Remove the Penalty Runs signals from the attack

How many of the 14 umpiring signals can you name and recognise? Some are certainly more familiar than others. Top of the list is probably “out” – “raising an index finger above the head”. Next in line would be the boundary signals: “boundary four” being “waving an arm from side to side finishing with the arm across the chest” and “boundary six” being “raising both arms above the head.” These are familiar to even those with only a casual acquaintance with the game.

Next would come those familiar only to those with some knowledge of the game, including such gestures as “no ball” (“extending one arm horizontally”) and “bye” (“raising an open hand above the head”). Even signals such as “revoke” (“touching both shoulders, each with last signal the opposite hand”) are becoming more familiar, thanks to DRS. However, even amongst players, it’s surprising how some are unfamiliar with the signals, let alone the underlying laws.

At the bottom of the list in Law 3.14 come the rarely seen signals such as “new ball” (“holding the ball above the head”) and “short run” (“bending one arm upwards and touching the nearer shoulder with the tips of the fingers”). Considering that the occasions on which players would see these are few and far between, it’s excusable for your average player not to know them.

Scorers, of course, have to recognise all the signals, as their recognition or non-recognition may have a direct impact on the result – a short run missed, for instance, could turn a tie into a loss.

There are, however, two particularly troublesome signals that I wish to criticise. These are the signals for five penalty runs awarded to the batting and fielding sides respectively. To illustrate my point, can you, without checking, state what these are?

I’ll even give you the definitions for the two maddeningly similar signals:

  • “placing one hand on the opposite shoulder”
  • “repeated tapping of one shoulder with the opposite hand”

Can you determine, without simply guessing at random, which means the runs are awarded to the batting side, and which to the fielding side?

As far as I can see, there’s nothing that obviously associates either gesture with either team. The closest I’ve got is that “repeated tapping” might suggest hitting an object, and so could be loosely tied to the batting team. Weak as that may be, it’s better than the “placing one hand” on the shoulder that indicates awarding runs to the fielding side. Perhaps placing the hand around the ball of the shoulder could be reminiscent of gripping a cricket ball. Unfortunately, this could easily instead suggest ball-tampering, thus giving exactly the wrong idea of who the runs should be awarded to.
By contrast, several of the more common signals have a good match with the real world. It doesn’t take a genius to see, for instance, how waving a hand translates to “bye”. Even slightly more obscure ones like “boundary four” can be interpreted as the action for sweeping or pulling a ball to the boundary.

If a missed short run could alter a match result, then it’s clear that awarding 5 runs to the wrong team could have an even greater impact, leading to a 10-run error. Theoretically the scorers should check with the umpires; however, in real-life situations, things don’t always work out that way.

At this point I’d like to bring in some concepts from a field more associated with technology, that of usability. We can regard the umpire signalling as a system, the users of which are the scorer, umpire, and players. There are a few principles that bear on the design of these signals.

Of the famous 10 Usability Heuristics that Jakob Nielsen listed, two in particular seem to be violated:

“Error prevention: even better than good error messages [umpires alerting scorers to the incorrect score] is a careful design which prevents a problem from occurring in the first place. […] Eliminate error-prone conditions […].”
“Match between system and the real world: The system should speak the users’ language, with words, phrases and concepts familiar to the user […] Follow real-world conventions […].”

On both these heuristics the Penalty Runs signals don’t fare well. Their similarity causes confusion and their lack of reference to the real world makes them hard to decipher. Are they the best we can do?

Having said all that, I have no firm suggestions for what could replace them. Since a significant amount of their confusion is down to their similarity, I would say that only one needs to be replaced: the one that awards runs to the fielding side.

It’s tempting to incorporate the “five” element into the gesture, since, as of 2014, that is the number of runs awarded. Since it’s conceivable that the number might be altered by MCC at some stage, though, perhaps it would be best not to use it.

The best I have come up with so far is “raising a clenched fist vertically above the head.” The clenched fist would signify the ball, and the arm position would also suggest bowling, thus associating it with the fielding side. It should be possible for the scorer to differentiate it from the signal for “bye”, since the latter involves waving, and from “out”, since that specifies an index finger to be raised.

I’m interested to hear other suggestions on this topic. In the meantime, though, we have to be realistic – the signal won’t change. As a scorer, there’s no option other than learning the official signals, and learning them correctly.

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