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.

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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.

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.