Much ado about Umpire’s call

In the wake of the bigger dressing room DRS controversy in the recently concluded Bengaluru test match, a smaller incident went under the radar. David Warner was facing his nemesis, R Ashwin, in the second innings in pursuit of a tricky target. He looked to sweep a ball that was delivered from around the stumps but misjudged the length and was struck in front, eliciting an LBW appeal. The “out” decision was mightily close, as suggested by the lengthy mid-pitch conversation between Warner and Steve Smith. After he was deemed out by the umpire, he hesitatingly proceeded to review—probably prompted by the fact that it was the first review. Warner then walked off after his review of the LBW decision was confirmed as “Umpire’s call”, both in terms of point of impact and whether it was hitting the stumps.

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A screenshot of the David Warner dismissal in the second test. Image source: 1.

The video showing the ball-tracking confirmed the fine margins of the decision: the freeze frame view of the ball on impact didn’t show an obvious in-line call, at least to the naked eye. This was in the realm of a hair’s breadth or pixels. It is instructive to look at ESPNcricinfo’s ball-by-ball commentary text to relive the moment:

9.1 83.0 kph, lbw first ball. Long long chat, and they decide to review. Warner doesn’t look convinced, but he has reviewed it. Warner has picked a ball too full to sweep and is beaten. The question is, has he got an edge or has it straightened enough? This is pitched outside off, the ball has straightened, and I don’t see any part of ball in line. However, the machine is showing “umpire’s call”. I don’t know how. I must be wrong, but I will need an explanation from somebody here. Don’t see any part of ball in line. They show umpire’s call. Both on impact and the stumps. On many more replays, perhaps one mm of the ball hit him in line. Oof 42/2

Silicon wafer thin margins. Since then, Hawk-eye has issued an official clarification. It wasn’t hard to imagine the on-field umpire giving this as not out in another universe (with the DRS call upholding the umpire’s not-out call). Who knows, it might have assumed a much bigger form in different circumstances given the fractious nature of India-Australia series.

In these circumstances, it is worth remembering why the Decision Review System (DRS) was introduced in the first place. The DRS was introduced as a technological aid to help the umpire make the right decision. It is also worth remembering that India were the first to trial this technology on their 2008 Sri Lankan tour—probably, prompted by the umpiring fiascos in the ill-tempered 2008 Sydney test—before consigning it to the bin after things didn’t work out their way.


Did Geoff Hurst’s goal cross the line? Image source: 2.

One of the great features of sport is the “what-if” moments surrounding binary decisions. These add a distinctive human element to the game, and contribute to the rich mythologies and narratives to each generation. With the World Cup 1966 final locked 2-2 in extra time, did Geoff Hurst’s shot cross the line? It was given after a lengthy consultation with the linesman and it no doubt helped the English team to score an additional goal, putting the result of the game beyond doubt. The West German team were adamant that it was a pivotal moment in the match.

A similar high profile controversy occurred in the 2010 World Cup, though the goal wouldn’t have changed the complexion of the match as drastically. The video replays showed that Lampard’s goal should have stood, and this no doubt prompted FIFA to develop goal-line technology. Geoff Hurst rued that if the technology had existed in his time, it would have prevented nearly 50 years of German whimpering.

Many cricketing decisions are quite unambiguous. Some—clean catches, boundary fielding efforts, bail dislodgement, position on the crease line etc.—are not always clear cut. The most famous is the LBW. In real time, a trained professional has to make a subjective decision whether the ball would have gone to hit the stumps if the batsman were not to be in the way. There are nuances regarding the point of impact, not offering a shot, and where the ball pitched, but the underlying principle has been largely understood by cricket fans over time. Football fans may compare the reading of the LBW law to the conscientiously worded offside rule, with a correct understanding often used as a proxy for authoritative armchair fandom.

The DRS has added a far greater level of complication, and is probably the most misunderstood in the game of cricket today. To give an example of the kind of detail involved, the 2016-17 ICC playing handbook dedicates nine pages to the DRS with a ton of legalese. Even then, matters are not clear and errors happen from time to time. The third umpire didn’t consider evidence from Hot-spot when Nathan Lyon was batting in the 2015 day-night Adelaide test between Australia and New Zealand. Similarly, Kallis shouldn’t have been ruled out.

This brings us to the hotly debated point of “Umpire’s call”. Fellow thREAD contributor Kartikeya Date has written about the new ICC ruling and its implications in detail in a Cricket Monthly essay, which can be used as a primer to this topic. Many ex-players like Kumar Sangakkara and Alec Stewart have argued that teams should not be docked reviews for “umpire’s call”. Why, in the same Bengaluru test, Virat Kohli’s LBW decision was hotly debated, and many were befuddled that the benefit of the doubt in the DRS decision was given to the umpire instead of the batsman. All this suggests that the ICC hasn’t done enough to clarify what the DRS is — a decision review system, and not a decision system — and the message has not trickled down either to their messengers, or to the average fan. Repeated incidents and accompanying chatter only erode the credibility of the ICC in everyone’s eyes.


Was Virat Kohli out in the second innings? Image source: 3.

Fans like us must realize that LBW is a subjective decision. The trained umpire makes a split-second, real time decision with based on the faculties of the human eye. The technology involved in the DRS is not infallible as well; the error of Hawk-eye used in tennis is 2.2 mm, and is much larger (5 mm-10 mm) in other cases. The diameter of the cricket ball varies from ~71.2 mm to ~72.8 mm. In other words, the least quoted Hawk-eye error in a different sport is larger than the variations of the size of the cricket ball (of course, they could be factoring this in via video). But, it must also be noted that this error is much lower than what a trained human eye can see from that distance.

Other sources of error could include the ball’s non-spherical nature, wear, compressibility—or other fanciful ones such as hyperlocal gusts of wind affecting trajectory, and whether the ball could successfully dislodge the bail in extremely borderline cases. Therefore, it isn’t any surprise that there are several asterisks to ball tracking—point of impact being too far in front, a yorker, and points of impact on stumps or pads. In other words, the DRS is also a subjective judgement, albeit with finer data points (and limitations) at its disposal.

While the DRS makes for great theatre, the manner in which it is used does not serve the original purpose. The ordinary fan may not be interested in the subtle distinctions of the grey area involved; routinely, reviews are used in a hopeful manner, and for more prized batsmen compared to the howler. The details of the DRS may only appeal to discerning cricketing fans in the case of complicated decisions, but most of the long-winded explanation is usually lost in translation. The ICC should share some blame for that for not communicating the mission of the DRS properly.

The DRS is not a new decision being made. The central point of the DRS is “is there conclusive technological evidence that the umpire made the wrong decision”? The sequence of checking the decision is indeed correct in the case of the LBW—no ball, involvement of bat, pitching location, shot offered or not, point of impact, and the likely path to the stumps.

The primacy of the umpire in the game of cricket is a given, as the “umpire’s decision is final” was prevalent in the pre-DRS era. Therefore, it is no surprise that the benefit of the doubt is given to the umpire’s decision in the absence of conclusive evidence that the wrong decision was made. It is also great that Virat Kohli interpreted it correctly in his interview, unlike some commentators and ex-players.

The ICC takes should take charge of communicating the key points of DRS (with some hypothetical situations) in a succinct manner to hardcode it in every viewer, so that there is no chance of a misunderstanding.

Disclaimer: The images used in this article are not property of this blog. They have been used for representational purposes only. The copyright, if any, rests with the respective owners.





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