Saturday 14 September 2013

Let the umpire call it

What makes a good umpiring decision? Thirteen years ago England were chasing an unlikely late-evening victory, against Pakistan in Karachi, in light that was manifestly poor. Conditions were unfair to the fielding team, who couldn't see the ball, and dangerous for the batsmen. Yet the umpires - Steve Bucknor and Mohammad Nazir - got approval from the batsmen and stayed on. Their reasoning was that Moin Khan, the Pakistan captain, had deliberately wasted time and so had no right now to complain.

Last month Michael Clarke's self-indulgence combined with Kevin Pietersen to gift a capacity crowd a stirring Sunday-evening finish. A middling Ashes series was set for a spectacular denouement. Yet with the climax in sight, the umpires pulled the plug on the party and sent everyone home four overs from the finish. Why? Because the light had dipped below a benchmark level.

In Karachi the umpires used their common sense. Strong-willed and sensible, they spat on the rule book but ensured a fair and memorable result. At The Oval the umpires were consistent. The precedent was set earlier in the series and no matter the context, rules were rules and needed respecting.

It seems that when it comes to umpiring, you can have consistency or common sense but you can't always have both. Our inability to decide which we prefer means umpires get berated for making the wrong decision and similarly pilloried for making the right ones too.

Whether Saturday league cricket or a Test match, players at all levels often seem to value umpiring consistency more than correctness - the odd decision may go wrong, so the thinking goes, but it is forgivable if the reasoning is consistent. At the highest level that demand for ever more consistency, though, has meant stripping umpires of the ability to exercise their judgement in the way Bucknor did.

By necessity rules are written in the abstract and when put into practice may not be appropriate in every situation. Because cricket sprawls over five days and encompasses so many variations and contingencies, its laws are incredibly intricate and open to interpretation.

It is this ability to tailor the laws to the situation that makes umpires so important. Bowlers, for example, normally have enormous leeway for wides in Tests, but on the exceptional occasions when a chase enters the final afternoon, it makes sense for umpires to intervene and tighten up the margins. Though not necessarily consistent, few would deny its appropriateness.

Yet the more professional cricket has become, the more players' demands for consistency have been met, and the more umpires have been robbed of authority and discretion. Andy Flower, for instance, suggested after the Oval Test that there could be a universal benchmark for bad light. This would clarify any grey area but reduce the umpires' role in the matter to meter readers. And could a one-size-fits-all approach really cope with the nuances of every situation? Absolutely not.

The DRS is another area where umpiring judgement has been curtailed. The system was introduced to account for the outliers (howlers) that human umpires will occasionally make. Given that players and spectators will use all technology available to judge the quality of umpires, the officials deserve similar resources. By demonstrating just how many deliveries can go on to hit the stumps, the DRS has also helped even the balance between bat and ball and bring fingerspin back into the game. For that it should be celebrated.

The trouble is that by forcing players to decide when to use technology, it necessarily becomes tactical. It is that marginal use of the DRS that too often makes a mockery of umpires. Reasonable decisions get overturned, and umpires are reduced to go-betweens in a process dictated by players and the technology. Not only does that needlessly undermine umpires, it means reviews can get used up on marginal calls while being unavailable to correct the really poor decisions.

Better would be to give the third umpire three opportunities an innings to review what he considers to be howlers. The existing protocol for suspected edges makes a sound place to start. Through consultation with the third umpire, the on-field official gleans all information and then decides whether to change the original decision. Like in rugby, the officials' reasoning could be explained live to the public and players, and their authority upheld.

The Ashes summer was marred by some extraordinarily poor umpiring, especially by the third umpires. There is, though, no legislating for such incompetence and neither should there be. Professionally trained, well-paid and well-rested umpires must be trusted to make good decisions. Their independence also allows them to safeguard the wider interests of the sport in a way players cannot.

When empowered, umpires would then be in a better position to act in other areas of the game. The scandalously poor over rates could be tackled with much stronger umpiring. Similarly, the issue of low catches being obscured by camera-lens shortening, which often leads to the wrong not-out decision being made for the sake of consistency, could be resolved by on- and off-field umpires collaborating to try to make more positive judgements more often with clear explanation.

No matter how hard they strive, cricket's administrators can never deliver faultless decision-making. Broadcasting technology has helped, Elite umpires too, but the game is just too peculiar to guarantee perfection. Yet in a choice between more rules telling umpires how to act, or more trust in them to do what's best for the game, it's the umpires who should be supported.

This blog was first published on Cricinfo's Cordon

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