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Decisions, Decisions

Decisions, Decisions

Decisions, decisions, decisions.

Strokes of judgement upon which kingdoms and empires rise and fall. Calculated gambles built upon vast banks of evidence, and agonised over for days. Schemes and systems checked and double checked to ensure their durability under the greatest of stresses. The slip of a third umpire’s finger with the predictability of the roll of a dice.

Any casual observer following the tale of the third evening at the Kensington Oval could have been forgiven for asking one simple, childlike question: “Why?” I challenge the most skilled apologist to conjure a consistent, cogent explanation for the series of decisions that were inflicted upon the West Indies by the umpiring team. At present, the only reasoning I can find that can cover the LBW dismissals of Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Brendan Nash contains a liberal sprinkling of conspiracy theory with a garnish of overbearing prejudice against left-handers.

For those of you who missed the action, the two incidents were as follows: an inswinger from James Anderson was left by Chanderpaul, striking him in front of middle stump, at bail height. A desperate England side appealed, and Russell Tiffin obligingly raised the finger. Chanderpaul referred the decision, and TV umpire Daryl Harper allowed Tiffin’s original verdict to stand. Brendan Nash was hit on the pads by Graeme Swann: England’s confident appeal was turned down by Aleem Dar, only for the decision to be reversed.

The Trial Playing Conditions for the ICC’s “Decision Review System” (available for your viewing here) include the following clauses:

3.5. This consultation should be on points of fact, where possible phrased in a manner leading to yes or no answers. Questions requiring a single answer based on a series of judgements, such as ?do you think that was lbw?? are to be avoided.

3.9.2 (a) if a “not out” decision is being reviewed, the TV umpire should have a high degree of confidence that the ball would have hit the stumps below the level of the bails in order to report that the ball would have hit the stumps.

3.9.2 (b) if an “out” decision is being reviewed, the TV umpire should have a high degree of confidence that the ball would have made no contact with any part of the stumps or bails in order to report that the ball would have missed the stumps.

3.10 The on-field umpire must then make his decision based on those factual questions that were answered by the TV umpire, any other factual information offered by the TV umpire and his recollection and opinion of the original incident.

Match Referee Alan Hurst provided a little more illumination following the match as he provided snatches of the dialogue that had gone on between the umpires as part of section 3 of the playing conditions. For Chanderpaul’s decision, he argued that third umpire Harper had no “conclusive” evidence to suggest that the original decision had been correct. To the letter of the law, this is correct if – and only if – you accept the supposition that judgement of the two metres between impact and the stumps is a prediction, and not a fact.

This strained logic was a train of thought that I had supposed following the fall of the wicket, only for Nash’s dismissal to summarily derail its journey. With the batsman struck on, or just below, the knee roll after a positive stride, Aleem Dar made the decision that he couldn’t be certain: and as such, that it wasn’t out. Graeme Swann was convinced, however, and the referral was initiated. Following the ideas that legislated for Chanderpaul’s wicket, and a brief sighting of the TV umpire’s extra evidence, I confidently expected the original decision to stand. It didn’t.

If that wasn’t enough, within a minute there was further controversy. HawkEye’s predicted ball path – out of reach of the third umpire – signalled that, in all likelihood, the ball would have passed over the stumps after all. How could this marry with Harper’s inconclusive evidence from the previous appeal? Here, Hurst’s explanation shed an intriguing shade of light on the matter. Aleem Dar had not asked Harper for any clarification of the height: simply whether the ball would be missing leg, or the left-hander had tickled the ball on its way through. Quite correctly, Harper could confirm that he had no concern over the ball’s line, and that – as fact – Nash had not hit the ball. Under the playing conditions, Harper had done exactly the job with which he was charged.

Yet somehow two umpires had conspired to reverse a correct decision into an incorrect one. As far as I am concerned, the West Indies’ coach John Dyson has the reason for being of a referral system on the button – to eliminate the “really bad ones”: a thick inside edge interfering with a leg-before appeal, or an obscured leg-side caught behind that passes in a flurry of pad, bat and thigh-guard. Its laudable aim ought to be to relegate umpiring to the back pages of a match. This series it has become the headline, a talking point in itself that today has overshadowed a magnificent innings from Ramnaresh Sarwan.

Notwithstanding the immediate discomfort of challenging the authority, and the tactical gambling inherent in the management of a side’s two referrals (what happens now if the West Indies are on the receiving end of an official blunder tomorrow?), the referral system isn’t fulfilling its primary aim. It isn’t getting things right.

The playing conditions I quote from above are an uncomfortable mixture of fact, opinion and degrees of confidence. As it stands, the system appears to allow the TV official to provide a limited amount of information dependent upon his onfield colleague’s questions, discounting the third umpire’s own professional judgement… if one of the captains has gambled on referring the original decison into the lottery. This is not a method designed to optimise decision-making.

Test umpires have reached the very top of the game by excelling in their chosen field at the domestic: capable of making the best decisions at the greatest pressure. Today they were skilled professionals, hamstrung by a muddled system. If the aim is to perfect the decision-making procedure, then artificial limits, procedures and protocols can only ever be a handicap. The biggest consolation is that these playing conditions are, by their very name, a trial: and the purpose of a trial is to find out. Today’s garbled processes and enduring confusion are twin ranks of convincing evidence that should bring about the end of this stage of the referral experiment.

This is not to call for an end of technological assistance: far from it. A wonderful array of technology, from HawkEye itself through Hot Spot and Snickometer to Ultra Motion, is available to television broadcasters and off-field umpires at Test match grounds today. There is no reason not to make every last pixel of it available to the officials. Alan Hurst claimed that the predictive element of HawkEye did not hold 100% certainty. There is very little, however, in the world of cricket that does. There are a number of excellent reasons why the decision-making in our game is based upon the principle of the benefit of the doubt. The simplest way to encourage the best decision-making is make as many resources as possible available to the umpiring team, and to allow full communication between them – free from any artificial constraints or handicaps.

Then, perhaps, we can finish a day of play and talk about the cricket.

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