If anyone needed proof that cricket’s new video-replay scheme, the Umpire Decision Review System (DRS), has completely changed the sport, the Test series in which England have just slumped to defeat against Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has provided a watertight testimony.
Although DRS has been around for two years, this seems to be the series in which it has come of age. It has set a record for the number of leg-before-wicket (LBW) dismissals — a devilishly complex law of the game — in a three-match series. Batsman have been trapped leg-before 43 times, smashing the previous high of 35 set when Pakistan toured the West Indies in 1993.
In that series most of the victims fell to fearsome fast bowlers such as Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh. In contrast, it has been the spin bowlers who have run riot in the UAE. Although only a few of these dismissals have been the result of direct review, there is little doubt that just having the technology in place has made the on-field umpires more likely to give a batsman out. DRS has also changed the way that batsmen play against spinners.
Forget the leg work
DRS is a system that allows teams to challenge umpires’ decisions. For catches, slow-motion replays are used to check whether a fielder caught the ball on the full. To see whether the ball nicked the bat, umpires use a heat-sensitive camera called “hotspot”. But DRS is most often brought into play with LBW appeals, always the most difficult call for umpires. When a batsman or a fielding captain wants to challenge an umpires LBW decision, they can now resort to a technology called Hawkeye. A combination of video replay and modelling software, Hawkeye both tracks the progress of the ball to see where it pitched and hit the batsman, and then predicts whether it would have gone on to hit the stumps. If so, the batsman is sent on his way.
Because umpires need to be confident that an LBW appeal fulfils all of these difficult criteria, they have historically been conservative when it comes to giving batsmen out. Batsmen, in turn, have long taken advantage of this tendency, particularly against the spinners. At their most blatant, they would simply plant their front foot a long way down the pitch, merrily kicking away delivery after delivery. Because the ball still had a long way to travel, they could rely on umpires’ uncertainty as to whether it was likely to have gone on to hit the stumps.
But even when they were being less obvious, their mantra against the spin bowlers would be to use the pads as a second line of defence; presenting a wide obstacle of both bat and pad to the ball because, again, it didn’t always seem to matter which it hit first. (Such negativity is less effective against the quicks; it takes a brave man to plant his front foot down the wicket against a bowler who can dig the ball in short and break your jaw.) It didn’t often make for an enthralling contest. And in the 1980s and early 1990s, it was one of several factors that threatened to kill off the art of spin bowling altogether.
Now that batsmen are forced to play with their bats, the contest has evened up, immeasurably enhancing the cricket. Spectators are now treated to a genuine battle between spinning ball and bat. It is a world in which an old-fashioned off-spinner such as Graeme Swann can rise to the top of the rankings. Swann is a fine bowler. But he lacks the mystery of others who had to find a way to flourish in a pre-DRS world, and presumably would have been much less successful had he played in the 1990s. One can only guess how many more wickets an artist such as Abdul Qadir would have taken in the 1980s, had DRS been around and his opponents been forced to play him with willow bats rather than foam pads.
The umpire strikes back
The technology has also had a profound effect on umpires. Some, such as the Australian Simon Taufel, are known not to be fans of a system that they think undermines the sanctity of the umpire’s decision. DRS could have been expected to make them more conservative, since the onus can be passed on to the players to refer difficult calls to Hawkeye. In fact it appears to have upped their game: now that the technology can prove them wrong, they seem to feel increased pressure to get it right the first time. This has emboldened them to make tougher decisions. Had DRS been around in the time of Dickie Bird, the games most revered umpire and a notorious not-outer, he might not have been held in such high esteem.
DRS has also made cricket more civil. Because the teams themselves now have a stake in the decision-making, captains can no longer berate an umpire’s perceived bias or accuse a batsman of poor sportsmanship. If they are convinced of their case, they can refer it to a higher authority. It is now unthinkable that play might be halted for a day because of accusations of umpiring impropriety, as happened following the Shakoor Rana affair during England’s tour of Pakistan in 1987. The recent series was played in a fine spirit even though the two sides have a long history of cricketing acrimony.
Finally, DRS has added a new tactical dimension to the sport. In addition to the arts of field placing, motivation and bowling change, a good captain now must also possess the skill of the judicious review. Each side is only allowed two unsuccessful reviews per innings. Get it wrong twice and you lose the right to DRS, putting you at a considerable disadvantage. This means keeping a level head when confronted with over-enthusiastic bowlers and wicket-keepers, who are convinced that every time the ball hits the pads the batsman is LBW. In this series, both captains were still learning whom to trust. Having been talked into one ridiculous review too many, it is rumoured that Misbah-ul-Haq, Pakistan’s normally level-headed captain, simply stopped listening to his excitable wicket-keeper, Adnan Akmal. If anything, it has proved what even the most hard-done-by bowlers have always known deep down: umpires get it right more often than they get it wrong. — (c) 2012 The Economist
- Image: Britanglishman/Flickr
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