DRS: One step forward, one step back

The ever-confusing Decision Review System (DRS) was modified recently at the Hog Kong ICC Annual Conference at the request of the Indian cricket board, which increasingly calls the shots in the administration of world cricket. The modified version is to make use of Hot-Spot technology but do away with the Hawk Eye ball-tracker, which will mean that LBW decisions would not be a part of the DRS. The modified system will make its debut in this month’s England versus India series and is a ‘one step forward, one step back’ move from the ICC.

As any cricketer knows all too well, losing your wicket pains so much that it is hard to imagine a worse feeling that doesn’t involve the death of a close relative. And while being dismissed through one’s own fault or a bit of bad luck is one thing, being given out unfairly can be cause enough to incite murder on the pitch. Similarly, bowlers don’t much fancy hearing a nick and then turning around to see the umpire shaking his head. But more than how incorrect decisions make individual players feel is the fact that one shocking decision can be enough to change the result of an entire Test series.

Of course a certain degree of human error is part of cricket and it always has been so, but the more we can do to eliminate it the better, and the DRS that has been used in various guises at many Test series over the past few years and in the 2011 World Cup did make significant strides towards making the game a fairer one.

But there has been one major obstacle to full DRS implementation and development and that, surprise surprise, is the BCCI, whose officials and players are so adamantly against the use of technology to make the game fairer that there is something very suspicious about their motives for not doing so. It is no secret that the BCCI’s influence on the game is so far- reaching and it is becoming hard not to query whether they have an ulterior motive in being the only nation to stand so strongly against the use of technology. It seems fishy that India would be so strongly against the system under which they won the World Cup.

The mandate of any review system is to eliminate the howlers – those decisions that are plainly, terribly, awfully wrong. Doing so surely makes everyone happier. The Federation of International Cricketers’ Associations (FICA) recently surveyed a host of international players and 82% of them said that they believed the DRS made for better decision making at the 2011 World Cup. A unanimous 97% of those surveyed would support DRS being made compulsory in all Test matches. Fairer equals better and, although it wasn’t perfect, DRS at the World Cup was a step in the right direction.

DRS has its fair shares of supporters and critics. Muttiah Muralitharan, Rudi Koertzen and Ricky Ponting are understood to be supporters of it, while Indian captain MS Dhoni has called it an “adulteration of human decision making and technology”. Sachin Tendulkar maintains the Indian party line and is on record as saying, “I am not convinced with the referral system. I have not felt convinced by or comfortable with many decisions.”

Tendulkar’s point that Hawk-Eye isn’t 100% accurate obviously can’t be ignored. Cameras aren’t always accurately positioned and a cricket ball is not a spherical object so its precise projected path cannot be predicted with absolute certainty. We are sometimes talking about millimetres here and swing, spin, ball rotations and other kinds of bowling witchcraft are not very predictable animals.

Of course we have all seen occasions where Hawk-Eye projections just don’t look correct but, having said that, they can tell you if a given ball was scheduled to miss the woodwork by miles. The technology is also very useful for telling us what the ball did before it struck the pad and, as journalist Dileep Premachandran points out, even LBW dismissals where the ball has blatantly pitched outside leg stump and are mistakenly given out will not be liable for appeal under the modified UDRS. This is surely a step backwards. We are quick to say that some umpires need new spectacles but hardly anyone questions their integrity – in my view, DRS acted as a deterrent for them to get involved in match-fixing.

On the positive side, Snicko and Hot-Spot will be able to do a lot of things that the old DRS couldn’t. WG Grace would be amazed if he knew that heat sensors and highly sensitive microphones were able to determine who is out and who is not. In the first Test in Jamaica recently, Ian Bishop acknowledged that Suresh Raina, M.S. Dhoni and Virat Kohli were wrongly given out and Hot-Spot could have corrected all of those bad decisions. There were several World Cup referrals where an edge should have been proven or otherwise but could not be done so with the naked eye alone..

The downside to Hot-Spot is that the requisite infra-red cameras cost in excess of $5000 per day to employ and there is not yet an agreement as to who should stump up the loot. Broadcasters have used the tool before but they do so to enhance viewers’ enjoyment – they are not neutral umpires and, as ball-tracker diagrams can be manipulated, a further risk is thus inherent in the system.

ICC boss Haroon Lorgat has suggested that, “there is the possibility that we could raise a sponsor to cover the cost of the DRS, where we may well cover all costs of the technology.” This seems a sensible idea.

As India boasts such a high proportion of worldwide cricket fans and generates such a large percentage of international cricket revenues, it is perhaps only fair that the BCCI’s voice should carry more weight than some of their counterparts at the ICC. But with power comes responsibility and it is vital that the organisation considered put cricket ahead of financial and political gain. Power corrupts and world cricket needs decision-makers who want the best for the game and not the best for themselves.

The same 2011 FICA player survey found that only 6% of players believe decisions made at ICC Board level are in the wider interests of the game and 69% of players believe decisions are unfairly influenced by the BCCI. Considering some of those players are Indian and others may have felt uncertain of anonymity, that is a worryingly high percentage.

We are all wary of the over-use of technology and it is natural that the old guard resists change for that is what they always do. But we are not talking about scientific advances to the degree of cloning here, nor does anyone want to turn umpires into robots, we are merely discussing how best to improve the standard of umpiring at international level. The DRS that was employed in the World Cup was great in the way it gave us stats on which umpires (Aleem Dar and Marais Erasmus) consistently got decisions right and which ones (Asoka de Silva and Daryl Harpur) got them wrong. Harper and de Silva were so poor that they were subsequently removed from the ICC’s elite panel. There is no doubt that the use of technology is vastly improving the standard of umpiring.

There is one redeeming feature of the ICC’s latest rulings. If before any bi-lateral series the respective sides decide that the ball-tracking Hawk-Eye be used in conjunction with Hot-Spot and Snicko, then all three will be used. Hopefully this means that every series other than those involving India will be fairer and better than those that do.
This article appeared in Spin magazine in August 2011

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