Eng v NZ, Edgbaston 2021: Soft signals, hard questions

The second in a series of first-person reflections on experiencing cricket in 2021.

The difference between in-person and on-screen viewing was vividly brought home by England’s second outing of the summer.

At the most basic level, this applied to attending or watching from home. After a year of enforced watching from home, tempting emails had been sent and received. “We are the Fortress. We are Edgbaston. And Test cricket is back in Birmingham next week…Around 18,000 spectators can attend each day of the England v New Zealand Test Match as part of the government’s Events Research Programme (ERP) – and you can join them. […] Prices starting from just £20 [for Days 4 and 5].” £20 for the chance to mingle again – no social distancing! – with 18000 others, drinking beer and singing – of a sort – in the Hollies stand. As the chants rang out, it reinforced the conviction that this was how live sport was meant to be experienced.

It was the incident on the second day, however, that threw up another old difference in viewing: the contrast between the on-field umpires’ live view and the TV umpire’s screen-mediated view.

The scenario was similar and not unfamiliar. Devon Conway nicked Stuart Broad to third slip. Zak Crawley appeared to take a diving catch, but it was not clear whether it was clean. The umpires conferred and decided to send it upstairs, with a soft signal of “not out”. The TV umpire, on replay, decided the ball had clearly touched the ground and returned a decision of not out.

Broad, it may come as a surprise to those only accustomed to his on-field enthusiasm, often speaks well, thoughtfully, and perceptively off the field. In a Sky interview, he declared later: “if the umpires are unsure, let’s go through the amazing technology we’ve got and get the right decision.” He also claimed that “when you calmly look at the positives, the pros of the soft signal and the cons of the soft signal, the cons completely outweigh the pros.”

Unfortunately for his case, a calm consideration reveals exactly the opposite to be true. Nick Friend’s article for thecricketer.com explains well why scrapping the soft signal would not work in the way Broad presumably imagines. Put simply, it would do nothing to help progress a situation where the footage is unclear: such scenarios would still require a (potentially controversial) judgment call having to be made. To that, this point could also be added: the soft signal increases the chance of the “right”* decision for the reason that the soft signal ensures that the input of the officials closest to the action is factored in.

To remove the soft signal would be to reduce the amount of relevant information considered. Thanks to perspective compression, that will almost certainly reduce the number of catches that are given. I doubt this is what Broad would be hoping for.

Jason Holder’s claim that the soft signal is being allowed to “cloud” the game is also misdirected in its ire. The cloudiness comes from situations arising that are difficult to judge, whether in real-time or when replayed. The soft signal does not increase the cloudiness, or more formally the uncertainty, but reduces it. The umpires are making their best judgment and providing their opinion. They shouldn’t be criticised for doing so but neither is there any need to pity them or suggest that they need to be relieved of this responsibility.

Though it was welcome to hear sympathetic expressions for the umpires from Broad, it was hard to escape the impression that his criticism of soft signals was directly linked to the decision not falling his way on this occasion. It seems that he has, incorrectly, equated “what TV pictures seem to show” with “what actually happened” (in his view). (Ironically, judging by the vocalised deliberations of the TV umpire, the verdict would have been not out, even if no soft signal had been given.) The broader issue (no pun intended) is that we tend to give too much weight to technology and insufficient weight to the judgment of human umpires.

Yet technology has tended to confirm that human umpires are extremely good at their jobs. Recall that by the time they have graduated to Test level, they will likely have adjudicated on hundreds of catches. Yes, their ground level view may be 40 yards away from the action, but the nearest camera may be 70 yards away. We shouldn’t underestimate the power of the human eye and the human brain to make a reasonable judgment.

You could also view this in a very reductive sense, if one were to classify the human brain as a computer: removing the umpires’ opinions would then be a case of removing two highly trained neural networks from the task. (However, if one were to assemble a silicon-based neural network making similar judgment, I predict that a high number of people would happily accept it on being told that it was “AI” and therefore supposedly more accurate/impartial/perceptive.)

Broad may or may not know that an alteration to the soft signal protocol has already been mooted by the MCC World Cricket Committee, designed to prevent the umpires from having to offer an opinion where they are both genuinely unsighted, for instance for a boundary catch.

In addition, there is one modification to the soft-signal protocol that would be worth considering, in the light of this incident. Broad’s claim that the TV umpire’s hands are “tied” by the soft signal is a gross exaggeration: ICC playing conditions state that the soft signal is only used if the TV umpire advises that “the replay evidence is inconclusive”. However, there is a grain of sense in that claim: as was suggested on social media, might the TV umpire be subsconciously influenced by his colleagues’ soft signal? To counteract that possibility, why not keep the on-field umpires’ decision initially hidden? The protocol would then look like this:

  1. On-field umpires agree that they are not sure.
  2. On-field umpires note their “soft” decision but do not reveal it.
  3. On-field umpires ask the TV umpire to review the catch.
  4. TV umpire reviews the catch and returns one of three verdicts:
    1. Conclusively Out.
    2. Conclusively Not out.
    3. Inconclusive.
  5. If the TV umpire returns a verdict of Conclusively Out or Conclusively Not Out, that decision is used.
  6. If the TV umpire returns Inconclusive, the on-field umpires’ “soft” decision is revealed and used.

This would maintain the primacy of the on-field umpires while making full use of the TV umpire’s facilities.

We should be grateful that in Test cricket, we don’t have to rely solely on the on-field umpires’ snap reaction, nor solely on the TV umpire’s protracted deliberations – both of which are shaped, for better and for worse, by the manner in which they perceive the action, and the method in which it is presented to them. Rather, we have a protocol that makes use of the technology when neeeded (which also, let’s not forget, requires a judgment call by a human umpire).

As is the case with simply viewing a match as an onlooker: sometimes TV is best; sometimes in-person is best. The game’s richer for both options.

*”Right decision” is left in quotation marks because, arguably, there is no such thing as a definitively “right” decision; at some level a degree of opinion will always come into play, even with a fully-automated technological solution – but that’s a subject for another time.

Eng vs NZ, Lord’s 2021: Shortchanged or short memories?

The first of a series of first-person reflections on experiencing cricket in 2021.

“Home, home again. I like to be here when I can.”

Pink Floyd’s lyrics from The Dark Side Of The Moon were not, presumably, written about the Home of Cricket™, but after a nigh-on two-year pandemic-enforced exile from Lord’s, they seemed applicable. The last time was the incinerator that was the England vs Ireland match in July 2019; this year, same stand, different model: the new Compton stand.

The heat was there, though not to the same extent. (I still can’t understand why the new stands haven’t provided more than cursory cover.) So were the exceptionally friendly stewards. And so was, naturally, the criticism of the home team.

Poor old England. Battle away for ten sessions, keep a foothold in the game, and then find yourselves blasted for caution, for “shortchanging” spectators. I’ve checked my ticket and nowhere did it guarantee a result. Nor did it promise a run chase. (An issue more relevant to shortchanging relates to failing to get the minimum overs, one I’ve discussed elsewhere.) It promised, conditions permitting, a day’s Test match cricket, and a hard-fought day’s cricket was what we received.

More than anything, it reveals our short memory as cricket consumers; or maybe Stokes’ 135* has permanently spoiled us. The facts should, however, have spoken for themselves:

  • England had played 36 Tests in the previous 3 years. Of them, 31 ended in an outright result. Four, all rain-affected, ended in a draw.
  • Two Tests ago at Lord’s, England were bowled out for 85.
  • A successful chase of 276 would have been the third-highest of 38 at Lord’s. Had NZ set a target seven runs higher – as presumably they would have, had not rain intervened and an early lunch prompted Williamson to declare sooner than anticipated – 276 would have been the second-highest, only eclipsed by the Greenidge-powered outlier of 342.
  • Williamson’s action was not a “sporting declaration”, as revealed the the fact that immediately following it, England’s WinViz nudged upwards by just 4%, while New Zealand’s jumped by around 8%. This is no criticism of Williamson, but is meant to demonstrate that it was hardly the game-opening act of generosity that it might have seemed on the surface.

Scyld Berry compared this series to the 1945 Victory Tests (I’d have preferred the Vectory Tests, after the PM’s memorable and hastily withdrawn 2020 description of a cricket ball), and suggested that ECB management should have instructed Root to go for the runs. With all respect to the learned Berry, however, unlike the Victory “Tests” (which weren’t Tests at all) these weren’t simply high-profile first-class games. Real Test runs were being hunted; averages built or eroded; careers launched or perhaps concluded. Although they lay outside the World Test Championship, they counted towards ICC Test Rankings: a series win for NZ would have returned them to No. 1, while a 2-0 England win would have lifted them to No. 2. Furthermore, the captain and his team have to make their own decisions regarding the game: it would be quite unwarranted and unwelcome for the management to attempt to interfere.

As a spectator, naturally I was hoping that England would go for the runs, and even in hindsight there’s no question that it would have been more fun – but more because England would have, in all likelihood have been clinging on 7 or 8 down rather than 3 down. It’s odd that a team that does the former, despite performing measurably worse, is more likely to gain plaudits for demonstrating “character”, than a team that does the latter and avoids getting into such a situation to begin with.

It wasn’t thrill-a-minute action, but I found it heartening, in a perverse sort of way, that England dared to be dull. That the phrase “attacking brand of cricket” would be unlikely to feature in the press conference. That Sibley relentlessly accumulated, blocking out both ball and jeer from ostensibly England supporters. Come future overseas tours, we’ll be glad of his granitelike obduracy.

Most of all, though, by the end of the day, I was glad to be home.

Joe’s Averages

As cricket gingerly limbers up and takes its first steps into its brave new bio-secure world, one might wonder that Joe Denly is still in it.

Another Test, another underwhelming return of 18 from 58. He is now averaging under 30 from his 16 Tests. Compton, Malan, and Vince were all returning similar figures (Vince actually a smidgeon over 30) when they were dropped, terminally in the case of Compton.

It is the manner of his dismissals that invites particular scrutiny: this time, bowled through the gate. He has been bowled or LBW five times in his last seven innings, suggesting a technical weakness is surfacing fast. Similar charges have been levelled against Bairstow – now out of favour – and unlike Johnny, Joe does not have the excuse of an excess of ODI cricket.

Why, then, does Ed Smith persist with ? Is it merely a case of loyalty or a soft spot for his old Kent mucker?

The following table should cast some light on why Denly may be valued as he is.

PlayerInnsRunsHSAveBFSRAv BPI
AN Cook361343244*38.37279748.0178
JE Root69281022641.32533252.777
RJ Burns30100913333.63225244.875
JL Denly277989429.55201639.5875
BA Stokes572123135*40.05388554.6468
DJ Malan2672414027.84176241.0868
MD Stoneman205266027.68118844.2759
KK Jennings26573146*22.92136741.9153
JC Buttler44135610632.28227959.4952
JM Bairstow56153411927.89279254.9450
CR Woakes27586137*24.41105855.3839
MM Ali407618419.51148151.3837
SM Curran307117827.34107466.236
MJ Leach182209218.3355439.7131
SCJ Broad564635610.2877259.9714
JM Anderson4280125.3331525.398
England batsmen, 9 July 2017 – 9 July 2020 (minimum 10 Tests). Source: ESPNcricinfo Statsguru

The key metric here is average balls faced per innings (BPI). Over the last three years, no non-opener has faced more balls per innings bar Root. Denly, despite his low batting average, is adept at soaking up deliveries, and his position in the top order means that he can lay a foundation for the stroke-playing middle order – not in scoring runs, but in blunting the attack and aging the ball. With potentially free-flowing players such as Stokes, Pope, and Buttler down the order, the value of this shouldn’t be underestimated.

For comparison, Compton’s BPI was 72, Malan’s 68, and Vince’s 63, meaning Denly compares favourably to all the discards. Bairstow languishes at 50 over the 3-year timeframe; Buttler, hanging on, is little better at 52.

Denly’s USP – to use a trendy acronym – is also his vulnerability. The problem for him is that his strength should, in theory, be pretty easy to replicate: it should not be so unique. As soon as England have a batsman who can simply stay there, regardless of scoring, his “unique selling point” evaporates.

The problem for England is that this apparently simple task has been beyond their batsmen of late. The new men may buck that trend; Crawley has a BPI of 56 from 4.5 Tests, but Pope a BPI of 72 from 7.5 – with that important “1” in the centuries column. As soon as either or both of them manage to both survive and score consistently, Denly’s place will be close to unjustifiable, unless by then he’s started scoring serious runs as well.

To mangle an old expression: it’s not about how many, it’s about how many.