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.

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