DRS: power to the players, not the umpires

The pitch at Trent Bridge was so lifeless that it almost succeeded in even deadening the interminable drone about DRS that always seems to accompany any high-profile series. With England—India, though, DRS is always a handy fallback topic, thanks to the BCCI’s continued intransigence on the subject. N Srinivasan stated in December 2012 that “We don’t believe the technology is good enough”. With the increased powers that the BCCI has in the ICC, the cry of the casual, unsuspecting fan on Twitter that the ICC should force the BCCI to accept DRS is laughable.

Nevertheless, there is some talk that India may be coming round to the idea, although naturally not officially. The BCCI’s increased power may, curiously, encourage them to engage in some goodwill gestures. They now have the money; they can afford to be generous, and bask in the glow of their magnanimous actions. We’re not “a bully”: look at how reasonable we are in being willing to listen and yield to the rest of the ICC on DRS.

A key point is that accuracy of ball-tracking has improved drastically since its inception. Mike Selvey, a self-described sceptic, has been won over by this. Martin Crowe, who expresses the opposing view well, has not.

Both Crowe and Selvey suggest, however, the possibility of beneficial changes to DRS. Crowe is unconvinced of the accuracy of the predictive path, and would prefer abandoning that part of the system. Selvey, by contrast, is impressed with the apparent accuracy of current technology, and toys with the possibility of taking the DRS away from the players and into the hands of the third umpire. Furthermore, it has been suggested that this may provide the BCCI with a way to save face, should they feel it necessary.

Those who view a player-initiated review as essentially a whitewashed form of dissent may welcome a removal of such power from the player. I am afraid, though, I do not share Selvey’s view that moving the power to review from players to the third umpire “has some merit.” I view it as a terrible idea, for at least three reasons.

1. Umpires would have no function in LBW decisions

If the third umpire were to check every LBW decision, there would be absolutely no point to the on-field umpires even knowing the LBW law. You would have the curious situation wherein the umpires standing in domestic first-class cricket would need greater skills than those in the international game.

2. The game would run even slower

We already see virtually every run-out decision referred to the TV umpire. This is an acceptable use of time, since they are relatively rare, happening perhaps once every few hours. Yet LBWs are inherently much trickier to judge, so in due course, in an attempt to avoid criticism, on-field umpires would end up referring all but the most blatantly obvious LBW appeals.

Over rates, already low, would worsen, as the game stops every time the ball hits the pads, for the third umpire to confirm that it was, indeed, not out, on most occasions. Test cricket does not need any further reduction in pace: quite the opposite.

3. Player dissent would increase

Let us suppose that, in order to mitigate the above two disadvantages, the system is set up so that not every decision is referred; rather, the on-field umpire can choose whether to refer it or not. The result? Players will simply attempt to coerce the umpire into referring decisions that they think are borderline. (I have a recollection that trials of this system yielded precisely that outcome, but have been unable to find the details.)

In a slightly different set-up, during 2012 a third-umpire intervention system was tested out in Australia, with the TV umpire having the power to overrule a decision if he considered it controversial. It was scrapped mid-season, with the players unhappy with what was perceived as inconsistency and confusion over its application. Daniel Brettig reported that players would hang around on the field, hoping for an overrule, which had a knock-on impact on the rhythm of the game.

We come back to what the DRS is intended to remedy: the “howler”. Selvey rightly asks how one is supposed to differentiate between a howler and a non-howler. Where does one draw the line? Selvey sensibly indicates the absurdity of attempting to decide which decisions players may or may not review, on the basis of a sort of volume of howl. Players should be allowed to squander their reviews. Yet this does not mean that the third umpire should be given the option of overruling, as discussed. Players should be miserly with their reviews, and only use them up if they genuinely believe a blatant error has been made. Any blame for a poor decision thus remains on the players, not the umpires. Crowe goes so far as to call for the number of challenges in Tests to be reduced from two to one.

In conclusion, however, Selvey’s article made me reconsider one point that I have previously been pretty firm on: the question of whether an “umpire’s call” verdict should use up a player’s review. As it happens, I am still of the opinion that it should. Yet Selvey’s experience indicates that the margin of error is much less than I envisaged, down to about one millimetre. This suggests that “umpire’s call” verdicts are much less doubtful than might be thought: a clip of a bail is still a clip.

If the corresponding uncertainty has therefore been reduced, one of two things should be done: either 1) leave the system as it is, but dramatically reduce the yellow “umpire’s call” zone to reflect the actual accuracy of the projection, or 2) allow teams to re-use their review, since their referral has been shown to be justified. I would opt for the former. To do so, however, requires confidence in the accuracy really being as high as the manufacturers, hardly disinterested parties, claim it is. Stringent, transparent, independent verification is needed for confidence in the system.

It remains to be seen what the BCCI will do, if anything, as regards DRS. As stated earlier, there may be little political need for them to change. In search of good PR, though, we might see them make a popular decision.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *