Ashes 2013: DRS not the sole culprit in umpiring howlers

While on-field umpiring errors have been part of the game since the very beginning, the decisions of the officials after consulting technology is what the real concern is © Getty Images

By Jaideep Vaidya

Like a blood-sucking, stubborn parasite, controversy fails to vacate the system of the Decision Review System (DRS) in the ongoing Ashes series. The noise that had emanated from highly questionable umpiring and technological calls from the first two Tests had barely stopped echoing when the first day of the third Test at Old Trafford saw as many as three blunders from both the on-field and television umpires. What probably doused the wildfire into a smaller flame is the fact that both teams benefitted, or were thwarted, by the bloopers. However, Cricket Australia felt aggrieved enough to demand an explanation from the International Cricket Council (ICC) as to why one of their players, Usman Khawaja, was given out.

The first incident occurred about 15-20 minutes before the lunch break. Australia had just lost one of their openers, Shane Watson, and were negotiating a tricky and aggressive spell of spin and pace from the Englishmen prior to the interval. Graeme Swann pitched the ball full and just outside off from around the wicket bowling to the left-handed Khawaja, who prod at the spinning delivery. He appeared to miss it after it took a vicious nip and turn off the surface even as Matt Prior snapped at it and jumped up excitedly in appeal. Neither the bowler nor Jonathan Trott at first slip were convinced, but umpire Tony Hill, after a few seconds of deliberation, decided to go with Prior and raised the finger.

Khawaja was bewildered but still asked his partner Chris Rogers whether he felt he had nicked it, to which the reply came in the negative. Khawaja decided to go for the review, hoping for a reprieve. Hot Spot replays showed no white blob on the bat and neither was there any audible sound as the all passed the edge as well. The Snickometre graph, although having no bearing on the decision, did not show any disturbance as well. However, the all-powerful man in front of the telly, Kumar Dharmasena, deemed the evidence inconclusive and decided to go with the on-field umpire’s call, to the pleasant surprise of the home team who had given up hope after watching the Hot Spot replay, and to Australia’s shock and horror.

The standard protocol demands there to be clear evidence to overturn such a decision. Everyone knows that the Hot Spot technology is not infallible and at times fails to catch faint tickes off the bat. Dharmasena did not see anything different from what thousands at Old Trafford and millions across the world saw on their screens: there was no Hot Spot on Khawaja’s bat, although there was some kind of sound, but didn’t seem to emanate when the ball passed the bat. The common line of reasoning would be that the benefit of the doubt, which technically should not even exist if you’re being assisted by expensive state-of-the-art technology, should go to the batsman. While Dharmasena can be excused for finding himself in a hot spot in such a situation, his reasoning and eventual decision brings up the difficult question of whether this is the best technology can offer. And it certainly warrants the question as to what should be the ideal protocol in such a case.

Dharmasena’s stint in the spotlight wasn’t over, as he was later called up by England to review a caught-behind decision, not given by Marais Erasmus, of batsman Steven Smith, who the hosts were convinced had nicked James Anderson to the keeper. Hot Spot did not show any mark, although there was a definite sound as the ball passed the blade. This time, Dharmasena decided to go with the Hot Spot and ruled it not out, which did seem like the correct decision, although you couldn’t help but sympathise with England who felt cheated. There was a clear-cut, audible sound.

Contrary to what has been the norm so far in this series, England did not enjoy the best of days with the referrals. Smith, when on nought, was struck on the knee roll by Swann and looked plumb leg-before. Hill gave it not out, before the bowler, wicketkeeper and captain of England consulted each other and decided to review the decision. Hawk-Eye was summoned and it calculated that the ball seemed to crash into leg. Hold on, we’re not done yet! As it turned out, millimetres of one half of the ball was in the on-field  “umpire’s call” zone and thus the third official had no choice but to stick with the former’s decision. England thus lost both their reviews and were left to rue the fact when Smith, on 24, was rapped on the pads by Stuart Broad on a line and length that looked plumb. To the astonishment of the Englishmen, Hill gave it not out, even as replays highlighted the plumbness of the decision.

However, while on-field umpiring errors have been part of the game since the very beginning, the decisions of the officials after consulting technology, but still baffling the majority, is what the real concern is. All the mistakes are not the fault of technology alone, but also of the men who are using it to make potentially match-turning decisions. The clearly imperfect DRS does not hold 100 per cent guilt; the real question behind it all is the interpretation of the TV official to what little or lot technology has to offer. Scrapping the DRS, as has been heavily debated, would not entirely be prudent a decision, even though it does appear to be a likely one in the near future. What the ICC need to be concerned with is that even with the assistance of technology, however defective it may be, the umpires are looking sillier by the day.

At the end of the day, technology in sport may not have the lives of people in its hands, but it sure does have many careers on the line, as was reiterated by Rogers in the post-match presser. Giving his take on the Khawaja decision, Rogers said, “From what we saw on the replays I think even the England guys had given up hope of it being out. It was disappointing and another question-mark… It’s a weird thing because it’s people’s careers on the line as well, so you want these decisions to be right. I felt for him, but it’s been happening so we’ve just got to get on with it and not worry about that and try to have a good day.”

Technology has seeped into every imaginable facet of life, and general consensus is that the boons are greater in number than the banes. Restricting ourselves to just the cricketing aspect of it, there is no doubt that technological advancements such as the third-umpire replays for run-outs have drastically reduced the errors in that particular mode of dismissal. But with DRS, which involves far more modes of dismissals and thus increases the probability of the influx of errors, a standard protocol needs to be set and followed diligently to reduce ambiguities if it has to succeed.

(Jaideep Vaidya is a correspondent at CricketCountry. A diehard Manchester United fan and sports buff, you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook)