Riding the technology tiger

SOMETIMES, in our wisdom, we unleash monsters and then we are constrained to live with them. Technology in cricket was let loose a few years ago and I am afraid we now face the prospect of having it rule the game. Cricket can no longer dismount the tiger it has chosen to ride.

Sadly, technology is not the loving toy we thought we could cuddle at all times. There are some things it can do but a few that it cannot and we need to live with this reality as we feel our way through. Like with every new gadget there is a learning curve; initial scepticism, wholehearted acceptance and then an awareness of the limitation. Life rarely follows more logical patterns.

And so, after the initial mistrust of the television replay, comes the feeling that it is the closest you can get to god; to that divine judgement that no one can question. We are at stage two of the learning curve now and need to get very quickly to stage three, to an awareness of what the replay cannot do. This ICC Trophy offers a very interesting opportunity of doing just that, of trying to understand what the replay can and cannot do. In a sense we need to demystify the television replay, take away the halo that we presented it and look upon it as just another gadget that can help man.

In trying to understand what it has to offer, we need to speak to two kinds of people. The cricketers and umpires form one category and television professionals form the other. They need to be equally important and one cannot sit in judgement over the other.

Currently the only aspect of the replay that is definitely foolproof is the line decision. Stumpings, run-outs and boundary line decisions by themselves have contributed greatly to the final, laudable objective of being as fair as possible to the players (who, it must be mentioned are not fair to anyone at all by frequently appealing when they know a batsman is not out!). But there are problems with other areas where cricket wants to use replays, or at any rate, wants to experiment with them.

We now know that the replay is no good for low catches. In fact we knew it sometime ago but in our infatuation with technology, we refused to acknowledge it. It was a bit like the honeymoon period where the son-in-law can do no wrong. And so we have to go back to the oldest method, instinct. There is one advantage though with having gone to technology and that is a crucial one. The umpires know that they cannot be exposed by the replay on the low catches anymore and so can offer verdicts with confidence. That is the key. When the umpire is confident, he makes fewer mistakes.

Having flirted, and been rebuffed, we now transfer our attention elsewhere, to three specific areas; the thin snick, the bat-pad catch and the lbw. Each has its merits but critically, each has its limitations. When there is a decent snick, two things happen. You hear the sound and the ball deviates and in doing so, you can see the seam wobbling as it passes the bat. Unless there is a lot of noise around, such snicks are not difficult to pick. The problem for umpires is with the thin edge and it is my experience that this can be just as troublesome for the replay.

The small edges produce very little deviation and as a result, you need to go by the sound. The snickometer developed a few years ago attempted to do just that, indeed even sought to make a difference between the thud of something hitting pad and the click of something hitting wood. It had a fair success ratio with the sound, not as much with the quality of the sound and still needed an umpire to adjudicate on where the sound might have come from. It was good but not foolproof and that is not a good enough explanation for the batsman who has just been sent back.

That is also why bat-pad catches are unlikely to have a high success ratio. The trick here is to figure out whether there was bat involved at any stage, not whether the ball hit bat first or pad first because, unlike with the lbw verdict, the order doesn't matter here. When bat and pad are locked together, as they must for good batsmanship, the thin edges are very difficult to pick up. I fear that using replays here might work excessively in favour of the batsman, as we discovered with the low catches. By asking for the replay, the umpire will establish doubt and then if the replay is inconclusive, as it will be several times, the benefit will have to go to the batsman.

The lbw is the most interesting, and the most revolutionary. The current experiment confined itself to direction and bounce and my experience points to an uncertain verdict on the latter count. The trajectory the ball will follow after hitting the pad is a matter of individual judgement and opinions on the bounce can vary quite widely. And so while the umpire in the middle might interpret it one way, the third umpire might go quite differently. Effectively when the man in the middle asks for help on the bounce, he is saying "I think it pitched in line but I am not sure if it would have gone over the stumps." But currently, not many people are convinced that the replay can answer that question with certainty.

Use of the replay to determine whether the ball pitched in line, or hit the batsman in line, is much easier and certainly, more conclusive. Like with line decisions, you follow the picture, not use it as a tool to make a decision. If the ball is on the matted area between the two sets of stumps, it is in line and that doesn't take much time to determine. Having said that you still need the technician who generates the mat on the screen to be competent!

On the tour of England we had the opportunity to discuss the use of Hawkeye to rule on lbw decisions and the consensus is that we need to wait a while. The claim on Hawkeye is that it is 99% accurate which is better than any umpire can claim to be. While that claim needs to be verified, the bigger problem is that currently, Hawkeye cannot track every ball. I believe the technology there is very promising even if it is currently being treated with great scepticism by the players. My feeling is that it challenges currently held principles on lbws (balls that seem high are often projected to hit the stumps) and that is where the opposition is coming from. I am not sure that is a good enough reason.

The debate on technology will continue because television will continue to seek newer ways of entertaining its audiences. Currently the ICC is riding on the investments made by television companies whose master is the audience, not the administration. If a new gadget is 90% accurate, television might want to consider using it if it adds to the value a viewer gets from the telecast. That is not a good enough percentage for the ICC. However, the sophistication that the ICC needs may not be worthwhile for television producers who work to strict budgets. If the ICC wants to use technology it needs to make an investment not hope that television companies will do it for them. Assume, for example, that Hawkeye becomes an accepted tool to judge on lbws but the television production budget on a Sri Lanka vs Bangladesh series cannot afford having the technology on site, do we then use it in some matches but not in others?

Technology is a nebulous issue at the moment but it needs to pass through that stage. Unless it is nebulous today, it cannot become precise tomorrow. That is the way of all progress and so we must wait, and go wrong occasionally. Till then we must ride the tiger as well as we can.