If technology can avert mistakes, why shy away from it?


The page in Prabhat Khabar where this article (translated of course) appeared

You may shut your ears to the raging debate on corruption in the country but there is no escape from the argument over the International Cricket Council’s recent decision to implement a watered down version of the Decision Review System in all forms of international cricket and over how the Board of Control for Cricket in India has called the shots in getting ICC to drop ball tracking technology (Hawk Eye) from the list of aids for TV umpires.

And I paused to think if anybody has been able to stop the march of time or the advent of technology. We have come a long way from using valve radios to transistors to digital radio; from using typewriters to computers; from telephones to mobile phones; from cars that guzzled fuel to machines that are fuel efficient. Yes, technology touches our lives in every which way possible and it is natural that it makes its presence felt in cricket too – not just with making the TV viewing experience a memorable one but also in ensuring that umpires make the right decisions.

Before anything else, let us try and understand why the Decision Review System (DRS) came into being.  A little bit of history of the advent of the TV umpire will help. Back in 1992-93, cricket embraced TV technology to help umpires with line decisions – stumping and run out dismissals as well. Gradually, umpires started looking at replays for catches taken in the close in cordon to see if the fielder caught the ball cleanly or if a portion the ball hit the ground before being scooped up.

With the quantum improvement of TV technology, umpires’ mistakes were exposed and scrutinised like never before. So, sitting in your drawing room, you would get to know the mistakes they committed. Even if the percentage of correct decision-making was 92 or 93 per cent, the wrong decisions would get noticed and talked about at length in various media platforms.

So the mandarins of the game felt a need to improve that percentage to 97 or 98 by using a system that allows television technology to be used in a way that would not result in too many delays, would not de-skill the umpires and would take some pressure off the umpires. They carried out some trials and when they noticed improved player behaviour and a significant reduction in the number of umpiring errors,

A number of technological aides are available for use to assist the third umpire arrive at a decision. These included slow motion replays, super slow motion replays and ultra motion camera replays from all available cameras, sound from the stump microphones with the replays at normal speed and slow motion, approved ball tracking technology, the mat, generated by the provider of ball tracking technology and not by the broadcaster, Hot Spot cameras and other forms of technology subject to ICC being satisfied that the required standards of accuracy and time efficiency could be met.

The ultimate aim was to make sure clear mistakes were avoided. And there was a firm belief that this system would help alleviate the problems created when mistakes – which appeared obvious on replays – were made. With feedback indicating that the majority of players and umpires were behind the system, ICC persisted with its implementation.

The popular New Zealand umpire Billy Bowden believed that having the DRS was the best thing since sliced bread. “From an umpires point of view I embraced it, lived it and loved it. The effect was all positive for me but I wasn’t surprised one iota. Why? Well, it gave me confidence to make good, strong umpiring decisions and I did not fall in to the trap of relying on the DRS to bail me out. I felt in control and relaxed. I didn’t lose confidence when two of my decisions were reversed in two Tests. Instead I felt good that the right decision was made. It also gave me strength to get back in the zone again and concentrate on the next ball knowing I wouldn’t be criticised in the papers the next day,” he said.

Why then has been there so much debate? The Indians – skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni, legend Sachin Tendulkar and the Board of Control for Cricket in India – have been quite vociferous in their opposition to the use of only technology for the DRS. Their line of argument has been simple. Hawk-Eye’s ball tracking technology is inadequate. “We don’t have any problems with the Snickometer or Hot Spot but Hawk Eye is yet to convince us. This technology is based on assumption,” BCCI Secretary N Srinivasan said. “We welcome technology when it is 100 per cent error free. In this case it is not, so we would continue to oppose.”

It is not clear how much research BCCI conducted into Hawk Eye’s technology. On the other hand, Hawk Eye Innovations, part of Sony Professional Solutions Europe, have spent considerable time explaining the system’s accuracy. The South African team had reservations about the prediction model, more so after Mark Boucher was ruled out leg before to Stuart Broad in a Test match in January 2010 but overcame them when Hawk Eye produced documentary evidence to back that the umpire and the TV umpires’ decisions.

Talking of skeptics being won over, it is ironical that Sachin Tendulkar – arguably one of the staunchest critics of Hawk Eye technology – took recourse to winning a verdict in his favour after he had been ruled out leg before wicket to Saeed Ajmal in the ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 semifinal between India and Pakistan at Mohali.

What are the solutions? The ICC has agreed that further independent and expert research will be carried out into ball-tracking technology and its accuracy and reliability. The continued use of ball-tracking technology as a decision-making aid will now depend on bilateral agreement between the participating Boards. But more importantly, it must be realised that it is not as if only the technology counts. The men who make, control – operate, if `you please – and use technology to make decisions matter a great deal.

Much as the cricket romantics would like the complete elimination of technological aids for umpires, it is inevitable that it will gain a larger role in helping umpires make the right decisions – and, more importantly, ensure that the cricketers and their teams do not suffer because clearly apparent wrong judgments have been passed.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s dimissal off a no-ball in the Bridgetown Test is a case in point. During India’s first innings, Dhoni was out caught at mid-on off Fidel Edwards. Umpire Ian Gould suspected that the delivery could have been a no-ball and sought confirmation from the third umpire Gregory Brathwaite. Upon review, Brathwaite was shown a legitimate delivery by the host broadcaster and so Dhoni was given out. It was subsequently established that Brathwaite had been shown the wrong replay and that the delivery that led to Dhoni’s dismissal should indeed have been called a no-ball.

“The host broadcaster for this series, IMG Media, acknowledged the mistake and has apologised,” ICC Match Referee Chris Broad said.  “Having looked into the situation, I am satisfied it was an unfortunate but honest mistake in what is a tense and live environment. It is worth pointing out that the umpires followed the correct procedures and are without blame in this matter. “

Indeed, we have to acknowledge human error will be a part of everything that we do – whether it is in space programmes or aircraft crashes or train accidents. And if, as many of us believe, cricket is a microcosm of life, it is inevitable that there will be an element of human error in the use of any technology to make and confirm decisions. Yes, technology has to be embraced because it can ensure a greater accuracy in decision making but it must not take away from the charm of the game or interrupt its flow.

It would be foolhardy to dismiss technological aids to enable umpires make the right decisions. However, it is imperative that event owners (host cricket Boards, ICC) tell the rights holders not to air footage that has not been available to the umpires. More importantly, they must stop the former cricketers from leading an attack on umpires based on slow motion footage that is made available to them well after a decision is made.

After all, the debate has been fuelled in the main by TV producers stumbling upon evidence well after judgments have been passed and by willing former cricketers dwelling at length about these umpiring decisions. Before the advancement of broadcast technology, any criticism of the umpires was based on feedback from the players involved in the contest rather than those who were earning a living by commenting on the game.