Wisden Cricketers' Almanack 2008

The appeal of technology - video referrals

David Frith

Third umpire Rudi Koertzen watches the proceedings, New Zealand v West Indies, 1st Test, Dunedin, 4th day, December 14, 2008
The third umpire: at the heart of the issue © Getty Images

Two umpiring blunders cost England dearly last year. One crucial lbw appeal which patently should have been granted was denied, and another which should not have been upheld was given. Monty Panesar's lbw appeal against Sreesanth, if granted minutes before bad light ended last summer's Lord's Test against India, would have sealed victory for England and probably preserved their six-year unbeaten record in home Test series.

Then, in December, had Ryan Sidebottom not been given leg-before after a fairly thick inside edge against Muttiah Muralitharan, England might well have survived as the light closed in fast on the final evening in Kandy. In both instances, of course, the off-field umpire saw the reality, as did television viewers around the world. But yet again truth was made subservient to the limitations of the umpire in the middle.

Cricket no longer embodies the integrity of Walter Hadlee, who withdrew an lbw appeal against the departing Cyril Washbrook in a 1951 Test at Christchurch upon learning that the batsman had edged into his pad. Washbrook was at the gate when recalled. Rod Marsh's non-catch off Derek Randall's bat in the 1977 Centenary Test was similarly reversed from out to not out. But television is king now. Therefore umpires need to be freed from the trickier decisions, leaving them to television's sharper eyes. Who could rationally argue with the decision to let Kevin Pietersen return to the crease in that same Lord's Test against India when the catch was quickly found to have been a bump-ball?

In domestic cricket, the ECB's video-referral experiment in the 2007 Friends Provident Trophy was a valiant failure, in part because the detail had not been thoroughly considered. In the Lord's final, Phil Mustard's lbw dismissal was questionable, but it was only as he approached the gate that his Durham team-mates on the balcony, having seen the replay, urged him to use his right to appeal against the decision. As he was now some distance from the crease, he was sent packing a second time by the on-field umpire.

Later, when Shivnarine Chanderpaul (on 17) looked lbw to Hampshire's Chris Tremlett, the not-out decision went unchallenged by Shane Warne, who had agreed with opposing captain Dale Benkenstein that no appeal would be lodged against an umpire's decision unless there was "something obvious". Such reticence might have been under strain had a questionable decision been given during a tight finish. As it was, Chanderpaul's early reprieve possibly cost Hampshire the trophy.

Forebodings had emerged in an early round of the FPT. One ball sparked claims of both stumping and lbw, followed by appeals against both notout decisions. It was grotesque confusion: a signal that this was not the answer to cricket's greatest problem. The ECB, after one season, shelved the experiment.

Umpiring errors can cruelly distort matches and affect players' careers. Subsequent apologies alter nothing. The ICC's boast that its elite umpires get 96% of their decisions correct glosses over the fact that most decisions are clear-cut. It is the 4% (of errors) that destabilise matches. Our game had largely been spared the violence and humiliation that now attach to refereeing errors in football - until the Sydney Test of January 2008 when Steve Bucknor, who had reprieved Sreesanth at Lord's, was pilloried and forced by the ICC to stand down from the next Test.

The light was switched on in this correspondent all of 25 years ago. On the first morning of an Ashes Test at Sydney, John Dyson was run out by bowler Bob Willis in the first over. The square-leg umpire said not out. Dyson batted on for five hours for 79. Millions of televiewers had seen from the replays that he was out, but he batted on simply because an official lacked access to what we had all seen on the screen. It was illogical and unjust.

Since then, a nagging truth has emerged. Some umpires jealously prize their power and see the process of determining the truth through replays as a threat to their authority. But consider this: accurately identifying the winner in a horse race has long been accepted as so crucial that a photo finish is standard procedure. Is top-class cricket inferior in significance to racing? A related problem is now laid bare: when players appealed against a decision, as in the FPT, third umpires whose duty it was to interpret replays were resistant to overruling their comrades in the middle. It was a negative stance worsened when captains, seemingly indifferent to the truth, practically disowned the experiment, perhaps for fear of upsetting an umpire who might stand in their future matches. At least an enlightened Benkenstein observed that "the umpires have to agree that it's not a negative thing and not see it as guys belittling their decision".

MCC's World Cricket Committee, a 17-member panel comprising mostly former Test cricketers from around the world, and former Test umpire David Shepherd, have adopted an enlightened approach. A purely advisory group, this think tank has recommended that the very best of technology be employed, recognising that cameras at present cannot always tell if a catch is clean or a bump-ball (MCC would dip into its deep coffers to reduce costs). It also recommended that Hawk-Eye be used only to the point of impact (no predictive-path projections allowed), and that the third umpire should act on his own instincts. The recurring potential defect here - of having a fellow umpire "upstairs" - is easily overcome by borrowing from rugby's system: an independent television match official.

It seems forgotten that South Africa's pioneering of replay decisions for run-outs and stumpings in 1992 was instantly beneficial. Since then no batsman given out in a line decision has had cause for complaint - third umpire's failings excepted. When, back in 1993, it was announced by the TCCB that a third umpire with two-way radio communication would be employed in the Ashes series, the press release promised this would ensure "that umpires are helped in their aim for 100% accuracy and that they are protected from the criticism that would arise if several million televiewers can - with their access to replays - see that the umpire has made a mistake". Astoundingly, there has been no real advance since then. Yet would people prefer a doctor's guesswork after a speculative prod to a painful stomach, or a clinical scan to produce a precise and perhaps life-saving diagnosis?

© John Wisden and Co.