Use it, for umpires’ sakes

2008-08-01 00:00

PETER ROEBUCK welcomes the new referral system of umpiring.

It is high time romantics stopped flapping their wings like alarmed chickens whenever anyone recommends using cameras to decide whether a batsman has snicked a ball or been trapped plumb in front.

To listen to these flat-earthers, you’d think someone had advocated replacing batsmen with robots and bowlers with machines. In fact, the idea is to use film and sound to help umpires make the correct decision. It is a way of reducing controversy so that everyone can concentrate on the cricket. And it’s not as if every appeal will be passed on. Teams are allowed three false referrals an innings. Some innings last as long as an Indian wedding.

In the past, the umpire’s verdict was accepted because he had the best seat in the house. Moreover, the authority of the umpire was drilled into players before they had chewed their first gum. Nothing is more demeaning than the sight of sportsmen having tantrums. In those days, umpires were a tough lot with long memories. Their word was law and it was best not to cross them. They ran a match much as a Wild West sheriff ran his town. It was not only custom that made cricketers walk, it was also self-interest.

Nowadays incidents can be replayed in an instant and shown to everyone except the poor sucker making the decision. It is nonsense raised on stilts. As a consequence, white coats find themselves abused at grounds, on television and in print. A position that had once commanded respect has been dragged into disrepute; not by the umpires themselves, whose fallibility had merely been revealed, but by those refusing to give them the tools needed to do the job. Insisting on independent umpires was the first step towards protecting them and the use of technology is next.

As far as this witness is concerned, all arguments for the retention of the old ways were rendered invalid during the Australia-India Test match played in Sydney a few months ago. To describe it as bad-tempered is akin to calling Paris Hilton a bit dim. It was worse than a meeting of the ANC Youth League. And it all started with crucial mistakes made by the umpires on the opening day.

Had Steve Bucknor been allowed a second opinion, he could not have allowed Andrew Symonds to remain after he had touched a lifter. Nor could Mark Benson have let Ricky Ponting stay after he had tickled one down the leg side. Both decisions were stinkers, as the edges could be heard in remote suburbs. Both errors could have been corrected in a minute. On the fifth day, the same applied to the dismissal of Rahul Dravid after he had missed the ball by a foot. It was madness to let these mistakes affect the course of an already tense match.

Unsurprisingly, the players lost faith in the umpires and conduct deteriorated. Bad blood on the field led to fierce arguments off it, and, before long, insults were flying around like arrows in a medieval battle. Not even the Mahatma could have settled things down. Once a sense of grievance has taken root, it is as hard to remove as bugweed. And it was all avoidable. Moreover, it is not as if the world needs another reason to fight.

In contrast, the Wimbledon final between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer showed that sportsmanship is still possible these days. Admittedly tennis is a gentler game played with a softer ball, but that has not prevented some volcanoes erupting. Tennis uses the referral system and that takes the sting out of contentious calls made at critical moments. Competitors and spectators can see that justice is done. They are treated like grown-ups.

Breaking with tradition, cricket is starting to allow captains to seek a second opinion. At present the system is voluntary, but it is being used in the current series between Sri Lanka and India. Admittedly, it is not perfect. Virender Sehwag was unlucky to be given out by the third umpire in Colombo, as it was unclear where the ball had bounced and which pad had been struck first.

Marginal decision ought still to favour the batsman. On the other hand, Sachin Tendulkar was dispatched after an edge had eluded an unsighted umpire. Dravid was likewise sent away after a tickle was held at short leg. Overall, batsmen will be given out more often, and doubtless much bleating will be heard from them. But they have been treated like babies for decades. Often things are obvious on replay, but umpires see them once, and that amid noise and heat.

England’s reluctance to use referrals in the series with South Africa has backfired. Otherwise Kevin Pietersen and Michael Vaughan might have survived. More fool them. Not that they deserved better. But technology will be used and will herald not the death of the game, which is constantly forecast by the grim reapers of romance, but its maturity.

•International cricket writer Peter Roebuck ( lives in the KZN midlands.

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