Umpiring Technocrats

THE Protestant Revolution in the 16th century England forced the Northern Catholic Public School of Stoney Hurst College to migrate to the more tolerant climate of Rouen in France. It took with it its game of "Stoney Hurst Cricket". One of the outcomes of this move was the introduction into the game of the "non pair" — a French term, later modified into "umpire" or "odd-man out" — meaning an impartial arbiter, to adjudicate on disputed or close decisions.

Umpiring has progressed a long way since those ancient days. The passage of time brought the addition of a second umpire, complete with his club — which in the early days of the game was touched by the striker with his own bat to register a run. The advent of the 20th and 21st centuries witnessed the phenomenal advance of technology and the coming of the sophisticated age of the third, off-the-field umpire — accompanied by all of the electronic gadgets, which supposedly make the job of his on-the-field colleagues much simpler. The game's arbiters now have at their disposal "slo-mo video replays" which enable them to analyse the minutiae of a game — right down to the events, which take place in the space of a nano-second. The invention of such computer programs as "Hawk-Eye" and the "Snickometer" provides the means for the third umpire to plot the line and bounce of the ball — the better to resolve potential lbw decisions — or determine whether or not the batsman has edged the ball. In this way, science provides hard cold facts for the third umpire, who can then assess them in the contemplative calm of his television booth — before passing them on to the on-field adjudicators to reinforce their objective decisions.

Opinions on the value of technical assistance for umpires are divided. Some traditionalists incline to the view that waiting for the third umpire's verdict slows down the pace of an already painfully slow game. Others think that it de-humanises the sport, robbing umpiring decisions of the human uncertainty, which to some degree makes up cricket's charm. Many oppose the introduction of expensive technical equipment on the basis that it cannot be employed at every level of the game. They say that not every club will have a "slo-mo video-tape" facility at its disposal — nor be financial enough to purchase or hire the equipment necessary to the role of the third umpire. Some opponents of the third-umpire principle also argue that the awareness of the on-field judges that they can, `in extremis', rely on the fallback support of their colleague in the television booth, lessens their on-field concentration and diminishes the intensity of their focus on the critical factors of each delivery and every stroke. One final negative against the "slo-mo video" supporters: recent use of the equipment suggests that the movement analysis of deliveries or strokes — no matter how slow the movements may be or how fast the video camera — often does not freeze-frame the action quickly enough. Consequently it often fails to clarify catches which result from edges off bat or glove, when those catches are further deflected off the batsman's body or arms. The angle from which such incidents are recorded is also often crucially unsuitable.

One further annoying spin-off of the instant-replay revolution is that it has made every spectator an expert — whether he or she is crouched in front of the television screens in their lounge-rooms or staring up at their huge counterparts at the match grounds.

With millions of television viewers and spectators ready and quick to condemn their every error, who would be an umpire? The unfortunate umps are the coconuts in the coconut shy, with everyone having a go at them — always with the advantage of hindsight and innumerable videotape replays. To fulfill their role adequately, it appears that umpires have to become technocrats who must master the Laws of Cricket and gain a degree in applied science if they are to learn every angle of their job. It seems that they must now go out to the middle equipped with ball counters, light meters, note books and ball gauges PLUS pocket protractors, ready to assess the legitimacy or otherwise of a kinky bowling action in which the bowler bends his bowling elbow more than 15 degrees! No doubt, in due time they will be equipped with hand-held computers and they will adopt the mantra of the England coach, Duncan Fletcher, who, it is said, coaches pace bowler, Matthew Hoggard in the effective use of the bowling crease with cries of "Trigonometry! Trigonometry!" Wholesale changes to the Laws of Cricket and the men who interpret them are not the style of cricket's conservative administrators. They prefer to tinker with the rules rather than revolutionise them.

Consequently they have left as much room as possible for human variations in the roles, which umpires play in cricket. Thus in its initial usage the "video-tape slo-mo" equipment was restricted to interpreting decisions better and more easily viewed and taped from positions at right-angles to the pitch: run-outs, stumpings, catches close to the ground and doubtful boundaries etc.

More experiments were conducted during the recent Australia v World XI matches in the One-Day and Test Series in Melbourne and Sydney. In October, slow motion video replays were used to determine the line and length of deliveries producing possible lbw decisions and snicks on to the pad — the information being relayed from the third umpire to his colleagues on the field in order to facilitate their decisions. At no time did the third umpire offer suggested decisions: he merely answered questions and passed on facts. Nor was the "Hawk-Eye" equipment employed to determine whether the ball in a possible lbw shout would have gone on to hit the stumps; for even "Hawk-Eye" is fallible on pitches of varying bounce and surfaces taking various degrees of cut and spin.

The introduction of electronic umpiring is not intended to supercede the functions of the umpire at the bowler's end. He remains the supreme authority in determining lbw decisions, and whether the batsman edges a catch to the 'keeper or a close fieldsman. Indeed the technocrats have sought as much as possible to preserve the functions of the "straight down the pitch" umpire. In addition it is worth noting that the on-field umpires retain supreme control of the game and the final decision regarding any event rests in their hands. The third umpire's function is to furnish information, which assists the decisions of the field umpires; he may answer questions but cannot proffer judgments. But why should the television umpire not hand down decisions in the same way as his fellow arbiters? Presumably he has the same competency in his knowledge of the Laws and their interpretations — else he would not have reached the senior status of an official standing in a game in which a third umpire is appointed. His experience would be just as extensive as that of his colleagues. In his recent Lord Cowdrey "Spirit of Cricket" speech at Lord's, that stormy petrel of English cricket, Geoff Boycott, advocated that more, and not less, use should be made of technical aids in arriving at umpiring decisions — a suggestion which would necessarily involve a greater employment of the third umpire. Whilst I do not always agree with Boyc's views, I think that in this case he has got it right.

Umpires' decisions should, above all, be correct and any umpiring methodology, which eliminates error, should be adopted. Like Boycott, I am of the opinion that if computer-assisted programs such as "Hawk-Eye" and the "Snickometer" minimise or eradicate human error in umpiring, the time has come to cease pussyfooting around the issue. Adopt them — no matter how dehumanising the process! That way lies progress.