Smith, DRS and dire straits!

After the controversial DRS incident involving Australian captain Steve Smith in the Bengaluru Test, about which Indian skipper Virat Kohli had a lot to say, the BCCI and Cricket Australia backed their captains and later smoked the peace pipe. But what was inexplicable was the ICC’s refusal to punish a blatant error made by Smith. Truth be told, he got away lightly.

That there is no love lost between the respective captains, Steve Smith and Virat Kohli, in the ongoing series is no secret. Here Smith exults at Kohli’s fall in the first innings in Bengaluru.   -  PTI

The obsession to arrive at correct decisions on the umpiring front in cricket, could be traced to a combative and suave individual about three and a half decades ago. Imran Khan, one of the game’s greats, could no longer accept the barbs fired by visiting teams ambushed on the various grounds in Pakistan.

The snide refrain then was that Pakistan had a 13-member playing eleven! The insinuation hinted at host umpires acting as appendages of Imran’s men.

‘Try and get Javed Miandad out lbw in Pakistan,’ was another dare. Many senior correspondents, who crossed the Wagah border or landed in Karachi or Lahore, did declare over nostalgic nights spent with a drink in hand, that Pakistan indeed drew additional strength from pliable umpires but there was no denying the inherent strengths of Imran’s squad.

The proud Pathan that he was, Imran could no longer accept the constant jibes and he fervently lobbied for neutral umpires, just to obviate the perception of a patriotic-bias seeping into home umpires.

The DRS incident in Bengaluru that soured the relationship between the teams. Umpire Nigel Llong has declared Smith out and is asking Kohli to cool down.   -  REUTERS

Neutral umpires became a reality and gradually match-referees were introduced, third and fourth umpires too were present across the ropes and in sanitised rooms with just a television beaming live-telecast for company. And they were at hand to give counsel when on-field umpires sought a referral on tricky catches, stumpings and run-outs.

The zeal for umpiring accuracy and accountability eventually paved the way for the Decision Review System (DRS), where players and captains could seek a second-opinion of the third-umpire. It seemed an organic progression and a welcome addition to the operation clean-up that Imran had launched in the mid-1980s.

Since 2008, the International Cricket Council has embarked on fine-tuning the DRS and has even won over India, initially a reluctant ally in this endeavour. India’s bone of contention was that unless and until technology-aids are fool-proof or at least closer to 100 per cent reliability, it would oppose the use of DRS in bilateral series but would comply with it in ICC tournaments.

A thaw did set in and India is now very much part of the DRS bandwagon and the current Tests against Australia, are a case in point. The rules of engagement remain the same — teams are allowed a maximum of two unsuccessful reviews for 80 overs in an innings, a luxury allowed again in the next set of 80 overs.

The trick for teams, is to maximise successful reviews and it is a discretionary call made by the batsman, who has been adjudged out or by the fielding captain when an appeal for dismissal has been turned down. It is understood that key batsmen, will essentially try their luck with the DRS and fielding teams will press for a review against a critical willow-wielder and obviously against the rival captain.

So far, so good but has there been cricketing utopia since the DRS came into vogue? A retrospective gaze at the recent past yields a ‘no’ and it isn’t the fault of the review system but a damning indictment of some captains, who keep pushing the boundaries of fair-play. The second Test between India and Australia at Bengaluru’s M. Chinnaswamy Stadium was one for the ages. A down-on-the-mat India, plagued by a first-innings deficit, mounted a stirring comeback and won the game by 75 runs to draw level at 1-1 with still two Tests remaining in Ranchi and Dharamshala. Yet, the over-riding image of the game was the one involving Australian captain Steve Smith vis-a-vis DRS and the subsequent rightful indictment of him by host skipper Virat Kohli in a press conference.

His team precariously placed, Smith was struck low on his pads by Umesh Yadav. The speedster went up in appeal, which was immediately upheld. Smith, aware of his significance to his squad, discussed with non-striker Peter Handscomb.

All this was within the ambit of the law but the next few seconds proved damning. Smith stared at his dressing room, even mildly signalled with his hand and the sub-text was obvious — he was seeking opinion from his mates on whether it was worth going for a review. It was a clear violation of the rule which states: “Under no circumstances is any player permitted to query an umpire about any aspect of a decision before deciding on whether or not to request a Player Review. If the umpires believe that the captain or batsman has received direct or indirect input emanating other than from the players on the field, then they may at their discretion decline the request for a Player Review. In particular, signals from the dressing room must not be given.”

An incensed Kohli made vocal his views and on-field umpire Nigel Llong admonished Smith. A chastised Australian captain subsequently skipped the review and trudged back but the damage was done. His later excuse of suffering a ‘brain-fade’ was a terrible euphemism. Smith had slipped badly and his boyish looks or his exemplary batting skills cannot mask his clear attempt to cut corners when it came to the rules of the game.

Kohli was right in castigating his counterpart. When an Australian journalist asked the Indian skipper about whether he was trying to say that Smith ‘cheated’, Kohli’s riposte was quick and politically correct: “I didn’t say it but you said it.”

The ripples were felt long and though Australia tried to do damage control, there was no sympathy. The truth is Kohli was on a moral high-ground. He even reiterated that seeking dressing room inputs on reviews by the Australian team, had been going on for a while in the Test concerned. Sections of the travelling Australian media tried to portray Kohli as being churlish and stated that he and his men were guilty of rousing tempers and sledging excessively. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black!

The BCCI and Cricket Australia backed their respective captains and later smoked the peace pipe. But what was inexplicable was the ICC’s refusal to punish a blatant error made by Smith. Truth be told, he got away lightly.

The fall-out of the incident has drawn attention to the DRS but it remains part of an endeavour to make cricket as fair as possible though umpiring legend Dickie Bird has been often critical of technology’s intrusion enfeebling the on-field umpire. Another Indian umpire, who didn’t want to be named, said: “Technology cannot predict swing, the way a cross-breeze affects movement, the impact of low-slung clouds and the vagaries of the pitch. It just makes for good television.”

Despite the doubts, DRS is here to stay. The controversies stemming from it are often caused by the way it is sought by rival captains. In the Bengaluru Test, Shaun Marsh could have asked for a review on the lbw against him but he sacrificed that in favour of his skipper Smith, as Australia had just one review left. If teams could make the right calls in seeking reviews, it would go a long way in avoiding controversy.

But it is easier said than done. Yet the feeling lingers that the ICC in going soft on Smith, has inadvertently delivered a blow on its own pet project — the DRS. In the future, cricketers might try to find even more discreet ways of seeking inputs from the dressing room and that is not done.