It’s time to set right umpires’ ‘wrongs’

A system where the decision is made during the infringement rather than after it should be considered

April 02, 2019 09:12 pm | Updated 09:49 pm IST

Umpire Daryl Harper calls for a referral during the fifth cricket test match between the West Indies and England at Queen's Park Oval in Port of Spain in this March 6, 2009 file photo. Based on the precept that genies cannot be thrust back into their bottles, the technology now available to help review umpiring decisions cannot now be denied to the officials themselves. Theoretically, the International Cricket Council (ICC) can still scrap the Umpire Decision Review System (UDRS) under which either side can refer an on-field umpire's decision to a third official who has access to television replays and ball-tracking technologies. Picture taken March 6, 2009. To match feature CRICKET-UMPIRES     REUTERS/Philip Brown (TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO - Tags: SPORT CRICKET)

Umpire Daryl Harper calls for a referral during the fifth cricket test match between the West Indies and England at Queen's Park Oval in Port of Spain in this March 6, 2009 file photo. Based on the precept that genies cannot be thrust back into their bottles, the technology now available to help review umpiring decisions cannot now be denied to the officials themselves. Theoretically, the International Cricket Council (ICC) can still scrap the Umpire Decision Review System (UDRS) under which either side can refer an on-field umpire's decision to a third official who has access to television replays and ball-tracking technologies. Picture taken March 6, 2009. To match feature CRICKET-UMPIRES REUTERS/Philip Brown (TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO - Tags: SPORT CRICKET)

An umpire missing a no-ball is not the biggest crime in a game of cricket. It happens occasionally, it happens to the best of them, and it happens at every level of the game.

The captains may or may not comment on such mistakes, but when it happens in a high-profile club game (yes, it was a club game regardless of what Virat Kohli thought) in the IPL, the incident tends to attract much attention.

The Mumbai Indians versus Royal Challengers Bangalore match was handled by two of India’s finest umpires — Sundaram Ravi, the only Elite Panel umpire from the country and C.K. Nandan, who was given BCCI’s Umpire of the Year award a couple of years ago.

Vocal criticism

RCB skipper Kohli thought the no-ball decision (or lack of it) was “ridiculous”, his counterpart Rohit Sharma felt that a wide declared at the other end was unfair. Umpires are not allowed to defend themselves, but they don’t have to; their mistakes are in the public domain. Criticism is instantaneous.

Captains’ reactions to umpiring decisions are directly proportionate to their team’s performance. Losing captains have more to say, and more angrily than winning captains. It is bad enough when your team is not doing well, but when an umpiring decision adds to it, things can get hairy.

Yet, it is important to remember that Ravi’s decision off the last ball of the match from Lasith Malinga did not directly deprive RCB of a win; it deprived them of a free hit and a chance to win. Anything could still have happened.

What is significant is not what the teams lost — that will be known only when the knockouts are decided — but the lack of technological support in a high-dollar event like the IPL. Umpires’ errors can deprive a team of millions, and it is against this background that a system where the decision is made during the infringement rather than after it should be considered.

Use of technology

In the ideal world, bowling a no-ball will set off either a light or a ‘ping’ sound as when a service goes over the line at Wimbledon, giving the batsman a chance to take advantage of the call. More importantly, it takes the pressure off on-field umpires who have to shift their gaze from the bowler’s foot to the batsman’s reaction all the while hoping their reflexes will not let them down if a batsman hits the ball straight at them. With the kind of bats that are in use in modern cricket, an umpire getting hit is not something anyone wants to see.

The DRS, criticised when it was first used, and still some way from perfection, has achieved two important things: it has taken some of the pressure off umpires who know that the percentage of correct decisions has increased, and it has checked bad behaviour on this score by disappointed players.

Machine error is insignificant when compared to human error, and none of it is due to fatigue or emotion. Thousands of people screaming in a stadium has no effect on a DRS decision while it may cause an umpire to miss a snick or fail to spot a bowler overstepping.

The idea of having the third umpire decide on no-balls comes with built-in handicaps — a further stoppage of play, and a batsman deprived of a chance to take advantage. Technology is clearly the way to go, even if there will be the usual adjustment problems initially.

Educating umpires

Yet this is a good time to ask the question of Indian umpires. They are treated as necessary evils by a cricket board that has not had a proper umpires committee in two years. What happened to the Umpires Academy in Nagpur? Why is there no regular system of attracting First Class players to the fold? The money isn’t as bad as it used to be at the First Class level while an IPL umpire stands to gain around ₹40 lakh.

It was said of Indian umpires in the past that they were sound theoretically but lacked practical match experience. The question paper asked such things as what was the correct decision if a ball broke in two as it approached the batsman, or a fielder held one half of the ball which had broken in two while the other half crossed the boundary. Somehow disintegrating cricket balls seemed to fascinate the examiners.

Most Indian umpires, according to a BCCI official, don’t look down at the bowler’s front foot. Perhaps they leave it to the DRS to decide when there is a dismissal. The DRS, however, is of little use in a situation like the one where Malinga overstepped. A ‘ping’ from an electronic source would have made a difference — but then we come up against costs and logistics.

The DRS is the umpire’s helper. It cannot be the main decision-maker till artificial intelligence makes the human element obsolete. And that’s not happening anytime soon.

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