1962, while Britain’s former colonial subjects put up with MCC rule until the long overdue democratisation of the ICC in 1993.

Just about the first ICC policy to be the implemented against England’s wishes was the introduction of neutral umpires in Tests, more than a century after football had seen the merits of appointing neutral referees. English opposition to the move was accompanied by incredulity at the suggestion that their umpires could ever be accused of bias. (Pakistan, whose officials received a disproportionate amount of criticism in the eighties, had actually been the first country to start campaigning for neutral umpires, back in 1980.)

Set against this backdrop, the melodrama surrounding UDRS looks all too familiar. In opposing the adoption of the system, the ECB found itself in a minority of one. Other cricket boards expressed – and continue to express – concerns about its implementation, but only the ECB has objected “on moral grounds” related to the Spirit of the Game.

I like the review system. It eliminates obvious howlers, gives the on-field umpire the benefit of the doubt in marginal cases and is not overly disruptive to the flow of the game. It also seems that there are fewer instances of dissent and excessive appealing when it is in use. The “Snicko-gate” controversy during the recent Johannesburg Test was due to a failure by the gaffe-prone Daryl Harper rather than a failure of UDRS.

There is no denying that the system is a work in progress, however. New pieces of technology are being added one by one as the cricketing community becomes more confident in them. When UDRS was first introduced, the third umpire could only avail himself of super slow-motion footage, stump-microphone feeds and the ball-tracking part of Hawk-Eye. Now the latter’s predictive element is also in the decision-making toolkit, and soon Snicko and Hotspot will be standard issue too.

While the amount of gadgetry employed is on the rise, the limit to the number of referrals permitted could well fall, in an effort to reduce the frequency of annoying tactical appeals. The limit has already been decreased from three to two unsuccessful appeals per innings and I would happily see it cut to five per match (perhaps with the additional caveat that a team cannot carry over more than three to the final day).

Personally, I am not so concerned about regulating the time taken to deliberate over calling for a review. I am less irritated by having to wait for captains to confer with bowlers and fielders than I am by having to wait for Jonathan Trott to take guard. For me, by far the trickiest issue to be resolved is exactly who should pay for UDRS – the host cricket board, the host broadcaster or the ICC – as cost appears to be the biggest impediment to the standardisation of the system’s use in Tests around the world.

I hope this obstacle is overcome soon, as I wish UDRS every chance of success. Trevelyan wouldn’t agree, but I think cricket could do with some of the spirit of the French Revolution. I am not suggesting that aggrieved cricketers drag uncooperative umpires to the guillotine, merely that we move beyond sanctifying officials’ divine right to rule one way or another. “Liberté, égalité, fraternité.” Allowing players to challenge umpires in a respectful manner should improve relations between the two. It should remind the more unctuous officials that they are not meant to be the stars of the show and help players see umpires as ordinary human beings, who – for the most part – do a difficult job extremely well. Above all, it should ensure sporting justice is served with greater regularity.

I hope the TV replay is here to stay. As for that old Spirit of Cricket, I think it’s time we gave up the ghost.


  1. While I agree in principle with the 'play up, play up and play the game' attitude fermented in English public schools, the fact is that the spirit of the umpire's decision being final, the very cornerstone of cricket, has been eroded by Beefy Botham and chums and their technical wizardry.

    Therefore, we need to go down the route of the umpire's decision not being final. But if we do, we need to do it properly - the half-arsed UDRS has found a precarious middle ground which tries to retain the integrity of the umpires while at the same time effectively laying all the blame on them when they get it wrong.

    The first thing to be done is for the ICC to climb down from their ludicrous position of not paying for the UDRS in full and to ensure it is implemented the same everywhere. Quite how they've managed to avoid this so far is beyond me. You want the UDRS? You pay for it. So there's not enough HotSpot cameras - building a few more wouldn't hurt. Yes it's expensive, but it will be worth it.

    I think there is a lot to be learned from sports which have toyed and perfected instant replay over the years, most notably American Football. NFL has a two challenge per game system, similar to cricket. However, the difference is that an NFL team only get a third challenge if their first two are shown to be correct. Cricket could implement a similar system - two referrals initially, and a further referral only if the first two are successful. It would still give the team the opportunity to take a gamble on one, but it would count against them more than at the moment if the original decision is upheld.

    There are many more issues that I don't want to go into now, but the point to make to the ICC is, as far as possible, don't just use trial and error, because you're making everyone, including yourselves, look silly. Look at how other sports, including tennis, baseball and others, have done it and learn from their mistakes, rather than your own. I am in favour of the UDRS, and I've seen glimpses of its potential. It will work properly one day, but until it does, it barely works at all.

  2. Rupert, thanks for your comments. I agree that the ICC could learn from what other sports have done. I'm very interested to hear about the NFL system.

    I must say I think the issue of who pays for UDRS is not so simple. The ICC is carrying out the wishes of its members, all but one of whom voted in favour of bringing in the system. Also, as the ICC is funded by the national boards, are the latter still picking up the bill at the end of the day? In which case, should countries like SL and NZ that don't get to play as many Tests be paying as much as England and Australia? Alternatively, if the ICC starts charging TV companies for the right to make use of the various gadgets in their broadcasts, would the ECB and CA be happy for others to profit from the vast sums Sky/Channel 9 would pay during the Ashes?

    Also, I think an imperfect UDRS is still better than no UDRS - its absence cost SL several hundred runs during their recent series in India, and its presence ensured Collingwood's recent match-saving rearguard wasn't cut short when he was still in single figures. I do agree with you that the ICC could be doing a better job at perfecting it, however.


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